by Mike Abel, MD, M&C Saatchi Abel  “Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope” ­ – F.Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby is bound to be one this years’ biggest movies care of Baz Luhrman and Leonardo DiCaprio. This particular line from the book has stuck with me ever since I first read it in 1985 as part of English 1 at the now appropriately named, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University ­back then it was simply UPE ­ and visited that year by a celebrated Tannie Elize Botha (wife of the unpleasant Groot Krokodil), but we’ll save that mike abelmisadventure for another day…

So why has this line stuck with me all these years?

We get a similar but stricter instruction from even higher authority in the New Testament’s Matthew 7:1-3 “Do not judge. Or you too will be judged”.

Given South Africa’s unsurprising, recent furore around The Spear painting (don’t sigh, this article isn’t about that well-hashed piece of art) there seems to be an awful amount of judging going around – one way or the other.

So I guess the big question then is when to judge and when not to?

Whilst F. Scott Fitzgerald’s sentiment is certainly noble, it isn’t entirely practical in all senses. In the book it revolves around seemingly entrenched rubbish like a waspy class system (that is still engrained in some parts of the world) or any other form of intolerance.

The first obvious judgment on my part, is that the world be a far better place if it were intolerant of intolerance, specifically with regards to race, religion, sexual orientation, gender and freedom of speech. Nothing new there, but worth stating.

However, when one speaks about freedom of speech, it also needs to not infringe on the dignity of one’s biblical “neighbours”. Freedom of speech is about the right to verbal self-expression without consequence versus the unfettered right to malign someone.

Having made those points, and being in the advertising industry, I’ll now quickly escape this world of deeper philosophical ruminating and return to the far more superficial one, in which I feel far more comfortable.

The judgments I refer to here are about creative work, ideas, pitches and award shows. It’s in the very nature of our business to judge. What will work and what won’t. In this industry, heeding F.Scott’s sage advice will catapult you onto the scrap-heap of mediocrity. You need to have an opinion. Preferably, a strong one.

One of the web’s many dictionaries defines an opinion as “a belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty”.

So there we go, back to the word “judgment”.

What is the benefit of being a judge if you can’t pass judgment? This is where human nature often interferes with what a “judgment” may indeed be intended to be. Inherent in this word is supposedly an expectation of expertise, ability and objectivity i.e. no personal or vested interest in the outcome of the decision – so as to eliminate as far as is possible, all the many shapes, forms and variables of prejudice and preconceived ideas. This is surely why America has both judge and jury, although I am certainly not suggesting by this example that America is non-judgmental, or is…

So how many judgments that get made daily by your Creative Director, Client, Suit, Pitch Consultant or Award Judge do you truly respect as being level-headed, considered or entirely fair?

I ask this because so many outcomes in our industry are ultimately based on quick, subjective authority, on historical perspective, existing paradigms, subconscious prejudice and self-interest, that it sometimes is near impossible to “separate the wheat from the chaff”.

I’ve commented on this before but it bears repetition. It has apparently been proven that (insecure?) fault-finders are generally regarded as being more intelligent and discerning than those blessed with a more easy-going and confident ability to appreciate good work and thinking at face-value.

How’s that for sad?

The industry (and world in general) needs a compass for what constitutes as good judgment.

Here are my five pointers:

1. Is the information I’m being presented with, fair and accurate?

2. Do I like and/or trust the person sharing this information/opinion/work? If the answer is no, then I definitely need to cut that person extra slack in my assessment of what they’re presenting.

3. Is there a benefit beyond the simple job at hand that would sway my opinion? E.g. is the one idea likely to work harder but the other more likely to get some form of  recognition i.e. an award?

4. Is the work relevant, original and interesting? You need all three, I’m afraid, for it to be impactful.

5. Am I doing what’s right? Namely, is it moral and ethical? There are many things that may be deemed legal – like “vendor bidding” at auctions – that are neither moral nor ethical but are judged to be so by an industry versus a good value-system and moral compass.

So perhaps young F.Scott Fitzgerald was one step ahead of us when he wrote that line.  Because I think he may indeed have understood how human nature in and of itself, removes objectivity from the word judgement. Our industry would be better served by the true notion of “assessment” versus the currently flawed nature of judging.

Reprinted from the blog of Mike Abel.

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One reply on “Mike Abel: Opinions on Advertising”

  1. The most useful, and probably most honest part of this post, was Abel’s comment that Apartheid was a “misadventure.”

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