Jigsaw Messaging & the Culture of Executionalism

Despite 15 years of lead time, digital marketing has yet to resolve one of its most pressing issues: The effective, memorable staging of a message across a hyperlinked array of multiply cross-referenced pages.

In the mad rush to git-r-done, the majority of brands have adopted one of three offline models—the print brochure, the print magazine or the print catalog. In the process, they’ve short-circuited the evolution of the most important new communication medium in 70 or so years—and fostered a climate of mistrust they struggle against every time they reach out to consumers online.

What’s the big deal? It’s the failure to grasp the interdependence of content density, design and messaging strategy.

The seeds of the present state of digital space lie in the manufacturing model that has gained ground over the last decade. This mindset puts a premium on recycling content, design and video assets in the mistaken belief that consistency is synonymous with branding.

Copy cut to fit.
Hand in glove with this delusion goes an attitude toward copywriting analogous to a typical home-owner’s attitude towards carpet installation. Today, like carpeting, copy is shaped to fit whatever space is left between the stock art. Writers are enjoined pick up copy from an existing source and set to work with no regard for its relevance to the underlying concept.

Approached with this mindset, it’s no surprise that the majority of Web copy hits a low standard. No, not for the quality of the writing, for writing itself plays an insignificant role in motivating consumers.

In fact, effective copy is only the surface manifestation of a thorough-going thought process. That’s why the incessant wrangling over individual words that constitutes 98% of all discussion about the topic is such a complete waste of time. What’s at stake is neither the presence or absence of wordplay, the relative formality of the grammar, the invocation of traditional imagery, or slavish conformity to mechanical “trade secrets.”

Instead, the only issue of consequence is whether you’ve crafted:

• An emotional connection to your customers
• An unambiguous and credible point of view on topics they care about
• A demonstration of real value
• A clear statement of how to access that value

Context & Clarity.
Clarity. The word crops up in every discussion of branded communication. But clarity, like most other human values, is relative; its definition shifts from context to context. For example, a clear communication about distemper aimed at veterinarians is a different animal from a clear communication about the same topic, aimed at dog owners

And only a small part of that difference has anything to do with words.

The real distinction lies in the path you take through the material, the structure of the message, not its terminology, diction, tone, length or—oh please—”style.”

On the other hand, there’s one thing that every clear communication shares: Proper staging, a carefully controlled roll out of the communication’s deep message. 

Trouble is, instead of mapping out a coherent messaging strategy—including a coherent way to present it visually, the average Web page is simply “stuffed” with content. The result is crippling information overload.

Again, this is not about words, but message and structure. In their manic frenzy to offer something for everyone, brand managers frequently overload the structure. As a result, they fragment and scatter their message, like shuffled pieces inside a jigsaw puzzle box—leaving users to assemble the big picture piece by piece.

While the sources of this “drunken style” of communication are many, it stems in large part from a culture of executionalism rooted in desperate money-grubbing. Skipping the concept and messaging stage, many creative directors believe the first step in any project is to create an eye-catching-yet-reassuringly-conventional “look.”

Sure, they’ll revolve the design loosely around a metaphor, but that’s as far as the creative process goes. Ask about messaging and you’ll be directed to the tagline, the About Us section of the existing site; you’ll also get the standard sermon about the need for “fun headlines” and copy that’s “short and sweet.”

With a mandate like that, copywriters can only fill in the blanks and hope that a few shreds of metacommunication will survive the scrutiny of the Minimalistas, those stern throwbacks to an isolated strain of 20th-century modernism. In that case, there’s still a faint hope some inkling of a larger brand narrative will seep through the tiny cracks left by rigid design ideology—and the client’s desire to make everything “pop.”


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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