Dallying with the maverick mind

Disruption
April 4, 1997

Books written by advertising bigwigs to promote both themselves and their agencies are a well-established, and not always undistinguished genre. In the late 1950s, the Scottish advertising wizard David Ogilvy, who went to New York and built one of the world's most successful agencies, published Confessions of an Advertising Man - probably the best theoretical and practical book on advertising ever written.

Ogilvy's book was followed a few years later by Reality in Advertising, a much lesser work by Rosser Reeves, then the boss of Ted Bates, another exceptionally successful international agency. He was the creator of Eisenhower's triumphant 1952 "I like Ike" presidential campaign, perhaps the only political advertising in history that was both positive and effective. Reeves's book propounded the flawed but exceptionally influential USP theory which claims that only advertising built upon Unique Selling Propositions really works. This is either wrong or circular. None-theless Reeves's theory and the acronym USP entered the language of advertising and nearly half a century later are still in common use.

It is widely believed that the success of these books - both were global bestsellers - not only made Ogilvy and Reeves a great deal of moolah but also fuelled the growth and success of their agencies. As a result, quite a few other advertising panjandrums have since attempted to play the same trick, so far without success. And it is into this tradition that Jean-Marie Dru's new book,Disruption, falls.

Dru is a founder partner of BDDP, one of France's three big global agencies. For some reason, the French are the only nation, apart from the Americans and the Brits, to have built international agencies. Neither the Germans nor the Italians, nor even the Japanese, have really tried. Just as Confessions of an Advertising Man defined the Ogilvy approach to the creation of effective advertising, Disruption defines the BDDP approach. (Admen like to dub these approaches "advertising philosophies", to make them sound frightfully profound and important. In reality they bear no more resemblance to philosophies than a costermonger's cries.) And just as most of the successful advertising campaigns mentioned in the earlier books are, unsurprisingly, drawn from their authors' own agencies, so most of the successful campaigns described in Disruption happen to spring from BDDP.

But there the comparisons end. For while Ogilvy's and Reeves's books promulgated genuinely new ideas, all Dru's work offers is new jargon. Or to be more precise, new names for well-established, commonplace practices.

Dru argues that creativity and innovation, in advertising or in any other aspect of life - modesty is not one of his besetting sins - is stimulated by a three-stage process which he identifies as convention, disruption, and vision. Convention involves unravelling the ways we all now think about something, which (almost by definition) express the conventional approach to whatever it may be. Dru calls convention "opinions sanctioned and ingrained as truths".

The second stage in the process, disruption, involves a mental reappraisal of our conventional thinking, a logical discontinuity which changes our perceptions. Dru callsdisruption "a quest for new ideas and unexpected approaches... provoking all-out questioning and a break with the past". Finally, and obviously crucially, comes the vision stage, when the disruption generates radically new concepts, new insights, and new ways of doing things. Dru, having admitted that the word vision has been debased, nonetheless defines it as "both inspirational and aspirational... leaping from the present to the future". In short, the disruption of conventional thinking engenders creativity.

You may think that it would be difficult to devote an entire book to this comparatively conventional - rather than disruptive or visionary - thesis. And you would be right. Disruption stretches its modest ideas like an accordion puffing air. Either to make sure its readers have grasped its thesis fully, or to fill out a couple of hundred pages of well-spaced type, it repeats itself incessantly. Most irritatingly of all, Dru constantly praises a handful of fashionable "Disruptive" companies - Apple, Gap, Ikea, Levi's, Nike, Body Shop, Virgin and the like - emphasising how they have succeeded by breaking with tradition (or convention). Well yes. Or rather maybe.

Unfortunately, many of his favourite disruptors, doubtless since he began writing the book, have come seriously unstuck. Those who live by the latest craze frequently die by the latest craze. Even more importantly, the world is full of flourishing companies which are not at all disruptive, but continue to do what they have always done, year-in year-out, and to do it superlatively well.

Since Dru makes very large claims for the disruption process ("In every domain discontinuity is at the heart of progress... discontinuity is at the heart of Disruption") it seems surprising that he has not done more research into what is now known aboutcreativity, nor apparently read a great deal about the subject, beyond Edward de Bono. Had he done so he would have known that psychologists, neuroscientists and geneticists have done a fair amount of research into it. He would have known that Arthur Koestler, Anthony Storr and others have all analysed the three-stage creative process in much the same way as he has done, noting understanding, concentration, and idea. He might also have seen that, in any profound sense, this analysis does not take us much further.

Above all it does not explain how new ideas come about, nor does it explain - in my view a more important aspect - why some people are far more creatively fertile than others. Insofar as he dallies with these issues, Dru appears to think that everyone could be equally creative if they applied the disruptive process. That is manifest nonsense.

It has become a cliche to say that all human beings are creative. Well yes. And all human beings can hit a ball with a racquet. But few human beings can play at Wimbledon, or are even good enough to play for their county. And few are Turner or Mozart, or even good enough to sell their paintings in a church hall or play in a proper orchestra.

Disruption's underlying thesis is that if we follow Dru's methodology it will help us all to generate brilliantly original ideas. There is every reason to encourage people, particularly when they are still children, to be as creative as possible. But most human beings are not especially creative. And to pretend that anyone who can tinkle on the ivories could be Chopin both belittles Chopin and provokes unsettling disappointment. Insofar as people believe it, and in its various incarnations many people do believe it, this is an untruthful and troublesome thesis. Dru's book is just another tiny twig kindling unnecessary fire.

Winston Fletcher is chairman, Bozell UK Holdings.

Disruption: Overturning Conventions and Shaking up the Marketplace

Author - Jean-Marie Dru
ISBN - 0 471 16565 4
Publisher - John Wiley & Sons
Price - £19.99
Pages - 239

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