In Favour of Intuition

Years ago, when I worked at a big agency in a tall glass tower, I had a client: a respected and renowned hospital, for whom my team had done some well-received brand campaigns that helped to raise a considerable amount of money. The brand strategy and creative work, I have to say, were top notch. Hit just the right chords in the public, and were aimed at the right audiences. And people gave boatloads of money. Incredibly satisfying.

In the midst of this roaring success, the president of the hospital foundation was seduced by a lottery consultant, whose promises of additional riches for the hospital coffers he just couldn’t resist. He wanted us to do a charitable lottery campaign. My mentor, the brilliantly intuitive senior planner for the agency, strongly objected and so did I. We wrote a “point of view” letter specifically warning them to avoid doing a lottery, stating that it would have a depressive effect on the brand we’d worked so hard to elevate and that the market would not respond well to this. It was a mixing of incompatible values, we said. We even had our CEO sign it. And yet we had no basis for making this claim other than our own strong intuition.

Meanwhile, the bulldozer of a lottery consultant trotted out a quantitative research report based on an online panel that stated unequivocally that the people of the province of Ontario, in particular the outer province, would buy tickets generously. After all, they said they would on a survey, so of course they would in reality.

My team of account and creative people, at some cost to the relationship with the client, turned down the business (I didn’t want to go anywhere near this project) and it went to the “retail” unit of the agency I then worked for. Well, I won’t tell you the gory details but the punchline is: Once the multi-million dollar campaign was in market, the very outer province communities that were expected to buy tickets in droves completely ignored the campaign. And so did much of Toronto, quite frankly. It went so badly that the media buy had to be pulled from these communities, which is a painful thing to have to do.

I’m telling you this story as a cautionary tale, laced with inspiration. Asking people what they will do theoretically in the future, especially through impersonal means such as an online survey or poll, is exceedingly dangerous. People do not really know in the abstract what they’ll do with a theoretical set of choices until they’re actually in market, tactile, and surrounded by the collective response of society to cue us as to what we should want. “I know it when I see it,” to paraphrase Gloria Steinem’s response to the question, “What is pornography?” Best to use good sense and intuition, supported by years of experience observing human behaviour and catching glimpses of the patterns that govern these behaviours.

It’s also worth noting that the preceding brand campaigns, which had helped to raise over half a billion dollars for the hospital, were based entirely on intuition. There was little to no research to back up our creative decisions, aside from last minute one-on-one interviews I conducted as a “disaster check” for the creative. As expected, the work was well received in my interviews, and then went on to become very celebrated in the marketplace. We were blessed at the time to have a head of marketing at the hospital who trusted her intuition and ours when it came to making substantial investments in the campaign. So maybe the title of this post should be: In Favour of Having the Courage to Trust Your Intuition.