The Envelope, the Box & the Edge

[September 29, 2009]

Over time, playwrights, philosophers and psychologists have written volumes about human motivation. They’ve found eloquent, even beautiful ways to record their observations. What they have not been able to do, however, is quantify them.

As a result, advertising, the business of motivating people to action, runs neither on science nor on research data masquerading as science. It depends, rather, on an intuitive grasp of what makes people tick—because there’s still no solution to the human equation.

Faced with this logical vacuum, many jet-lagged execs take refuge in scientific jargon. “Push the envelope,” for example, comes from Engineering and offers distinct advantages. Saying it endows the user with the swagger of a B-movie astronaut—and is way easier than giving coherent creative direction.

Trouble is, there are no shortcuts. Each project has unique constraints, including the existing branding, your audience, the budget and your client’s expertise. So whatever “pushing the envelope” means to you, it has no direct bearing on completing the project, much less motivating your audience.

Another metaphor borrowed from science is “the box.” Asking for an “out-of-the-box” solution invites creative paralysis. So deeply revered is this paradigm, Creatives soon succumb to the pressure. Fearing for their reputation, they first build a rationale, then scramble to find a creative concept to match.

The results can be devastating. Present concepts completely divorced from a client’s culture or experience and your credibility is shot. While you’re touting originality, your clients are texting second-tier vendors for estimates on stock design templates. In a matter of hours, they’ll replace your bold vision with a knock-off of last year’s campaign, featuring “refreshed art” and “a few copy tweaks.”

How much better to build on your clients’ strengths—and build their trust. When the results roll in, your clients learn they can walk away from the tried and true without losing their identity. From there you can introduce them to real creative concepts. “But is that ‘edgy’ enough?” I hear someone yell. My question is: What does this military metaphor accomplish?

Now, I realize these slogans are meant to encourage innovation. That’s a good thing. But innovation doesn’t come from slogans. Instead of searching for “the edgy, out-of-the-box idea that really pushes the envelope,” build your concepts from the raw materials in front of you: The product, the competitive landscape, audience insights and your own observations about the human experience.

As I see it, innovation grows from insights fueled by direct observation of what’s real, vibrant and “blood simple.” That’s the stuff you see on the street, in the school yard, at weddings, funerals, hot-dog stands—and places further down on the food chain. So the next time someone asks you to push the envelope, sit back in your chair and tell them to get real.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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