The value of nuance…(or how I learned to start worrying and love subtlety):



On the face of it, being definitive is definitely in these days.

Being definitive just seems so authoritative. So in charge and on top of things.

Just the sort of quality you’d want in…

  1. A CEO announcing results to the City
  2. A President talking tough on the War on Terror
  3. A surgeon in the midst of an operation
  4. A thirty-something communications strategist; the type whose job depends on providing well-reasoned and thought through strategies based on a thorough grounding in research and human understanding. Ahem.

The issue with all of those scenarios is that they could all go (or be) horribly wrong:

The CEO could be reporting results based on an accounting error; the President could be talking about a war with no real enemies to speak of; the surgeon could cure the symptom but not the disease; the comms strategist could be advising based on the wrong datasets.

In essence, it could all be nonsense on stilts.

And yet, being definitive isn’t without its merits. It gets you somewhere. It pulls you out of the data marshes and into doing something. That something might not be right, but you’ve at least learned something and are moving forward. If you believe much written around modern marketing, trying, failing and hustling is the way forward.

Just ask Gary Vee.

Think about it – it doesn’t sound right. It sounds like we’re making excuses for false accounting, phony wars, botched surgery and lazy thinking. Worst of all, encourages killing yourself in honour of ‘the hustle’, which is patently bollocks, as this excellent essay points out.

Good ideas come from when you’re thinking about other things, when your mind is more attune to the broader possibilities.

So why are so many so keen to push this agenda if we know it’s a load of rubbish?

It’s because the illusion of effort leading to results is a deeply seductive narrative. It’s much easier to sell than people being lucky – and given the way the internet is set up, and how the news agenda distorts even the most simplistic made up PR surveys or puff piece interview, it’s never been more seductive to jump straight to a seemingly definitive answer for a headline.

This desire to tie ourselves to what feels like an instant solution or definitive statement feels like a bomb waiting to go off.

Certainty is seductive…until it’s proven to be wrong.

With a marketing and advertising lens on, this is hugely dangerous for our discipline. It feels as if we’ve been listening to the made up practice of content marketing for too long, where any answer is the right one (provided it fills pipes).

So, with that in mind, I want to take a moment to champion something which I think provides a real shield against these things, and something I think most industry narratives overlook when looking for the next headline, or the next bit of filler content.

I’m talking about nuance. Defined as ‘a subtle difference in or shade of meaning, expression or sound’, it’s never been more important when thinking about who to talk to, when to target, and what to create.

Thinking about who to talk to for the moment; people aren’t simply ‘millennials’ (or as I like to call them, the under forties); they are new parents, who are shitting themselves about raising their first child in the shadow of fake news, online bullying and the general sense that the world has gone to hell in a handcart.

Doesn’t that nuanced perspective feel a bit more rich and interesting for your insurance brand vs. ‘old millennials, aged 32-38’? It’ll certainly help define when to target them, that’s for sure.

Nuance is also a very helpful weapon when thinking about what to make. Not only that, it helps challenge some of the dominant narratives within the wider comms industry – whether it’s the value of innovation, or a particular agenda being pushed within the trade press (‘VR founder says VR is important‘).

For example, I remember when digitally led crowdsourcing of ideas was all the rage. The agency I worked at had just lost a piece of business to a crowdsourcing business, who produced one deeply mediocre ad that used our strategy, and they’d then lost the business.

It was at a time when Second Life had been launched, and agencies were falling over themselves to trumpet it as the next big thing. The nuanced perspective on this was that agencies and clients didn’t really understand what genuine digital innovation looked like, and were more keen to simply brand new pieces of technology – there was an opportunity for businesses who could point to genuine, consumer behaviour led digital innovation to clean up (I’m thinking of R/GA’s work on Nike+, or Anomaly’s ‘Domaination’ for Converse).

Nuance also provides the most important weapon for businesses when creating new work, or judging it – the precise use of language, tone and behaviour. WHY should your brand behave like that? Well, because it has a particularly nuanced point of view that appeals to a certain group (and an influencing group – a subset who want to be like that, but may not earn enough money to buy you yet).

Without nuance, you’re unlikely to stand for anything substantial.

You either stand for everything or for nothing in particular – and by standing for nothing, you appeal to no-one.

By taking a step back, you open up how you’re thinking about things, and you make reasoned choices, whether it’s saving a life, choosing how to prioritise your business direction, what your country does or even just advising your brand about what to do.

Critically, you think a little bit more thoughtfully about what to do next, rather than just spaffing out more content grist for the mill. No-one needs more of that.