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Death by approvals

“I’ve searched all the parks in all the cities – and found no statues of Committees.”

– Gilbert Chesterton

The point is a simple one: If you want to put noteworthy ideas into the world, you need to involve fewer people in the creation of those ideas. By putting the creative process in the hands of a small group of key individuals, and allowing them to arrive at a solution without having to second-guess what kind of feedback those who are not in the room might have, it opens the door to the type of lateral thinking that would typically be quashed by a larger group.

Having done this job for almost 30 years I can tell you with certainty that the degree of uniqueness an idea maintains through its creation is inversely proportional to the number of individuals whose opinions were taken into consideration during the process. It’s to be expected. We all see our opinions as valuable, so in a work setting if we are asked what we think, “It’s great, I wouldn’t change a thing” just doesn’t feel like the right answer.

Successful creative endeavors are rarely group affairs. If you think about your favorite album, painting, book, or movie, more likely than not, it’s a reflection of just a few people’s vision. Yes, movies have large teams involved with bringing them to life, but there’s a reason a Wes Anderson movie and a Christopher Nolan movie are so easily distinguishable from each other.

To see the debilitating effects of committee overload on a grand scale, consider the plight of the architecture firm who bids on a public project. Their ideas must undergo the scrutiny of not just the site owners, but also the zoning boards, local politicians, neighbors, nearby businesses, schools, and editorial boards. It should not be surprising that exactly zero square feet of Daniel Liebskind’s competition-winning Freedom Tower at the World Trade Center site actually got built. In the book “Yes is More” by architect Bjarke Ingles, he describes entering two hundred competitions in a year without selling a single plan. I don’t think anyone would argue with the fact that large public works projects suffer from an over-abundance of input, but it’s worth considering just how different that decision making process really is from the one that puts marketing communications into the world.

At big ad agencies a lot of this committee-ization starts before ideas even leave the building. Ideas often have to run the gantlet of strategists, account folk, ACDs, CD, GCD, and CCO, each looking to put their mark on the idea. From there, the idea must pass through equally complex layers on the client side, and if testing is involved, add in a third wave of opinions. In the end what’s left is a benign final product whose every edge has been sanded down smooth as a Ken doll’s undercarriage. You’d think the ad industry would be pushing for less of this, yet WPP just merged four agencies into one creating a singular 30,000 person multi-layered creativity death-star. Places like this no longer sell creative excellence, they sell process.

There is good news however, because there has never been a better time to do something that goes against the grain. The public is out there, bored to tears by the committee-made blandness that permeates their field of vision all day every day. Put a small team on the job, trust them to do what they were hired to do, and watch what happens. Maybe you’ll even get a statue.

by Deacon Webster

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Death by approvals
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