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Pigeonholing and dynamite: Why the marketing industry needs to blow apart unconscious bias

By Wayne Deakin | Global principal of creative

June 16, 2016 | 6 min read

The other evening, I was invited to speak to the newly formed ‘International Creatives London’ group. With an audience of diverse creatives from all corners of the world, I decided it was only apt to talk about pigeonholing and dynamite.

Wayne Deakin

But what exactly do I mean by pigeonholing and dynamite?

As humans, our brains are wired to construct categories to help us store information easily for future reference. We all use categories of people, places and things to make sense of the world around us. Our ability to categorise and evaluate is essential to human intelligence – we love to build these tidy cerebral boxes.

This behaviour has evolved to help us to navigate our lives and define in-group/out-group dynamics – learnt from ancestors who needed to identify friend or foe quickly.

Human society has moved on of course, but our brains still behave in this primordial manner that now gets used increasingly to create unconscious bias.

Here’s a very crude example. If I tell you I’m an Aussie, you will likely initiate automatic assumptions in your head that I must love sport, drink beer – and of course love a good BBQ. And because I used the word ‘Aussie’ rather than Australian, chances are you will think I am a bit more direct, loud and overbearingly friendly.

Hell, if you’re really indoctrinated by generations of bias, you’ll probably think I’ve actually wrestled crocodiles! Bonza!

Just by saying ‘Aussie’, I’ve directed your thinking into the land of stereotypes – the world of pigeonholing we all fall too easily into. A world fuelled by popular culture and passed down from generation to generation.

Our brains love to process information into neat subconscious channels. This makes sense since we don’t perceive separate objects but instead understand their meaning in terms of the meanings of other objects. That’s because the sheer amount of sensory data coming in continually from our senses would blow our brains otherwise.

Unsurprisingly, our industry models act in the same way. After all, it’s only natural…

The industry has adopted the human method of building tidy boxes around what we do and the roles/output we produce. If you’re an ad agency you make ads. If you’re a product design company, you make products. If you’re a digital agency you build digital services. That’s reassuring for everyone – a comforting way to create those neat little boxes for people and companies to sit within.

But it’s also completely out of date. Just as it’s important to fight bias in our brains and not be predisposed to prejudice, it’s also important to recognise the huge shift in society since social media and mobile came along. The huge shift in how consumers can be reached and how they now consume and interact.

Yes, we’ve all heard that the world has changed and that our industry needs to evolve. But purely from a creative point of view, the work that will start getting more traction – both in awards and with consumers – is work that blows these neat pigeonholes apart. Case in point, last month I was on the jury for The New York Festivals and saw work that lived outside neat categories clean up. Same at the One Show. And just recently, the two Black Pencils awarded at the D&AD festival went to work that lives well outside nice neat categories of yesteryear. I suspect this will be the same when I head over to sunny Cannes.

A word of caution – don’t think its just a trend either.

Even business models are now being blown apart. The business models themselves are starting to become the marketing.

For example, think Uber. Uber became a verb, and now that verb has become its campaign. That’s powerful stuff.

Nike is another good example. Create a digital training tool. A product. That product acts as a service. That service becomes communications or the campaign. The campaign becomes mass entertainment in its own right – with the potential even to create a revenue stream to become self-funding.

Our industry is mostly not set up to think like this, but maybe as society shifts in this more transparent and digital world, it will shift and evolve too. We may even witness the rise of the designer/creator/maker who doesn’t need agencies to connect their product with an audience. Or the brand that doesn’t produce anything but facilitates connections – rapidly influencing brands and our industry on an accelerating scale. You only have to look at the companies that are getting the most traction to work that out.

I don’t know where things will go, but I love the fact that a product can now be the campaign and that segregated walls are falling. Antiquated industry pigeonholing is being blown apart by creative dynamite – and that’s exciting.

Between the cracks has always been the place where art and science have found the most exciting solutions to problems. It’s why I love people and brands that don’t want to be restricted by habitual and segregated thinking.

Awards seem to be what our industry reacts to, so it will be interesting this year to see more products being rewarded as campaigns and more categories being blown apart.

Wayne Deakin is executive creative director at AKQA

Marketing Agencies The Drum Awards

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