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Learn to speak French

To avoid disappearing down a blind alley we must follow the inquisitorial French
parlez-vous

One of the smartest planners I have ever worked with, Max Burt, once described strategic planning as 'having a hunch and then following it through', which is pretty helpful when faced with a new brief and the perennial question: 'But where do we start'? After all, the quest for the golden eagle of insight and the strategic egg you then lovingly coax out of it can be a hit-and-miss affair with many false starts.

But this presupposes one thing: that one has to start with a hunch and then test its merit. Sure it's better to keep an open mind and diligently and dispassionately explore all options. But if it is, then why don't we do this more often?

One analogy for these two different approaches (and let's face it, most advertising is essentially analogy) is the French 'inquisitorial' legal system in comparison with the English 'adversarial' one.

In French criminal law, instead of the prosecution and defence arguing whether one individual is guilty or innocent, the court itself is actively involved in investigating the facts of a case. The judge's goal is not to prosecute the accused but to look for any and all evidence, incriminating or exculpatory. If the examining judge decides there is a valid case against a certain suspect, only then is the accused put to adversarial trial.

Surely this approach is more reasonable: objective research with a reassuring level of evaluation that avoids fixation on the need to find a suspect and close the case?

However, there are at least two possible reasons why we don't adopt this approach more frequently in planning: 'speed' and 'ego'. All too often we think we know what the cause of something is, or we're convinced of the power of our own subconscious ability to make a case. The latter also suggests the involvement of ego – after all, how often in a room full of pharma execs or agency planners do you hear from people who are convinced that they know the answer, even early on in the process?

This is often the case in 'adversarial' legal situations too. It's more appealing to barristers – and for the court-drama-viewing public – to want to debate the singular rather than the plural, the focused rather than the broad. Admittedly, it can take a lot longer to plough through many possible scenarios (and it's a lot less televisually appealing too), but there's a third still more interesting reason.

Psychiatrist Ian McGilchrist, in his TED talk on the notion of left and right brain behaviour, exploded the logical versus creative myth by showing how the left brain is involved in focused, fixed and known things, whereas the right brain is more broad and open to new options.

He explains that we have become slaves to our left brain – settling with the obvious and the immediate – and are losing the ability to employ the right side where it's a lot less easy to prove immediate rights and wrongs.

At GHG we're trying to use our right brains a bit more these days, and that often means trying (painfully, sometimes) to set aside egos and accept that the planning process takes a bit more time. Although it's tempting to go with familiar hunches, if we're to avoid blind alleys and discover new options we need to (deep breath here) learn from the French.


Matthew Hunt - Grey Healthcare GroupGrey Healthcare Group
The Author
Matthew Hunt
is European head of planning at Grey Healthcare Group
He can be contacted at: matthew.hunt@ghgroup.com

22nd December 2011

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