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Is the single-minded proposition fit for 2013?

Thought Leader: A single-minded proposition may be reductionist, but a good one will contain a necessary tension that can be explored

Ask any agency creative what they look at in a creative brief, and they'll probably tell you 'the proposition'. A proposition is the one-liner – usually rounding off the brief – that encapsulates the strategic thought that we're asking our creatives to dramatise and bring to life as ads. Indeed, it is usually this one-liner that creates the most debate from all parties involved, as reductive thinking is inherently controversial.

But with today's multi-layered, multi-authored and ongoing communications, is a single-minded proposition (SMP) still relevant or desirable?

Historically there has been a problem of a lack of understanding among the uninitiated (both client- and agency-side). 'Is it the tagline?' is one commonly heard cry. 'Can't we just put that line next to a key visual and – bang – we've got something ready for research?' A well-written proposition can often sound like an end line, frankly because they should both be succinctly put thoughts. 

But that doesn't mean it's the same thing; the former should be an un-crafted and metaphor-free starting point; the mannequin ready for creative window-dressing, as it were. 

To give an example, the proposition of one of our recent briefs was: 'don't just preserve bone, improve structure'. There were several candidate taglines that emerged from this, working in concert with a concept image, including: 'don't just rebuild: reboot' and 'bone strength isn't a surface issue'. With any luck, it's clear that the taglines are imbued with metaphor, have elements of alliterative craft and yet are traceable back to a relatively neutral strategic starting point.

What is single-minded?

So, assuming the two can be separated, the next question is: what is single-minded? I'd suggest that the above example, although containing two elements ('preserving bone' and 'improving structure'), is actually still single-minded. Sure, some purists may say that 'improve structure' should be the single thought, but that would be to render it devoid of any tension. And it's that tension that should be the single take-out thought, the thing that contains the drama. 

I explored this in a recent Smart Thinking article on entitled A Brain of Two Halves, whereby I hypothesised that our brain and mind are structurally rigged in preference for tension. If this has validity, then tension is the thing that we as humans are drawn to – in any art form – and so the best way of engaging us even in a commercially creative pursuit. 

Tension, however, doesn't give us a licence to throw the proverbial kitchen sink into a proposition, but given the multiple considerations mentioned in this article's introduction, is single-mindedness still relevant and desirable? 

This is where I think there is most worthwhile debate. Philosophically, whether you're a fan of Kantian Phenomenology, scientifically a believer in Schrödinger's feline superposition, or architecturally in awe of Charles and Ray Eames' seminal video The Powers of Ten, it's clear that to be single-minded is to be in danger of over-simplification and of losing the fascination inherent in multiple layers and interpretations. This is necessary if you only have three seconds to attract attention to a press ad, but does it now do a disservice to a longer-term, multi-media campaign where so much more can be explored?

To take a position on this, I'm going to conclude by arguing in favour of the SMP. Yes, it is reductionist – but a good one should contain tension ready for exploration over time and media. 

Perhaps both the confusion around what it is and whether it is fit for purpose are down to a lack of understanding of its role and the thought put into its crafting – not that the thing itself is unfit for purpose.

Article by
Matt Hunt

European Head of Planning, Grey Healthcare Group

1st February 2013


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