The generation game

Conventional research techniques restrict creativity, says David Bernstein. Disciplined anarchy is better – without it, PCs would just be word processors

I was invited to speak at a Market Research Society conference, the only non-researcher. Its title – ‘How research can cut advertising costs’. Speakers demonstrated how preliminary communion with potential consumers and pre-testing of trial executions in focus groups could improve the chances of success of the eventual ad campaign and give the advertiser ‘more bang for his buck’.

Though a believer in, and user of, research, I was impatient with the cautious approach of some clients and agency executives, anxious to make sure rather than make a start. Nothing, I felt, could predict success as effectively as actually running an ad, so I called my talk ‘How advertising can cut research costs’. Today, of course, it’s easier to do this – media fragmentation, DIY publishing and, above all, the Internet all allow the adver tiser to ‘research by doing’.

A hundred years ago, GK Chesterton declared, ‘If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly’. Amateur dramatics is founded on this philosophy. So is Sunday morning football on Hackney Marshes. I know – I’ve taken part in both. I’ve also been a creative director and realised a few weeks into the job that perfect organisational structures and processes were twin chimeras, and that a creative department (the very term is a paradox) is a disciplined anarchy. The two elements exist in a state of creative tension. Let one dominate and the tension disappears. Trying to make the process reflect the corporate hierarchy will either founder or result in sub-optimal work.

Sub-optimal structures, on the other hand, can, in fact, work – if the will is there and the person in charge has a light touch and recognises the true priorities. As an art director advised me, ‘People determine the floor plan. Not vice versa.’

A creative department has to be flexible. It should have all the permanence of a transit camp. The only requirement is that it facilitates the work.

Now, doing things badly – researching by doing – may appear counter-intuitive. That didn’t inhibit the founder of Wikipedia (incidentally, a true exponent of disciplined anarchy). ‘What do you mean, anybody can edit what has been written?’ To which the rejoinder was the equivalent of ‘Let’s suck it and see’.

Wikipedia features prominently in the recently published book ‘The Future of the internet and how to stop it’. The author, Jonathan Zittrain, pleads the cause of what he calls ‘generative technology’ where users actively participate in its growth and development, even determining its purpose(s).

He lists constituents of the generative pattern: an idea originates in a backwater; it is ambitious but incomplete – it is partially implemented and released anyway; contribution is welcomed from all corners, resulting in influx of usage.

He cites the PC and the Internet as examples – they can be endlessly diverted to new tasks not counted on by their original makers. The Internet is basic and flexible and ‘begins with no innate content’. Content, however, is the concern of ‘proprietary networks’ such as Compu -Serve and AOL and ‘tethered appliances unable to be modified by anyone except their vendors, such as iPods, Xboxes and Tivos’, which Zittrain terms ‘non-generative systems’. It’s the tethered future which he aims to stop.

It’s a long shot, but to judge by the reaction of the professional audience at the book’s launch,Zittrain’s is not a lone voice.

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