Clear Defendable Territory

Week #2

Is your brand as smart as the individuals working there?
Week #2

Branding is a team sport. For the most part, the interactions we have with brands are the result of a collective effort, involving weeks (if not months) of deliberation between Marketing Directors and their carefully selected teams of agency Gurus and consultants - individuals with decades of experience.

So the question is: Why are the results so frequently underwhelming?

A 2012 study by The Fournaise Marketing Group found that 80% of CEOs admit that they do not really trust and are not really impressed by the work done by marketers. So it would seem that despite our best efforts, we marketers seem chronically incapable of delivering results that are as impressive as our CVs suggest.

Around the same time as the people at Fournaise were conducting their research, I had the pleasure of speaking to Tristram Carfrae, Group Board Director at Arup. During the conversation, he put forward an idea that has remained with me ever since. I’ve come to think of it as ‘Carfrae’s Law’:

“The more people you put in a room, the more likely the IQ will average at 100.”

Carfrae’s Law might be familiar to anybody who has ever participated in a brainstorm, ideation session, or Board meeting. It’s extraordinary to witness first-hand how a group of otherwise intelligent individuals can come together to accomplish less than the sum of their parts. It’s depressing to see people enter a room full of ideas and leave hours later with a sense of compromised ideals and bored resignation.

Tristram Carfrae isn’t alone in identifying this problem. Scientists from the Virginia Tech Carillion Research Institute found that group dynamics can have a negative effect on cognitive ability, in a January 2012 study using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

So how do we escape Carfrae’s Law?

Perhaps awareness is the first step towards salvation. 2012 was also the year that Jonah Lehrer published a fantastic piece in The New Yorker on the danger of ‘groupthink’, in which he warned against the trend towards brainstorming as an approach to problem-solving. In the article, Lehrer quotes Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University:

“Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”

The root cause of Carfrae’s Law is an over-emphasis on consensus and a misguided belief that there’s “no such thing as a bad idea”. The conclusion is not that intelligent people inevitably become stupid when we come together as a group, but that we diminish ourselves when we enter into situations where harmony is a precondition for action.

We make better decisions when we’re allowed to disagree. And we have more productive conversations when our own ideas are challenged by people from different backgrounds with different ideas to our own.

In practical terms, this means ditching the notion that great marketing ideas will ever be achieved through consensus. That’s how really average marketing happens. We’ve got to allow a little chaos into the mix. Challenge and dissent are fundamental to the development of great ideas. Get people to come to meetings with ideas. Ditch workshops altogether and ask them to meet in small groups or pairs. Encourage them to get out of the office and go to lunch and discuss their ideas in more interesting, stimulating spaces. Introduce randomness into the process. Involve unusual people.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is how great creative businesses work. We employ people from diverse backgrounds – although there’s lots of room to improve on this front. We bring people with different skills together to solve problems – writers, designers, thinkers, dreamers and doers. We tend to be unusual. And we tend to like working with people who are even more unusual – academics, artists, philosophers, technologists, journalists and futurologists. We get out of the office a lot. Sometimes we even go out for lunch. It’s not a perfect way to work. It’s messy. It’s iterative. It often means working unsociable hours. But the messiness works. Just like Jake Sullivan said:

“In the real world, answers may not be clear cut. There will be messy choices… Being able to listen to other people, even as you stay true to your own principles, that’s how you actually succeed.”

What are Wild Cards?

The Clearing have been working with The School of Life to develop 100 questions designed to help you see your brand from new perspectives. We think great conversations begin with a great question. Each week, we’ll share another question and our response to it. Email us with your own answers on – we’d love to know what you think.