The Difference Between Safe Work and Smart Work

Edgy has become the adjective of desire in the advertising world, and it’s no wonder why, when agencies are winning award after award for work that pushes people out of their comfort zone, and characters like Kenny Powers are elected the MFCEO for major shoe brands. Being edgy is what’s hot right now. And let me first make clear that I’m not saying this is all bad. Edgy, in the right context, for the right purpose is A-OK with me. It’s the growing misperception that, edgy trumps smart and smart is synonymous with safe, that really makes my skin crawl.

Which brings me to my 1st point: Edgy, on its own, doesn’t accomplish what we, as advertisers, have been asked to do. Nothing really, on its own, accomplishes what we have been asked to do…without first being smart. Edgy doesn’t guarantee press, like funny doesn’t automatically equate to shoe sales and sad doesn’t promise phone calls to insurers. The work first has to be smart. It has to fire on all engines- it has to answer a need the consumer has, in a way and a place that is relevant to them.

And while we’re talking about smart, let’s discuss how smart is different than safe (my 2nd point). Safe, I would argue, in this context, means you have created work that is easy to sell. It’s work that is based on whoever you are presenting to. “Oh Tom, he would never buy that. Let’s go with the sports option instead. He loves football- make the main guy a football player.” The client changes and next thing you know you’re saying “Oh crap, well Tom would have liked that, but Mary, she will hate it, so change that football player to a little girl playing with a furry cat.” That is safe.

Smart, on the other hand, means you’ve taken all the important information, such as: understanding your client (your first audience), identifying your consumer audience and their needs, evaluating your competitors and their offerings, and having a realization of what is going on in the world around you (cultural context)…you put it all together, and you create something that plays off the strengths of all of those inputs. It’s not easy. If it was easy there wouldn’t be so much crappy advertising out there. It’s difficult- but it’s what gets you to smart work.

So the next time you get excited about an edgy campaign…or a funny campaign…or any “type” of campaign, first ask yourself if it is smart. And when that makes the creative types really uncomfortable, reassure them that smart doesn’t necessarily equal safe.

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