The laziness of lists: Why Havas Worldwide's Matt Weiss isn't a fan of Best Ofs
We’ve just made it through another film awards season – and, with it, the usual cavalcade of lists: the nominees and winners, of course, but also best and worst dressed, biggest snubs, greatest musical moments …basically, anything and everything that can be tabulated, postulated, or simply fabricated.
Come up with an angle, pull together loosely correlated items, assign a ranking to each, and bam!! – you’ve got yourself an easy-to-digest packet of content to share. Some of my favorites: Oscars, Grammys, Brits and Logies: Top 10 Weirdest Moments, Top 10 Funniest Twitter Reactions to Dick Poop Flub During 2015 Oscar Nominations, and 10 Angriest Reactions to Things Actors Said at the Oscars.
That got me thinking about content today and the proliferation of lists. Why are they so popular. Are they overused? Is a list even a legit form of reporting or simply a way to distribute an unqualified opinion?
Now, I’m not opposed to lists on principle. Before the world went digital, lists as a whole offered a bit of value. It was helpful to read Consumer Report’s list of Top 10 Refrigerators while in the market for the appliance and to have Granta, the New York Times, and others name their picks for best books of the year. College lists helped guide me to Syracuse, and the job list board actually helped me find my way into the wonderful world of advertising. But it’s 2015 and we’ve moved well beyond that, with our newsfeeds offering up such time-wasters as 10 Stupid Celebrity Feuds, Top 10 List of Stores with Really Stupid Names, and The Best Top 10 Lists (yes, they even have lists for lists now).
As vapid as a lot of these lists are, they don’t particularly bother me. What does bother me is when content creators publish ill-considered lists about a particular industry, ranking companies, people, and offerings without regard to any sort of clear-cut criteria. I understand the purpose – to get attention and drive readership and perhaps even educate – but there are times when I (and many others in most industries) take issue with what appears to be a lack of rigor and objectivity applied to the task.
Take advertising as an example. Our industry trade press does a marvelous job of providing rankings that actually are based on detailed information supplied by the agencies themselves and qualified by highly knowledgeable reporters, writers, editors, and columnists. What I find bothersome are those others who create “best of” agency lists without any clear methodology or substance. Such lists are horribly subjective –seemingly built on cherry-picked information and impressions that have little basis in fact.
Whenever I see these 'most creative'/'best digital'/'most intriguing' lists, I immediately wonder what factored into the choices. Did the list maker consider all agencies in a category? US only? What about Canada or the Netherlands or Thailand? Does the list reflect client perceptions? Marketing effectiveness and sales? I’d imagine not or the entire marketing world would be clamoring at the doors of these Top 10 shops. We’re left to guess, because very few of these lists reveal a precise methodology.
I would also argue that these 'best' lists go against the very nature of our business. Advertising agencies are built on creativity. We differentiate ourselves not on distribution lines, manufacturing processes, or materials sourcing, but on ideas and our ability to put them to work for clients. Each agency is unique in its offerings and can’t easily be compared with any other. It’s not like two factories sitting side-by-side and producing indistinguishable widgets.
Most well-regarded industry writers and agency consultants, of which there are many, recognize that what agencies need now more than ever is a non-replicable model that sets them apart from the industry. For this reason, they shun lists. Lists minimize the accomplishments and variations that exist among agencies big and small, of all geographies, and of varying degree of accolades from the industry. Knowing this, they’d never put their names to one.
And then there’s the fact that a lot of the real innovation our industry is seeing is centered within those agencies that fly beneath the radar. They may be too far beyond the norm to show up on any lists, but they’re where progress is being made.
As for me, I say the best list is a wish list. And that one is quite long indeed.
Matt Weiss is managing partner at Havas Worldwide New York and global chief marketing officer at Havas Worldwide.