Limit Me: Why We Need Limits Even In The Age Of Disruption

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, September 5, 2017

I marvel at what my 11-year-old son can do with a Sharpie and the letters B.O.E. You’d think those are his initials, but they’re not. In fact, none of those letters are in any of his three names. A couple of years ago, he just decided he liked how they looked together and started drawing them in hundreds of different designs. All with a black Sharpie. And almost all on Post-it notes or similarly sized small pieces of paper. Sometimes a talking banana is standing in front of them, as if it’s a casual snapshot of a graffiti tag on a wall in a city of mischievous animated fruit.

“Do you want to use any other colors?,” the pushy mother in me used to ask. Or sometimes I augmented with “letters,” “paper,” “markers,” “paint,” “fruits,” “Photoshop,” “Instagram.”

“No,” he’d invariably say, without further explanation.



As a creative director, I understood.

I get off on the limitations. And almost sadistically, ask for more.

Letterpress, pre-tables HTML, mobile display ads, pharmaceutical marketing. Bring it on!

No budget. No resources. Pitch meeting in two weeks. Bring it on!

Inferior offering. Declining market share. No awareness. Bring it on!

Even in the Moore’s Law era of exponentially increasing numbers of channels, publishers, assets, daily technology innovations, and terabytes of data, limits are, perhaps counter-intuitively, more important than ever.

Because marketing can do more than ever that doesn’t mean it should. In fact, efficiency is now the name of the game. Target the precisely right person. Message the precisely right thing. Measure the precise impact. Iterate. Optimize. Yes, you can try different things. But you also better get to the right one fast!

Oh, and by the way, make it all work in a five-second Snap Ad, in a 125-character Instagram caption, or a 300 x 50 mobile banner.

After 20 years in marketing, I can probably speak for many professional creatives in saying this isn’t bad.

In fact, these limitations are the challenge that we crave, the definition that we need to do the right thing, and the vehicle to express our most creative ideas. 

And it starts at the kickoff. The great irony is that the limitation set by the creative brief is inversely proportional to the bigness of the creative ideas that come out of our brains.

Chock full of prioritized business objectives, reasons to believe, and mandatories, a good creative brief defines the edges of the box we need to stay in, but inspires us with a singular creative strategy that allows us to fill it with awesomeness.

“I didn’t want to limit you,” an account director waving a five-page brief says to me at their own peril.

Not having enough resources is something I don’t usually recommend or desire. But, on the other hand, I do believe in small, focused teams. 

Shhh, don’t tell anyone, but the best pitches I’ve ever done were with four to six creatives within two weeks or less. In fact, the longer the time, the more overwrought and overanalyzed the work becomes. By the time you’re presenting, it’s either watered down, or you look desperate, or both.

So, yes, please give us a very specific ask, with a very specific objective, for a very specific target, with a very specific insight into their very specific need. And time-box us!

We will come up with a very big idea that reveals the limitless potential within those limitations. And one of these days, maybe even find room for a black-and-white talking banana.

Pondering an empty cardboard box, and using his own brilliant yet mysterious logic, my son recently asked me, “If space is infinite, isn’t the space inside this box infinite, too?”

Yes, in fact, it is.

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