Over the past year, the mantra of ultra efficiency was called into question when faced with a crisis as firms scrambled to adapt - in advertising, which should focus on effectiveness, inefficiency is deeply necessary, argues Mike Teasdale.

Inefficiency is clearly a bad thing, right? 

No one wants to waste time or resources or money when doing something. Waste is clearly bad.

It’s certainly what the management consultancies want us to believe. Their core purpose lies in improving the efficiency of a client’s organization, so their typical solutions are about finding and removing waste in the system through re-organizations and best practice models. Cue a hundred PowerPoint slides more densely packed than my local pub on the night Covid lockdown finally ends.

Indeed, there are many endeavours where efficiency is not only desirable but essential to success. You don’t want an inefficient astronaut or F1 pit crew or bomb disposal squad.

But that is not the business we in marketing are in. We are in a business that is inherently inefficient.

Anything with a creative element to it is by nature inefficient. The process of creating great advertising, like music or art or literature, is inefficient precisely because it is not a process. You can’t boil it down to a manual of steps to follow. Everyone does it differently.

When I was Head of Planning at AMV.BBDO I would walk around the creative dept every day to check in on teams and discuss what they were working on. It was a great way of finding out where the pinch points were and where planning needed to help.

All the teams had different ways of working. One incredibly successful team seemed to live in a bubble of permanent chaos and disorder. Other teams were outwardly more organized but even they went about their creativity in a very inefficient way. One team used to randomly flick through endless magazines looking for inspiration (and it worked!). At any one time there were always teams stuck and distracting themselves at the pool table. There’s a reason why there aren’t pool tables on space rockets, and it’s got nothing to do with gravity.

Good project management and good planning both help to improve creative inefficiency, but they do not remove it and that’s OK because ultimately what we in marketing want is effectiveness not efficiency.

Advertising is evolving from a world where a few highly paid people use empathy to target big audiences with TV ads about universal human themes, to a world where lots of machines use computing power to target small audiences with automated stories about niche topics. Advertising today is increasingly focused on using data to create low-cost fast-turnaround branded content that is programmatically narrowcast to nudge specific people along a path to purchase. 

But this micro contact still needs to be combined with the kind of macro impact only a famous campaign has and the journey of getting to a famous campaign is inherently inefficient because it involves using emotion to tap into basic human motivations in new and different ways. And that is harder to do than rocket science which is why it is messy to be part of. Ultimately, though, it is way better for a brand to be messily right than efficiently wrong.

Covid has taught us the benefit of inefficiency. A globally connected just-in-time supply chain may be efficient but it all goes to shit in a moment if sales suddenly fall off a cliff, as they did for many businesses when Covid struck. 

The problem with excessive efficiency in any business is that it not only leaves you vulnerable to unforeseen negative events (like Covid) but it also prevents you from taking advantage of fortuitous positive events (like chance discoveries). Adaptability not efficiency seems to me to be the desired state.

For ad agencies, adaptability comes from things which in many ways seem inefficient. The planner who has mastered all the info, even the seemingly irrelevant, has a greater chance of sparking a powerful human insight that unlocks a creative breakthrough because their ability to combine knowledge in diverse ways is greater. It’s those lateral connections that form the basis of so many great creative ideas.

So, although advertising may sometimes follow a messy development path it’s OK if it makes people feel comfortable enough to take risks. Failing, and learning from that experience, may be inefficient but if it is ultimately effective then it is worth it.

Beethoven, who was a jingle writer of some renown back in the day, described his method of composition as “I alter a great deal, discard and try again, broadening here and restricting there until the fundamental idea rises up higher and higher and grows before my eyes until I hear and see the image of it, moulded and complete, standing there before my mental vision”. If that’s not inefficient I don’t know what is but by God does it make your heart sing to hear it.