James Webb Young’s Five Ways

Simon Clemmow writing in How To Plan Advertising:

“After a century or so of formal study, we still do not know how advertising works! This isn’t the admission of defeat it sounds; advertising is a craft, not a science, and asking how advertising works isn’t like asking how a bicycle works – it’s more like asking “How does literature work?“! Nevertheless, it’s very important to have a good grasp of the general theories that have been advanced and developed over the years, because they must all be part of our ‘mental furniture‘ when we’re defining the role for advertising.

‘Classic’ theories of how advertising works are mainly of the single-model kind; that is, ‘The way advertising works is this way’. These include AIDA (which states that Awareness is necessary and leads to Interest which is necessary before and leads to Desire which is necessary before and to Action); USP (Unique Selling Proposition, which depends on finding a motivating point-of-difference within the product); and Brand Image (which asserts that image is more important in selling a brand than any specific product feature, and that advertising works by ‘adding value‘ to the gestalt).

However, as early as the 1930s it was acknowledged that advertising could work in more than one way, and frameworks began to be constructed. The most enduring from that time is James Webb Young’s ‘Five Ways’ (1963), which says that advertising works:

  1. By familiarising
  2. By reminding
  3. By spreading news
  4. By overcoming inertias
  5. By adding a value not in the product

It is very easy to underestimate the value of these observations, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that most of the theory was developed which underpins our thinking today.”

There’s two important points made in this excerpt:

  1. Advertising is as much an art as it is a science.
  2. Advertising can work in multiple ways.

Fifty five years after James Web Young defined his ‘Five Ways’ and 21 years after Clemmow wrote this passage, I fear we still have not learnt these lessons.

Disparate connections

In Creative Curiosity, we described how many believe that truly creative people are constantly absorbing information from diverse fields.

But the creative mind doesn’t just take information in.

It digests it and, more importantly, spots connections where others may not.

From ‘A Technique for Producing Ideas’:

“The capacity to bring old elements into new combinations, depends largely on the ability to see relationships.

Here, I suspect, is where minds differ to the greatest degree when it comes to the production of ideas. To some minds each fact is a separate bit of knowledge, To others it is a link in a chain of knowledge. It has relationships and similarities. It is not so much a fact as an illustration of a general law applying to a whole series of facts.

The point is, of course, that when relationships of this kind are seen they lead to the extraction of a general principle. This general principle when grasped, suggests the key to a new application, a new combination, and the result is an idea.

Consequently, the habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas.”

John Hegarty puts it succinctly in Hegarty on Creativity:

“In the end, everything is connected and the more connections you make the more interesting your work will become.”

The speculator and the rentier

In his now famous book, ‘A Technique for Producing Ideas’, the American advertising executive James Webb Young (pictured) writes about two broad groups of people as originally described by Vilfredo Pareto:

“Now, we all know men of whom we have said: “He never had an idea in his life.”

That saying brings us face to face with the first real question about this subject. Even assuming that there may be a technique for producing ideas, is everybody capable of using it? Or is there, in addition, some special ability for producing ideas which, after all, you must be born with-like a color sense or tone sense, or card sense?

One answer to that question is suggested in the work of “Mind and Society”, by the great Italian sociologist, Pareto.

Pareto thought that all the world could be divided into two main types of people. These types he called, in the French, which he wrote, the speculator and the rentier.

In this classification, speculator is a term used somewhat in the sense our word “speculative.” The speculator is the speculative type of person. And the distinguishing characteristic of type, according to Pareto, is that he is constantly pre-occupied with the possibilities of new combinations.

Pareto includes among these persons of this speculative type not only the business enterprisers – those who deal with financial and business schemes – but those engaged with inventions of every sort, and with what he calls “political and diplomatic reconstructions.”

In short, the type includes all those persons in any field who can not let well enough alone, and who speculate on how to change it.

The term used by Pareto to describe the other type, the rentier, is translated into English as the stockholder – though he sounds more like the bag holder to me. Such people, he says, are the routine, steady-going, unimaginative, conserving people, whom the speculator manipulates.

Whatever we may think of the adequacy of this theory of Pareto’s as an entire explanation of social groups, I think we all recognize that these two types of human beings do exist. Whether they were born that way, or whether their environment and training made them that way, is beside the point.”

Creative curiosity

Buried in all the books by advertising legends, there is one remarkably consistent insight: creative people have voracious appetites for information from diverse and eclectic fields.

John Hegarty writes in his book of advertising life-lessons, ‘Hegarty on Creativity‘.

“The truly great creative people I know are constantly working. Looking, thinking, watching. They are curious by nature, fascinated not just by their own interests and experiences but those of other people too. Everything they encounter is being absorbed, processed, and reformed, eventually to return in some new shape as an idea. I think of these people as transmitters – they absorb diverse, random messages, influences, and thoughts, then reinterpret and play them back to an audience in new and fresh ways.

Being fascinated, inquisitive, informed, and engaged is an all day, every day activity. It doesn’t have an on-off button. It doesn’t have a stopwatch attached. It is constant. A way of living and of being that never switches off. If you don’t want to live like that then don’t follow a creative profession.”

From James Webb Young‘s famous manual, ‘A Technique for Producing Ideas’:

“Every really good creative person in advertising whom I have ever known has always had two noticeable characteristics. First, there was no subject under the sun in which he could not easily get interested – from, say, Egyptian burial customs to modern art. Every facet of life had fascination for him. Second, he was an extensive browser in all sorts of fields of information. For it is with the advertising man as with the cow: no browsing, no milk.”

From Dave Trott‘s book Creative Mischief:

“Really creative people are fascinated by ‘new’ stuff.

But that doesn’t just mean the latest technology.

It means stuff that is new to them.

It might be 100 years old, but they’ve never seen before.

It might be an African sculpture, a Russian film, shocking piece of graffiti, agraphic one label, a strange chair.

The cleverness, for them, is finding something original and unusual.”
From Carl Alley, quoted in Creative Mischief:
“The creative person wants to be a know it all. He wants to know about all kinds of things: ancient history, 19th century mathematics, current manufacturing techniques, flower arranging, and hog futures. He never knows when these ideas might come together to form a new idea. It may happen in six minutes later, or six years down the road. But still creative person’s faith that it will happen.”
“Big ideas come from the unconscious. This is true in art, in science and in advertising. But your unconscious has to be well-informed, or your idea will be a relevant. Stuff your unconscious mind with information, then unhook your rational thought process. You can help this process by going for a long walk, or taking a hot bath, or drinking half a pint of claret. Suddenly, if the telephone line from your unconscious is open, a big idea wells up within you”

The experience of working with and observing many talented strategic thinkers (mostly, but not always, Account Planners), has led me to the conclusion that there is, in the best ones, a highly developed sense of curiosity. I hesitate to call it innate, since I believe it can be honed and sharpened as a skill, though I suspect the kernel must be there at the outset.

I think it’s fair to say that creative curiosity has become widely acknowledged as a fundamental requirement of a creative thinker.