We all need to be comfortable not knowing the answers

There has been rapid development in technology of late, but is first always best?

News travels quickly of a new technology featured in WIRED or the MIT blog, and before you know it, it’s being proposed as the backbone of a marketing campaign — the world’s first blah blah powered by blah. We play Buckaroo with these new technologies too, increasing complexity and reducing the chances that the user (still such a dirty word) will understand what’s going on.

As we aim to engage audiences in more innovative and complex ways, we find ourselves feeding an unhealthy obsession with achieving a ‘world’s first’. But for the system to work it’s vital that good ideas and genuine insights are driving the technology. Is anyone actually going to use this thing? It’s an increasingly important question for digital advertisers. Hype cycles of new technology are important, as they help us to understand maturity and consumer adoption, but there’s an increasing risk that the technology is seen as a crutch to support weaker ideas. If you notice the technology first, truth is, the idea probably isn’t good enough.

Innovation shouldn’t necessarily mean doing something for the first time. Innovation is as much about making things that exist already even better, faster, easier. Move the needle just a little bit; make a small iteration and see a bigger impact.

The smartest brands are starting to give the extra time and resources required for creative agencies to properly understand a business problem, or the message that’s trying to be communicated. This phase of ‘Discovery’ seems to have been accepted and adopted by clients and agencies alike as a worthwhile thing to do. Some are even experimenting with everything from ‘design sprints’ (a five-day process for answering critical business questions through loops of design and testing) to the delightfully named process of ‘dogfooding’ (trialling your own products behind closed doors). Most significantly, prototyping has taken on real value as a means to test ideas not just from a technical standpoint, but to trial user experience.

This great book by Warren Berger talks more about the benefits of R&D, and how asking questions is more important than knowing the answers. The old economy was all about knowing the answers and expressing confidence, but that’s no longer true because we can no longer be certain what’s possible. As new platforms, software, and hardware are introduced, and technology continues to accelerate, we can’t take it for granted that there’s a definitive answer to a given production challenge: what is true today may not be true tomorrow. We all need to be comfortable not knowing the answers.

With these new ways of working, comes a great opportunity for brands to start thinking of their digital advertising as a contribution to moving things forward. It’s a shame that Google has retired its Creative Sandbox archive which, at least, felt like an honest label that acknowledged a degree of experimentation in the work we all do under the guise of advertising.

If we encourage clients to think in this way, and look beyond the latest headlines from the gadget pages, we’ll all find ourselves developing enduring solutions and better digital experiences.

James Britton is a Managing Partner at Stinkdigital. This article originally appeared in Creative Review on September 25th, 2015.