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August 19, 2010
Smart Is a Really Stupid Strategy
The formula goes something like this: If you buy X product or use Y service, you are a smart consumer, and others will know just how smart you are.

“Smart is recognizing the value in things before others do.” OK, I get it. I am smart, so I better buy a Hyundai as evidence of just how smart I am.

Where’s the insight? Maybe, the “creatives” got carried away, and the agency that did this work doesn’t care about building work on solid insights.

From the agency’s website: “INNOCEAN expresses our passion and conviction, as a marketing communication company, that we need to continually discover fresh, intelligent, and credible insights from consumer behavior. The mind of a consumer is an ocean of such marketing gems and INNOCEAN is an Ocean of Innovation.”

I’m speechless, because I’m gagging on my own vomit.

You can look at INNOCEAN’s earlier work for the archetypal explanation of this grand scheme of stupidness.

Maybe, as Hyundai’s in-house agency, INNOCEAN doesn’t have real, live account planners running around to prevent such sloppy executions, and I’m not providing a fair example. Sorry, “smart” used as a strategy is an insidious evil infecting even respected advertising agencies.

Let’s look at an agency that does have living, breathing planners, Y&R Chicago and their Hotels.com work.

It is yet another example that shallowly suggests that consumers who buy certain products and services are making a wise decision. It should be cited on one of my new favorite blogs “When Bad Ads Happen to Good Agencies.”

I do not mean that any use of the word “smart” is stupid. Remember, Holiday Inn’s “Stay Smart” work. It was brilliant work. In these executions, Holiday Inn was not suggesting that evidence of your intelligence can be found in your choice to stay at their hotels. No, the campaign is far more nuanced than that. The work suggested empowerment not status.

Who am I to make such a harsh critique? I’ll admit that I don’t have a significant amount of planning experience within agencies. However, I do remember my first semester as an account planning student at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Brandcenter when we used “smart” as a strategy because we hadn’t done the research necessary to be more insightful and were too green in the program to know better.

Consider something Jon Steel said commemorating the 40th year of account planning as a discipline a couple years ago.

“As planners, we should be angry at the erosion of our departments, but more so at the erosion of rigor as the discipline has evolved," he said. "Much modern planning lacks the penetration and precision that Stephen King and Stanley Pollitt championed.”

Furthermore, how many young planners are aware of who King and Pollitt are and know their own discipline’s heritage?

We should take a stand against sloppy thinking, and planners should lead the charge in critiquing themselves. Examples of “smart” used as a strategy added as comments to this article will be included on Smartisstupid.com to help rid the world of this lazy strategy and the accompanying uninspiring work.

Likewise, if you disagree, feel free to post examples of insightful and effective uses of “smart” as a strategy. Debate is needed, because as Jon Steel has said, “If planners really think it’s their job to be cool, talk smart, and hang out with the creative department, then we should fire them."

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Ed Reilly is a graduate of VCU Brandcenter and has worked as a researcher and strategist for advertising agencies and most recently, a product design firm. His breadth of experience includes immersion into NASCAR fan culture and empathizing with the hopes and fears of patients fighting severe illnesses. As his career has progressed, he has learned to value consumer insights without neglecting the need to create compelling product experiences. Connect with him on LinkedIn.
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