The value of the Outsider


How do I know when an advertising material is good? The measure of quality is when we are delighted with the work, when we know we have given it our best, when my nose for what sells, that faculty of discernment honed by half a century in this industry, smells potential, the power to ring the cash register. It’s a moment that I especially relish. After surveying the work arrayed in front of me, after the days of anxiety, I lean back, smile, and say, “I’m OK now, this is really good.” But when the materials don’t make the sparse hair on my arm stand on end, don’t make me smile or tear up, I know I will need help. Who do I call? The Outsider.

The outsider has clear vision

Coming in from the cold, bereft of previous exposure to the affair at hand, the Outsider brings into the room an immense value—the value of innocence.

Many times, we ask people — a secretary from another team, a messenger, anyone who isn’t involved with the project — to come into the conference room and view a material. We try to peek into their minds, and to examine how a particular ad affects them. This helps us step back from craft concerns and focus on the objective and the big picture.

You would think it’s easy to “step back”, but it isn’t. Stepping back is hard when enmeshed with the smallest requirements and chores, when entangled with craft decision-making. You can’t see the big picture if you’re trying to decide on what color carpeting to use in the set, whether a particular dress is considered a summer dress, or if the tooth of the particular talent is crooked and needs fixing. The devil is in the detail. The big picture is affected, wrongly enhanced, waylaid, whittled down, or diffused by craft. This is when you need good accounts people, the guardians of the strategy, to pull the noses of creative folks away from the grindstone and to make them step back.

The Customer is the ultimate Outsider, of course. He’s the person we survey extensively and plumb for reactions to anything we intend to sell him. But we can’t always pull a customer into the room — the luxury car buyer, the business traveller, the doctor who prescribes medicine. So we settle for next best.

What do we ask the outsider?

The reactions we need from The Outsider are on the sensual level. We want to hear gut reactions: “Ang lakas!” (“Powerful!”), “Nakakaiyak.” (“Makes me cry.”), “Pangit ng talent” (“The talent is ugly.”),“Anong nangyari sa huli?” (“What happened in the end?”)

The sensual level reactions are the most valuable for obvious reasons. These are the comments that arise because of obstacles to comprehension. Advertising messages live in a world of seconds, and the existence of one attention-vampire, say, bad make-up, loud prints on the talent’s shirt, can distract the customer completely. In focus group discussions, we search for negatives. A negative sensual level reaction automatically means there’s something that needs fixing, or, at the very least, something to be concerned about.

As rational beings, we appreciate things on a second level–the Formal Level. At this stage, we ask the Outsider simple questions: “What do you think is the objective?” and “If this is the objective, are we saying it clearly?” Answers must be simple and short. If a commercial can’t be explained in a short sentence, then there’s a problem to solve, and, most likely, it’s a comprehension one.

There is a third level–the Technical Level, which we’re not interested in. The Outsider should be asked to restrict himself to the first two levels. If he comments on the technical level, or makes technical recommendations (“Re-edit a section to show more surprise”, or “Shouldn’t the music rise to a glorious crescendo?”), he loses his value and becomes one of the craftsmen.

Respect, preserve the outsider

If we try to bring the Outsider into the problem, if we try to make him understand client concerns and tastes and point out to him the various potholes and wrinkles of a particular project, then he loses the customer point of view, and we lose him as an objective and useful resource.

Who can be the Outsider? Confidentiality prohibits us from yanking somebody from another floor or office. He should be someone not involved with the project. He or she can be an accounts manager or creative head of another team, or anybody in upper echelons. The point is to institutionalize The Outsider. A designated driver doesn’t drink so he can take the drunk home. The Outsider is intentionally out of the loop just so he can startle craftsmen into stepping back.

The author is chairman of Estima, an ad agency dedicated to helping local industrialists and causes, and co-founder of Caucus, Inc., a multi-discipline consultancy firm. He can be reached through

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