Licensed to Instinct

Over the course of the year, we'll continue to share the virtues we feel are necessary to think small -- for brands to be nimble, precise and action-oriented. While all twelve virtues are important, the virtue this month is a bit closer to our hearts. Instinct is at the core of what we do, as it is with other companies like ours, even though they might not acknowledge or admit it. Sadly, our industry tends to paint instinct as a poor substitute for cold, hard research. We think the two are equals. So much so, that we named our company based on this belief. Some of you may not know that our official name is actually 141 words long. It's an entire paragraph. More specifically, it's a parable. It reveals our conviction about valuing instinct and intuition in the process of making... well, anything.

Although you hear us using the word "Paragraph" when referring to ourselves, "Paragraph" is really just shorthand for this:

I was having a conversation with a CEO and I asked him if he would ever let research override his intuition. He said he would. I asked him if he believed in genius -- or if he believed in love. I asked him to describe his daughter’s smile or the way he felt on September 11th. I asked if he could comprehend how Beethoven could have composed his ninth symphony even though he was profoundly deaf at the time. He looked at me blankly. He told me that life wasn’t just artistry and poetry. He said that business required more than belief. He said that selling to people had become a science. “That all sounds rather tedious,” I said. “It’s business,” he replied. “It’s making money. It’s commerce.” I asked him if he found value in promoting things he didn’t believe in.

There isn't a project we touch that doesn't involve us conducting some sort of research so we understand how blasphemous this may all sound. But the way we see it, instincts are just another input into our process.

Instinct is actually a pretty sophisticated form of pattern recognition that can lead to faster and more accurate decisions.

Fans at football games who scream in unison to convince a coach to go for it on fourth down rather than kicking a field goal are actually exercising good instincts. Their years of watching football have helped them recognize patterns and understand when the odds might be in favor of going for the first down. A recent study by an economist at Berkeley actually revealed that teams improve their chances of winning if they acted in accord to these chants more often, despite a coaches desire to play things more conservatively.

We're all for doing killer research. And it's extremely invaluable to our process and our clients' success. But it's irresponsible to dismiss the important roll that instincts can play.

If you want to incorporate instinct into your process in a more deliberate and considered way, here are a few tips.

1. Instincts can be most valuable at the beginning of the process. It helps you get out of the starting blocks quickly. The key is to write down some initial hypotheses about the problem you're trying to solve and thoughts on potential solutions. Use this as your North Star. As you start to bury yourself with research, these initial hypotheses can keep you focused and on track.

2. It is possible to hone your instincts. To do this, conduct a postmortem after each project. Which instincts were most constructive during the process? Which instincts were flat out wrong? Remember, there are different types of instincts. Check out our infographic and see where your instincts are strongest so you know which ones can be your best allies.

3. Don't fall in love with your instincts. The only way to make instincts and intuition a valuable part of your process is to be completely comfortable divorcing yourself from them. If you are too emotionally attached, your instincts will quickly turn into biases and will close you off to discovering new things.

Marketers (and creative folks in general) are at their best when they are informed and inspired by their instincts without become slaves to them.

The 12 Virtues of Smaller Thinking, Vol. 01

Over the years we PARAGRAPHER's have, as a group, become passionate about a few things. The spinach salad at the deli across the street, short commutes to the office and experiencing four distinct seasons of weather are among them. But we also know that things often change over time, so we fancy that our minds are kept open to new experiences. And that we might never submit our improvisational spirit to one way of thinking. There is, however, one tenet that continually pervades our collective work. This is the philosophy of smaller thinking. Smaller thinking is the way we approach our questions and our answers. It's how we choreograph our meetings. It's how we designed our office. Truth is, the whole world has become a smaller, more nimble place. We believe that our way of thinking about marketing, branding and advertising must also evolve in similar ways. Gone are the days of huge initiatives that take months or years to fabricate and that are inevitably out of date at the moment of their inception. Awesome -- we were finally able to use "inception" in a post.

