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Hypothesis: Magic only happens when logic is broken.

[A thought piece]

If you’re a brand strategist, you’ve probably heard something like this — how would you solve the problem if the brand in question was a different brand from a completely different category? Say you work on AXE: how would you solve that AXE problem if AXE was Spotify? My hypothesis has always been that whatever is the solution you got to in your exercise, it could be applied to your reality. AXE could benefit from getting its hands onto music behaviour data.

Strategists are often asked to judge what feels “right” and “wrong”, to make sense of things, to be the reasonable voice in the room. That leads us to think logically: 1 leads to 2 that leads to 3 that leads to 4 and so on. Planning by the numbers. The problem is: logical thinking many times leads to uninspired ideas. The hypothesis is: magic only happens when logic is broken.

Edward De Bono is the author behind the concept of “lateral thinking” — the idea that creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way. How could we apply it to our work as strategists*?

While vertical thinking is driven by logical steps throughout…

  1. Starts from a rational view of the problem;
  2. Progresses sequentially toward a solution;
  3. Goes deep on one approach once a promising direction is found;
  4. Only seeks information relevant to that one approach;
  5. Each step is built on previous steps.

…lateral thinking is driven by Macarena steps, sort of:

  1. Starts from different and sometimes unrelated ways of examining the problem (like the example at the start of this article);
  2. Make nonlinear, associative progress;
  3. Keeps finding alternative approaches, even if a promising direction is found;
  4. Seeks out irrelevant information that may provide inspiration, or not;
  5. Progresses into directions that seem unusual.

Vertical thinking refers to the APG, Contagious, WARC and IPA. It’s proven to be “right”. Lateral thinking refers to data no-one is looking at. It feels “wrong”.

Vertical thinking makes sense, is reassuring and familiar. Lateral thinking is illogical, slightly worrying and always surprising.

Vertical thinking leads to work that paints creative test result charts in green. Lateral thinking leads to work research agencies might not have the methodology to test.

It makes sense for most brands to do what they’re doing until they realise 84% of the ads they produce is irrelevant**.

Now take some of the work we consider relevant in our industry. It didn’t make sense for a price comparison brand specialized in financial services to get into choreography; it didn’t make sense for an ice cream brand to get into sensuality; it didn’t make sense for Burger King to ditch the Whopper in Whopper Freakout, a Grand Effie winner idea. Until it all made perfect sense.

Lateral thinking just seems like a more powerful set of tools. Here are some of them:

a) Start somewhere different to end somewhere different.

b) Verbalise the convention of the category, then get it out the way.

c) Find spaces in-between the category, the benefit, the brand… and something else completely unrelated.

Many clients like when strategies sound logical. It makes them feel comfortable, and ourselves look smart. But most of the times logical thinking doesn’t lead to good work. Sometimes it actually gets in the way. I once heard from a creative I worked with: “Sometimes strategists take creatives one step further from the truth by over-rationalising it”.

We all need some logic to make leaps. Vertical and lateral thinking are complementary. If every strategist is (or should be) a creative, it’s not about us having to choose between vertical and lateral thinking. Perhaps it’s about making unexpected ideas the logical path to pursue.

*Some of the content in this comes from a talk I gave with Shai Idelson at BBH back in 2017. The ending was helped by my fellow 72andSunnyer Bruno Steffen.
**Research from Ehrenber