A view from Dave Trott: The Abilene Paradox
A view from Dave Trott

The Abilene Paradox

In 1974, Jerry B Harvey wrote an article titled: “The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement”.  

It starts in Texas on a hot afternoon, a husband and wife and the wife’s parents are sitting on the porch, reading.

The wife’s father says: “I’ve got a great idea, let’s drive to a nice little restaurant I know in Abilene for dinner.”

The wife’s mother says: “What a good idea, that would be wonderful.”

The wife says: “That sounds great, it would be a pleasant break.”

The husband says: “Sure why not, it’ll make a nice change.”

So they all get in the car and drive 60 miles, in the blistering heat, to Abilene.

When they get there, the restaurant isn’t as nice as the father remembered, there is no air-conditioning, the food isn’t great, and they’re hot and sweaty from the long drive.

And now they have to get back in the car and drive all the way home.

When they finally get home again, the father says: “Well, that was worth doing wasn’t it?”

The mother says: “To tell you truth it wasn’t, I didn’t enjoy it, I don’t know why we went.”

The wife says: “Me neither, I would have rather stayed here.”

The husband says: “Me too, I only went because I thought you all wanted to go.”

The father says: “Well I didn’t want to go either, I only suggested it because I thought you were all getting bored just sitting on the porch.”

And so they had a situation that no-one wanted and no-one enjoyed. 

They all went along with it because they each thought the others wanted it.

They weren’t thinking what the best thing to do was.

They were just trying to guess what the others might think.

Instead of thinking of the best solution they were second-guessing someone else, and consequently got a solution no-one wanted.

This is called the Abilene Paradox and we see it a lot in our business.

Usually when some exciting, unusual creative work is presented.

The usual response is: “I don’t think the client will buy this." Or: “I don’t think this is what the client is looking for.”

Because we’re not judging the work itself, we’re trying to second-guess the client.

So we’re not asking “Is the work great?”, we’re looking for what they will be happy with.

So that becomes the target for our advertising, keep the client happy.

But this is short-term thinking.

Because when the ads don’t work, the client won’t be happy.

And the client won’t say: “Fair enough, it was my fault, I liked it but I was wrong.”

The client won’t say that because that isn’t the way the relationship works.

If the ads don’t work, it will be the agency’s fault, not the client’s.

So the agency will lose the account.

You see the real client is the consumer, and the real client-happiness is on the sales chart.

When the client sees the sales figures then they will decide if they are happy or not.

And that’s the Abilene Paradox for most agencies: by trying to keep their clients happy, they end up losing the account.

Because trying to guess short-term client happiness is not the correct measure for great advertising. 

And all the second-guessing does is ruin the advertising and guarantee failure.

Trying to do work to please the client makes that your goal, and it shouldn’t be.

Ultimately, when the advertising doesn’t work, the client won’t be happy. 

Dave Trott is the author of The Power of Ignorance, Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three