The legendary creative director, Bill Bernbach, once said that he didn’t care for writers. What he wanted on his creative team were communicators. He made the distinction thusly:
“The writer is concerned with what he puts into his writings. The communicator is concerned with what the reader gets out of it.”
When my older daughter S. was home from college this past winter break, I took her to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It had been years since her last visit. Until now, I’d resisted the urge to show her one of my favorite pieces in the museum. But since she was now older and more mature, I walked her over to see it:
Étant donnés by Marcel Duchamp
For those who haven’t had the experience:
You walk through a narrow doorway into a small room to find a wooden door on one end. Two small peepholes are carved into the door, inviting you to take a voyeuristic snoop:
When you press your eye to it, you see an image — obscured on all sides by a crumbling brick wall — of a naked woman. She appears to be unconscious or dead. Was she the victim of an attack? Was there some kind of accident? Or, maybe (hopefully), she’s just sleeping? But no matter how much you move your eyes to get a better angle, to see more of what’s there, you can only get so much.
You’re ultimately left wondering.
When we walked away from the exhibit, S’s face held a telling look.
She was blown away.
I asked her, “Well, what did you think?”
Her first answer: “I love how he [Duchamp] could have just painted the picture on a regular canvas and cut off certain things to keep them hidden out of frame. But instead, he created all this.”
After that, she talked for twenty straight minutes about all the other things she loved about it.
The point is this: Even at 19 years old, my daughter understands that a piece of art/content is most powerful when you lure the audience in. But some marketers many years older — some with MBAs and decades of experience — resist this understanding.
I’ve quoted the Greek philosopher Plutarch previously, but it bears repeating:
“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.”
Put in advertising terms, I’ll let Mr. Bernbach finish his earlier thought:
“Most readers come away from their reading not with a clear precise detailed registration of its contents … but rather with a vague misty idea which was formed as much by the pace and the proportions and the music of the writing as by the literal words themselves.”
Take this as a lesson from two of the greats: Bernbach and Duchamp. When it comes to creating something for an audience — whether an art installation, a new campaign, a social media post, a case study, or anything else — start with what you want your audience to get out of it. Forget all the bullet points you want to stuff into their brains; that approach never works.
Instead, challenge yourself to determine what “vague misty idea” they should take away from it. Ask yourself, “If a week from now, my audience remembers just one thing about this piece, what should it be?” Then use everything on your palette to create an experience that will leave them with that impression.
Don’t let yourself get hung up on specific words, images, icons and factoids. All that matters is the takeaway. A takeaway that blows them away.
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