I have a quote on my desk by the iconic 20th century photographer Ansel Adams, whose beautiful and meticulously crafted landscapes are breathtaking tributes both to the beauty of the American west and the power of flawlessly executed art. While his photos appear to capture and represent the spectacular power of pure nature, seemingly untouched by modern man, Adams used large-format cameras for high resolution, filters to highlight contrasts, and the Zone System, a technique he pioneered to achieve the best film exposure and development.
"There is nothing worse," Adams said, "than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept."
Wise words for marketers and communications experts these days.
In this age of almost unfathomable depth and accuracy of measurement, we are able to capture sharper images of audience, reach, interaction and engagement than ever before. With real-time analysis, brands are now able to inform their communications and marketing initiatives with extreme precision.
So why must we wade through so many fuzzy concepts?
Perhaps it is because there is a big difference between information and insight. And while insight is what everybody claims to want, it is information that many organizations are drawn to in an attempt to increase their odds for success.
Who can blame them? They are suddenly competing and engaging in more markets, on more platforms, with more people than ever before. If they are told that there is a tool that will exponentially increase their ability to understand and speak authentically with their increasingly diverse and dispersed stakeholders, how could they possibly pass on that opportunity?
My frustration rests more with the communications professionals and brand managers whose passion, faith and wishful thinking for measurement is eclipsing their ability to think strategically. And who are downgrading the value of creativity, insight and strategy by overselling the capabilities of what are essentially just tools. Amazing, powerful tools -- but only as useful as the minds that employ them and the insights and actions they inform.
Still, some agencies and organizations are like an over-equipped armies whose generals believe there is a military solution to every problem. Resources have been allocated, on both the client and agency sides, to develop, procure and employ these tools. So dammit, we are going to use them.
And we should use them. Not the other way around.
I love the power and efficiency of digital measurement, but I am beginning to fear that too much information is not inspiring insights, and driving greater levels of creativity and boldness, but rather drowning them in rising floodwaters of data.
With such incredible tools of research and discovery now readily available, there is the expectation that every idea can and must be reduced to quantifiable fact to ensure success. And if an idea can't -- if it is too new, too strange, too risky -- then it is smarter and safer to go with the idea that can be justified with data.
We want the tools to do the critical thinking for us. And that is just not how it works.
The magic -- and power -- of unexpected and well-executed creativity is in its ability to surprise and amaze. Rarely does that spark survive when it is forced to consist of and conform to the sum total of its parts. When the expectation is that everything can be clearly quantified, the goal is to leave no room for error. Instead, it often leaves no room for surprise.
The elimination of surprises -- pleasant and unpleasant alike -- may be in some way reassuring to the most devout digital fanatics, and the brand managers who have fallen under their spells. But it is utter, dreary tedium for consumers -- and a veritable death knell for the kind of passionate, deeply resonant engagement that forges lifelong relationships with brands.
When metrics and measurement drive the creative process rather than inform it, they quickly become a weak proxy for insightful, inspired thinking. Adams passionately understood the critical need for technical expertise -- but in the service of creative vision, not at the expense of it. If we don't maintain that same careful balance as we hurtle towards ever-greater levels of innovation and precision, we could easily see the stunning panoramas of great brands slowly reduced to an endless series of hastily snapped, uninspiring digital snapshots.