To make this school of thought crystal clear for you, the valued visitor, we've identified 12 virtues of smaller thinking and we'd like to share them with you. One small, digestible bite at a time. Over the course of 2011, we'll make a free desktop wallpaper available each month that commemorates a single virtue of smaller thinking. Each one will be unique in appearance -- a PARAGRAPH original, if you will. The monthly desktop will serve as a way for interested parties to keep on the "smaller" path. We hope that you'll find the virtues interesting, useful and compelling enough to employ into your own working ways when the time is right.

Our first virtue of smaller thinking is Ambition. This is not the base ambition to conquer, as in sleazy win-at-all-costs partisan politics or menacing helmet-to-helmet hits on defenseless quarterbacks. It's the ambition, or inner drive, to excel in our own right, in our own ways and because of our own skills, beliefs and direction. This drive forces us to DO more than THINK. So it follows that action is the inevitable result of this good-natured sense of ambition. This is a good thing, because without action, well, nothing gets done. There are entire business platforms built on this concept (link to Behance?). Sure we need to make good choices -- we'll get to that part in another post. For now, we just want to focus on doing more, learning from it and becoming better at what we do. Constantly. As we all start the new year with high hopes, let's focus on our ambition to do well by ourselves and by others. Before you know it, 2010 will be so last year.

Words Worth Repeating #5: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

“Less is more.” - Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, German-born American architect Mies might have said it most succinctly, but we’ve heard it in every context imaginable.  This idea seems to operate best when it’s understood not as a call for plainness, but rather thoughtfulness.  A piece of work tends to gain a greater effect when you include only those elements that were chosen by wittingly -- the ones that really make sense together as a whole.

It’s especially easy to see the brilliance of that adage when it comes to projects involving the visual arts or any sort of design.  If your composition is ill-conceived, you’re nowhere.  And it’s immediately obvious to onlookers.

The less-is-more dictum applies to writing as well, but there it often gets translated in a slightly different way.  With writing, they say deciding which details should be left out is the key to crafting a compelling paragraph.  Whether it’s a novel, a journalistic article, or the copy used to describe a brand, the ebbs and flows of good storytelling only work when you don’t force your reader to slog through any clutter.

But if we extrapolate this out a little further to the level of information (full stop), the situation gets murkier.  What would Mies say to the maze of potential knowledge on today’s Internet?

On the one hand, the vast amount of information that is becoming available to more people every day can only be seen as empowering.  On the other hand, though, it can feel paralyzing if you aren’t sure where to look next.  And the awareness that there is always something else to read on a given topic can be frustrating even on the best of days.

The answer to this problem is not, of course, that there should be less information.  When it comes to knowledge, more is more.  But we can still find wisdom in those words uttered by Mies.  After all, what he was really calling for was not destruction, but focus.  Simply having a few well devised lines of sight can do wonders when it’s time to stop searching for raw information and start fleshing out those good ideas.

The danger of targeting a demographic.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for stereotyping and over-generalizations. It’s kinda like putting your brain on auto-pilot. Look, over in the produce aisle... check out that senior citizen. He’s afraid of computers. That young, single woman two aisles over is probably really into shoes. Oh, that guy picking up the bottle of organic wheatgrass... that’s a liberal. He must hate America. See how easy that is?

Read More

Are you looking for consensus or inspiration?

Over the past couple decades it seems we’ve evolved our market research practices to weed out respondents with extreme biases.   We don’t want to include anyone in our research who rejects our product or uses too much of it. We don’t want anyone who is too shy or too talkative. Too young or too old. Too savvy or too inexperienced. We go to extreme lengths to capture the opinions of the “average” customer. However, now more than ever, it’s the biased customer - not the average customer - that is driving our businesses.

Morgan Spurlock was biased. He would have never met the focus group criteria. But his film perhaps changed how McDonald’s does business moreso than any other piece of consumer research that company conducted over the past 50 years.

Marketers who try to eliminate biases from their research are sacrificing inspiration for consensus.

Each marketer has to ask themselves this key question: Would I rather hear one uniform opinion from eight identical people or eight different opinions from eight different types of people?

To truly come up with innovative solutions and ideas, we need to find mechanisms for harvesting diverse viewpoints.