The Infectious Power of a Common Agency Language

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NPR recently aired a story written by Richard Harris about a young scientist at Princeton University named Bonnie Bassler. Bassler recently made the world-changing discovery that all bacteria have a universal language that allows them to talk to one another. Like-minded bacteria use this language to
Bart Cleveland
Bart Cleveland
team together for a common goal. For example a cholera bacteria is harmless alone, but if other cholera bacterium is around they start talking by producing a toxin that kills. I was really fascinated by this story because though we in advertising are sometimes compared to bacteria, we're not really communicating like bacteria. Many of us don't have a universal language that allows us to succeed.

The disciplines within an agency are either left-brained or right-brained. (For those who aren't familiar, the right side of the brain is the analytical side and the left side is the creative side of the brain. At least that's what left-brained scientists have told us.) One of my partners is a media planner and a math whiz. Me, I'm a creative director and hate math. If we're not communicating with a common language we can't really help each other do our best.
dark chocolate
Cholera bacterium talking to each other. faux hr


It's common for agencies to be run by only one side of the brain. The subordinate side usually doesn't function too well because it is relegated to a utilitarian role. History shows the most successful agencies are using both sides of their brain in concert. Are these agencies using a common language, or are they just lucky enough to have clients who give them the freedom to try revolutionary things? When I was young I used to think that places like Fallon, Chiat Day and Wieden were utopian agencies with amazingly docile clients who nodded yes to every suggestion. Remember when Chiat Day wrote the book about their first 25 years? They revealed a much different story. If not for a falling-on-the-grenade determination, Apple's 1984 spot would not have happened. The client tried to kill it at the eleventh hour, but oddly enough a determined media person saved the classic commercial from extermination. Why did a media person care enough about the creative to tell the client they couldn't pull the spot from the Super Bowl? That media person was speaking the same language as the rest of the agency. He or she knew that spot must run. It was too good to die. It would work if given the chance.

If your agency is to do great work, people in the agency must know that great work is their personal mission. Each has a different role to accomplish this goal. It may be developing the strategy, concepting the execution, or convincing the client to trust you, but each member knows the common goal is to keep great work alive. It's reason there are so many bad agencies is a simple one. If you run a small agency and you don't have a common goal from the beginning, it will be more difficult to do great work as you grow. If bacteria can communicate to achieve a common goal, certainly we should be able to do the same.

If you'd like to hear the story about Bonnie Bassler here's the link.
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