Uncommon Sense: Back in the Box

My last column was about some of the many euphemisms we invoke in 21st-century life.  Obviously, I was compelled for brevity’s sake to leave many qualified examples off the list.  Nevertheless, I reserved a special one for today, one of my very favorite euphemisms: outside the box.

Don’t you long for the days when everyone in marketing and advertising didn’t hitch their wagons or stake their claims to outside-the-box thinking? I sure as hell do.  I’m sick to death of talking with young marketing executives half my age who think they hold the patent on innovation just because they have all the latest apps on their smartphones.

Indeed, on the welcome page of is a short list of promises we’ll never make.  Last (but not least) on the list is this one:

“We’ll never describe our thinking as outside-the-box because outside the box is precisely where you’ll find all of the brand clutter currently produced by all of the self-professed, outside-the-box thinkers who can’t even distinguish their own brands, let alone yours.”

Now try this exercise:  Visit the top five online marketing and/or media agencies -- you decide who makes the cut. Copy the mission statement from each, strip any brand IDs from them, print them out on individual strips of paper and toss them into a hat.  Give ‘em a good stir, pull them out one by one and try to match the mission statements with the agency names.  Can’t do it?  Me neither.

I can, however, count on the fingers of one hand the number of people I’ve known in my 59+ years who’ve thought consistently outside the box.  Yet somehow every marketing, advertising and media agency in the world is full of them -- at least until you meet them. Seems to me that the most consistently innovative folks at the agencies are all in business development, and they’re all way too busy to work on any actual clients accounts.

And no one in advertising -- especially the top executives -- can recite their own agency’s mission statement.  No one. That’s because all of the agency mission statements are purely interchangeable and thoroughly nondescript -- by design.

Some years ago at an industry cocktail event, I insulted an agency executive (a frequent habit of mine, especially when I ingest too much caffeine or alcohol) when I made an off-color remark about how anyone who expects innovation from their agency should immediately look elsewhere.  Admittedly, that was long before the entire industry repositioned itself just outside the box, and well before the entire industry was taken over by people way too young to remember the Mad Men they now long to emulate.

But just as there is no profanity when everyone and everything is profane, there is no outside the box when everyone is outside the box.  In today’s phantasmagorical world of marketing platitudes and euphemisms, outside-the-box thinking actually describes the exact opposite: inside-the-box thinking.



Worse, we’ve all but lost any ability to distinguish between the two -- a vestigial function at best, since there no longer seems to be any reasonable institutional demand for anyone who actually thinks outside the box.

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