Dot Joining and Puzzle Solving

‘We need to join the dots’ rings out the cry around the industry. Whether the dots in question are creative and media, research and modelling, planning and buying, procurement and marketing or any and every combination of the above, they have to be joined.

This is a little like Miss World contestants calling for World Peace. Or politicians calling for An End to Poverty.

We can agree that these are all Good Things as long as someone else does the work and it doesn’t inconvenience me too much.

There’s a myth that dots were painlessly joined in the old full-service agency era. As someone still walking and talking who remembers those days, I can assure you the painless bit is largely a myth.

Certainly, popping into an adjacent office was easier than setting up a Zoom call, or hopping in a taxi, but dot joining was always more about a frame of mind than the practicalities of sitting in the same space.

If you wanted to do it, you did it. If you didn’t, you didn’t.

To quote from the great Dave Trott in this week’s ‘Campaign’: “Real creativity came from account handling, the planning department, the media department and the creative department all working together….we don’t do that (today) because thinking now just means following a trend.”

I spent 14 years of my life working for Leo Burnett, back in the days when it was an agency 100% owned by its staff.

We were in a perfect position to join the dots, at least those within our remit.

Eventually I reached a level where I was allowed out to attend global meetings in Chicago to discuss matters of great import.

Like developing and offering ICS: ‘integrated communication services’. This was our version of dot joining. (Don’t laugh, the Y&R version was something to do with a whole egg…).

It was at one of these gatherings that I learned a lesson in how networks work.

People attending these things take on one of three personas.

The corporate bully, whose authority comes not from his/her particular knowledge or expertise but from the fact he/she works in a large (often HQ) office.

The silent expert, probably from a small office who almost certainly has valuable experience to bring to the discussion, but who won’t speak out for fear of being mocked by the bully.

The smart-arse loudmouth who thinks he/she knows the answer to everything, who almost certainly knows less than the silent expert but who goes for it anyway if only to goad the corporate bully.

I was without question in this last group. Probably still am.

When it came to dot-joining the small Leo Burnett offices were genius. They had to do everything in-house, and collectively to survive against their larger local competitors. If they didn’t work out how to join the dots they would fail.

Many of my counterparts in Chicago, like so many HQ staff the world over, were corporate bullies. Personally, they were and are delightful people. But professionally they had titles to justify, departments to protect, budgets to fight for, internal arguments about status to win.

They weren’t going to join up any dots for anyone unless they designed the dots, held the crayon and wrote the instructions.

To be successful in the dot joining business everybody concerned needs to want to do it, to believe in it and to be prepared to work hard to deliver to it.

If you work for a large organisation which has been offering multiple services over decades, and whose management suddenly starts talking about joined-up thinking, almost certainly as a precursor to job cuts (fewer people to think disjointed thoughts), you’ll fail.

If joining the dots is another way of saying certain people have to give up status in the name of collaboration, you’ll fail.

If you can see that there is too much siloed thinking, that there’s a value to the client in collaboration, and that that value has the potential to lead to higher fees, you’ll succeed.

The client wants and expects a finished jigsaw, as per the picture on the front of the box.

More often than not what he actually gets is a box full of pieces that don’t fit together and were shoved into the box at random when a load of other jigsaws fell on the floor.

Best to go with those with the picture, not with the guys forcing pieces together with a hammer.


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