When my daughter was young, her teacher asked to see me.
He said she had a problem with maths, and would fail unless she changed her approach.
I asked him if she was getting the wrong answers.
He said, no, she nearly always got the right answers.
I said, so what’s the problem?
He said, she never shows her “working out” in the margin.
In maths exams, most of the marks are given for working out.
It’s not so important to get the right answer as to show how you got there.
Otherwise you might have just guessed it – but if you show the working out, even if you got the wrong answer, they can see your thinking was right.
So the answer isn’t nearly as important as the thinking.
Many years later, I’m reminded of this in advertising.
We know that the right answer is advertising that is impactful and memorable.
But we also know that isn’t where the marks are.
The real marks are in showing your working out.
That’s why, in any pitch or presentation, the actual advertising is the least important part and left to the end.
Most of the time is spent on the research, the strategy, the tactics, the media, the brand analysis, the planning, the brief, the logic, the argument.
After they’ve had 90% of the time, the serious work is considered done and the creative work is shown as dessert.
In fact, you often win a pitch by getting everything right except the creative work.
But it hardly ever works the other way round.
Because the assumption is, if the working out is correct, the answer is less important.
The only flaw in this process is the audience.
In maths exams, the audience is the examiner – they are intimately familiar with the subject, they know the correct answer and are more interested in the process.
But advertising isn’t like maths exams.
The audience is not examiners, it’s ordinary people, from bus drivers to office workers, who aren’t intimately familiar with the subject and aren’t interested in the process.
Ordinary people don’t care how you got the answer.
The answer (the advertising) is either impactful and memorable or it’s wallpaper.
But we can’t see that because most of us were trained at university.
Where the process is more important than the answer.
Making something impactful and memorable is a subjective judgment, and subjective judgments cannot be a way to run examinations.
So there must be an objective measure, a definite right and wrong.
The only objective measure is showing the working out in the margin.
If you have used the correct method, you will be awarded the majority of the marks for following the correct procedure.
But in our world, what happens if everyone else also learned the correct method and everyone else also does it the right way?
Then all the answers look exactly the same.
This is a good result if you’re teaching a classful of maths students, preparing them for a university education.
But in our world it creates wallpaper, a guarantee of failure.
In our world, the real world of real people, you don’t get any marks for the working out.
Because this is not university, this is not the academic world.
Or, as Bill Bernbach put it: “If no-one notices your advertising, everything else is academic.”
Dave Trott is the author of Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three