Think Small

Think small.*

Or why its important to think like a child.

The Set Up

As often happens, while I am thinking one idea, another idea (call it an inspiration) jumps up in my head as a tangential expression of the first idea. In this case I was listening to a Freakonomics podcast called, “Think Like A Child,” and a whole line of reasoning about marketing occurred to me.

“I think the beauty of thinking like a child … is that sometimes doing things differently and simply and with a kind of joy and triviality leads you to a really special place that as an adult you don’t get to go to very often.” – Steve Levitt

The Take

As a huge fan of Stephen Dubner, Steve Levitt and their studied approach called Freakonomics, I often lose myself in their podcasts about economics and the hidden levers behind, well, pretty much everything. I am always caught by surprise in their conclusions. And its in these unlikely conclusions that I find to be the best source of seasoning to add my internal cauldron of ideas.

While the whole podcast is worth listening to, I will just highlight 3 points about how thinking like a kid relates to our practice of advertising and marketing.

Notice Everything.

Kids see things in a fundamentally different way than adults. Kids will focus on everything around them. At this early stage of development they enthusiastically are learning about the world around them. Like a sponge, they will absorb anything that is interesting, that changes or that they might learn from their environment. Conversely, most adults tend to put blinders on and focus on what is just in front of them. As marketers, we have been trained to focus and think this way. Through our processes, plans, platforms and campaigns we express solutions with a narrow set of definitions and expectations. At the point when the Creative Brief is delivered, our wide-eyed enthusiasm becomes a narrow determined focus on the solution. Our natural sense of curiosity has been tightly focused and right there, we are missing something crucial.

Think small.

As adults we focus on the big picture, big ideas, trends, anthems and all the rest of it. Current wisdom dictates that ineffective marketers can’t see the forest through the trees. The other day I tried to explain this concept to my ten year old and he just looked at me as though I had just spoken Mandarin to him. Kids just don’t see the world this way. They focus on the trees and the leaves and the bugs on the leaves and so on. Dubner talks about how adults will shy away from answering the small questions because they are looked on as unimportant and focus instead on the big questions. In advertising we tend to fall into this trap over and over. We worry ourselves with solving our client’s large problems but what we should focus on is, perhaps, the consumer and their small problems. Not to trivialize consumers and their problems but often a barrier to purchase of, say, your client’s product could be a small thing: the functionality of the product, access to the product or ability to buy the product. Shifting our focus on the small problems of our consumer may well help us unlock the big problems of our clients.

Be Playful.  

I have two kids and they spend an enormous amount of time playing. Whether they are fighting imaginary dragons and beasties with a homemade broadsword or making miniature fairy houses around the yard, they love to play. The logic here is that they love to play because its fun. They are associating fun with problem solving, creating narratives, and breathing life into their ideas. I think that’s an important lesson in life, in general. I don’t ever want them to lose that sense of fun and play.  With advertising, we have to solve problems everyday. Brand Strategists and Creative work together to forge a brand’s narrative structure. Creative and Production teams constantly work to breath life into an idea or campaign. Its true, sometimes we do build fairy houses and we do battle with dragons. If you think advertising is just a job and its just work then you should, as they say, get out of the kitchen because the rest of us are having too much fun playing. It’s also worth noting that Picasso said he spent his whole life trying to paint like a child.

* Attribution of the title of this article is a nod to the genius of Copywriter, Julian Koenig + Art Director, Helmut Krone and the ad campaign that introduced the VW Beetle to the United States. Dive deeper here:


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