The affliction of intellectuals who see all sides of an argument

 Last week, I read the obituary of former Cabinet Minister, Sir Timothy Raison. He served under Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher, apparently ‘gaining a reputation as the keeper of the party’s conscience on such issues as immigration, refugees, child benefit and social policy’. Bigots would instantly dismiss him as ‘Tory’. To me, it seems he was a good man. My condolences to his friends and family.

One particular sentence in his obituary resonated with me:

‘he suffered from that common affliction of intellectuals: the ability to see all sides of an argument’.

Early in my career, I worked with people like this. They are not evil. Nor do they mean any harm. In fact, as Sir Timothy appears to have been, they may even be kind, considerate and well meaning.

But they can be a nightmare to work with.

In my case, in advertising, the particular difficulty I faced when working with such people was not only that they could see all sides of an argument – but also, they could think of a good reason why any given piece of creative work was wrong. 

De facto, if you can see all sides of every argument, you can see why something that might be right might also be wrong – so you may end up not doing anything at all. This is why I said in my last post that Leaders are ‘smart’ rather than intellectual.

On one occasion, with my ‘upstream thinking’ hat on, I was asked to try and rescue a brand, the account for which the client had put the agency on notice – quite deservedly too because this was a seasonal food product and, the previous year, the agency had failed to produce an approved script for the TV commercial our client expected.

No less than 71 scripts had been developed and rejected. Hard to believe but true.

This meant that not only had our client’s brand failed to benefit from any advertising support during its crucial seasonal period (with a consequent lack of consumer demand and loss of distribution listings) but, most important, the agency missed out on the 15% commission that the management had included in their financial forecast to Head Office at the beginning of the year. Those were the days.

Worse, by now, such was the lack of morale and enthusiasm for this brand in the creative department, that unless drastic action was taken, our agency would never produce acceptable, let alone effective, advertising for this brand.

And our creatives were right. Every brand benefit had been explored from every angle and, for every script that had been developed, good reasons had been given for why it was not right. We were up the proverbial creek.

And the problem, I soon found out, was that the person providing these reasons was not the client but my very intellectual, kind, considerate and well meaning boss.

I had to hope that a familiar dose of the old Hugh Salmon charisma would charm the creative department onto my side – at least for one more script.

Before bringing out the charm, and following my guru David Ogilvy’s precedent on Dove decades before, I set to work finding out everything I could about the brand. I studied the research. I went to the factory. I joined a salesman on a day of trade visits. I even scored runs for that famous creative cricket team, the Box-Busters (these things are important when you need people on your side).

And guess what? I discovered one fact about our client’s brand which, because it was a fact, could not be wrong. It was an undeniable, God’s-honest-truth fact.

Furthermore, it was also a fact that none of our client’s competitors could claim. It was unique. That was a fact too. In other words, my fact was not only a fact but also a unique fact (you have to spell things out clearly for these intellectual people).

So all we had to do now was convert the fact into a serious commercial proposition.

And this our creative team was able to do. They developed a killer script.

A complete no-brainer.

But yes, you’ve guessed it, my intellectual boss found a reason it was wrong.

Although he agreed my discovery was a fact, he argued, would it make a good commercial?

This was when he was told, in no uncertain terms, that, by taking this position, he was putting at risk:

1. The market share of a famous brand

2. The agency’s relationship with a prestigious client

3. And, worst of all, another year’s income for our big bosses in Corporate HQ.

So the lesson is, if you find you have one of these formidably intelligent people holding your business back then, very kindly, you have to persuade this person that he or she might be in the wrong business – and, indeed, if they should be in business at all.

Back in the day, when I featured in the Campaign ‘A List’, they asked me for my ‘Hates’ and I said ‘office politics and abominable no-men’. 

When I said this, I didn’t mean only those people you come across who have the corporate power to say ‘no’ but are not permitted to say ‘yes’ – and there are plenty of them around.

I was also thinking of this problem I had had of a boss who, like Sir Timothy Raison, was so intellectual that he could see all sides of every argument, including why we should not do anything at all.

Frankly, I do not think there is room for these people in the commercial world.

I believe, as a country, we are short of good teachers.

You may have one sitting in the office upstairs.

About Hugh Salmon

Business leader. Adman. Writer.
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