A Beautiful Constraint

a-beautiful-constraint

There are many ways a person who does not consider themselves creative reveals that they do not consider themselves creative. But the one that has always stymied me is this one:

“I don’t want to tell you much because I don’t want to constrain your creativity.”

What has always mystified me about this statement – and I have heard it more times than I can count – is that it so fundamentally misunderstands the nature of any kind of creativity, let alone that creativity which is in the service of such clear constraints as brand, demographic, competition, economy and, you know, selling.

And because it is ignorant on such a fundamental level, I am usually at an utter loss for how to explain to people just exactly how they’re wrong, why they’re wrong and why artists of any kind desperately need boundaries, guidelines, constraints in order to create. I literally do not know where to begin.

But no more. In future I shall simply hand them a copy of Adam Morgan & Mark Barden’s terrific A Beautiful Constraint which not only explains why constraints are necessary, but explains how to use them.

“Use them”? you say. “A constraint is a prison wall against which we’ve banged our heads until they are bloody! Why waste time – and more importantly money! – watching the agency bang their heads against it when we know it will only yield the same dead end we’ve encountered. Why not make it easier on them, and forgo constraints altogether!”

“The reason a completely unconstrained project is the most challenging is because it is so difficult to grasp what it is that you’re really trying to solve. To be very good at problem-solving, you need to be able to very clearly articulate the problem you are trying to solve, and constraints are key parameters of that definition.”

Or, as that old adman Yogi Berra used to say “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.”

This logic often mystifies the uncreative. Unless. Unless the creatives are engaging in some sort of magic to come up with their ideas. And clients hate magic, because they can’t explain it, can’t defend it, and must make a leap of faith in order to accept it. And any CMO with a boardroom full of stakeholders doesn’t want to do that. And who can blame them?

But as Morgan and Barden explain:

“It isn’t magic, but a different kind of discipline.”

To outline that “different kind of discipline”, Morgan and Barden have written a dense book, packed with insight and thinking. And while it will reward those who pay close attention to it, it’s not one of those business books you take with you on the beach. This is a book you study, ponder, annotate, review and discuss.

And that’s because about two-thirds of the way through you realize how truly revolutionary it is. Because it’s postulating a reshaping of the way agencies function – and therefore, the way clients function. It is a reshaping that has to do not only with the nature of obstacles, but with the very nature of the relationship between clients and agencies.

Late in the book, Morgan and Barden write:

“The person most affected by the constraint will not always be the person best placed to see the possibility in it.”

which is true, of course. But in the context of the agency-client relationship, it is revolutionary because it creates a new role for the agency.

The role of the “person not most affected by the constraint”. The person with enough interest to take a look at it from a different perspective. And enough skill to analyze it with a different kind of discipline. In order to reach a different kind of answer.

And while this may have been a role agencies once had (although that is subject to debate), it is not, by and large, the role they have today. Agencies are facilitators; they fill in the blanks for their clients. “I bought time during the Super Bowl, fill it with a commercial.” “I bought media on ESPN, fill it with banners.” “I have seven different social media accounts, fill them with content.” Agencies are bought and evaluated on their ability to fill in these blanks efficiently and cheaply – and not for their ability to look at the constraints that are keeping clients from achieving success – and then using those constraints to create advantages over their competitors.

With Morgan & Barden’s A Beautiful Constraint, they could though. Not with magic but with a different kind of discipline.

One that clients would respect and appreciate enough to trust and buy.

 

A Beautiful Constraint by Adam Morgan & Mark Barden was published by John Wiley & Sons on 01/20/15 – order it from Amazon here, or Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).