An Outside Viewpoint
by Dennis Bruce

 

In a recent column, we made the point that, as a brand manager, you’re better served by employing company outsiders to review your brands and preferably people without an
in-depth knowledge of your markets.  Outsiders are more likely to be objective and come up with revealing insights and inner truths. If this seems counter-intuitive, consider this:

When you’ve lived in a city for a long time, you stop noticing things.  Familiarity dulls your senses.  You can drive from point A to point B without thinking or  noticing what’s going on around you.  It’s as if you’re on automatic pilot.  But travel to a foreign city, where everything’s unfamiliar, and every nerve is a-tingle. Nothing escapes your notice. You’re alive to the architecture, trees, parks, buses, trains, stores, restaurants and people.

Howard Gossage, the San Francisco advertising guru of the 1960s, coined a phrase for this phenomenon.  He called it “extra environmental perception.”  It’s not exactly poetry but it contains the important truth that those who come from outside a given environment possess an extra degree of perception.  And that degree of perception, said Gossage, makes the difference between success and failure.

Insiders know too much, take too much for granted and their prejudices blind them to new opportunities.  We’ve all met the old pro who knows what can’t be done.  He’s seen it all, done it all, knows it all.  That’s when it’s time for an outsider; someone with a new perspective, to question conventional wisdom and come up with fresh ideas. 

Ever been frustrated trying to navigate your way across a strange city when the signposts run out?  There you are, feeling abandoned, anxiously looking for any hint of your whereabouts.  The locals know the way and assume everyone else  does.  What every city council needs is an outsider to do a signpost test run to make sure there are no missing signs.

Jacques Ellul, the French philosopher, says, that in trying to solve a problem, we need an outside reference point. “We have to locate ourselves outside in order to look at the phenomenon,” says Ellul.  “If, for instance, I want to know the speed of a train and am inside the train with no exterior viewpoint, I can know nothing for sure.  I have to have a viewpoint outside the train so that I can watch the train pass.”

How many times have you looked at an ad and said to yourself, what on earth is that all about?  It just doesn’t make sense.  What’s so often at fault is the process by which some  advertising is created.  It’s built up in layers.  The client briefs the agency account group.  The planners devise the strategy.  Then they, with the account people, brief the creative team.  The creatives generate ideas.  Meetings are held to evaluate the ideas.  More ideas are generated.  Still more meetings convene to evaluate them.  By this time, several weeks have elapsed and the freshness of the first ideas has long faded.   Everyone on the project knows too much and their thinking rests on layers of assumptions that distort judgment.  It’s time for an outsider.

The same is true of new product development.  Ever wonder why around 85% of new products crash and burn when they reach market?  Lack of an outside viewpoint, that’s why.  The new product team works for months and invests everything in the project; time, passion, money.  A can-do team spirit grips everyone.  No obstacle is tolerated.  Problems are minimized and even discounted as negative thinking.  Even if a team member has doubts, he or she is quick to silence them.  It would take enormous courage and possibly be a career limiting move to say, “Hey guys, were on the wrong track.  This is not going to work.”  So the team carries on, blind to any warning signs.

You’d think that, at this point, an outsider would be welcomed as a godsend.  Not so.  Outsiders are often resented, rejected and ridiculed.

Remember Plato’s cave?  A row of prisoners sit chained together in a dark cave facing a wall,  necks fastened so they can’t turn around.   Born into this situation, they know nothing else.  Behind them on a raised causeway, people move carrying different objects; vessels, statues, carvings of animals and other things.  From behind the causeway, a large fire casts shadows of the moving objects onto the wall in front of the wretched prisoners who believe the shadows to be reality.   One prisoner, however, breaks free and manages to escape from the cave. Blinded at first, by the sunlight, he is then amazed by the beauty of what he sees -  trees, fields, water, sky.  Excitedly, he hurries back into the cave to tell the others.  He describes his experience, telling them that the shadows they see are not even a pitiful approximation of reality.  The prisoners think the outsider is mad and they kill him.

It’s a brave and far-sighted brand manager who recognizes the value of an outsider and invites him or her in.

 


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