What’s big, grey and not being mentioned?

For many years we’ve loved the phrase “the elephant in the room”. It’s a striking metaphor that captures the idea of something important that everyone sees, but nobody mentions. When clients bring us in on projects, we often spot an elephant or two looming in the backgroundmaybe it’s a missing feature in the product that’s a competitive blindspot if not addressed, or a possible differentiator that, left untapped, is a major missed opportunity.

There’s a gorilla in the woods

Sometimes these important topics go undiscussed because people working on the project have genuinely not spotted them. That may be because they’re “not seeing the wood for the trees”: if you’ve spent the last year focusing on an important product or project, you can find yourself blinkered. It’s a classic example of “selective attention”.

Try this famous demonstration of selective attention for yourself. It’s an incredibly powerful effect, more than half of people watching the video for the first time succumb to it.

Simons and Chabris, 1999.

Sometimes all it takes to fix the problem is a fresh pair of eyes. Sometimes, at the risk of flattering ourselves, it’s our specialist marketing knowledge and the broad perspective we get from working with a wide range of companies that does the trick.

Internal politics is often to blame

Not infrequently we find that everybody on the project knows that the elephant is there, and their silence on the subject is down to internal politics. For example, recently we were working on a new product launch for one of our IT clients. After reviewing the service definition document and talking to the product development team it was clear to us that enabling increased productivity for mobile employees was one of the new service’s key benefits. Mobility is a hot topic in IT at the moment, but all talk of new device types and new ways of working was strangely absent from the briefings.

When we raised the question we found that it had been deliberately left out in order to avoid having to bring another product team into the campaign’s approval process. As marketers trying to do the best job possible, such political shenanigans can be extremely frustrating. But, having worked in large corporates ourselves, we understand the need to avoid provoking the corporate immune system!

Walking the line

The dilemma for any agency in such a situation is knowing when (and how far) to push the subject, and when to step back. We walk the line between marcomms agency and marketing consultant: sometimes clients just want us to turn their rough materials into a polished campaign or collateral. Other times they want us get more involved in shaping what they are doing, providing market insight and generating new ideas. Often it’s somewhere in between.

We hope that we get the balance right more often than not, challenging our clients enough to get the best result but not making their lives too difficult. Being easy to work with is an important factor when companies are choosing an agency. But even if it occasionally causes a bit of friction, we’ll never stop asking about the elephant in the room. Bringing a thorny issue to the fore and discussing how to handle it can make the difference between just producing some pretty collateral and creating a truly compelling proposition that helps close deals.

Posted by John on 6 November 2011