In the myth-making that follows success, the beginnings of any creative endeavour or career always happen under the light of a guiding star.
Every creative breakthrough, this myth holds, is foreordained. It benefits and enriches us - we undeserving flock of consumers - through the work and preachings of a chosen one. A christos1, whose genius is to know something we don’t: what we really want.
Our own destiny, it seems, is to conserve the inertia of ignorance and wait for the moment when what we want is magically handed down to us on a platter of premonition.
This birth of the chosen one - or, interchangeably, the chosen idea - is greatly honoured and blessed by gifts sent forth by the three kings.
The first king is Akio Morita, founder of Sony and inventor of a product that famously failed research but didn’t fail history - the Walkman. His gift to the chosen one are these words: “We don’t ask consumers what they want. They don’t know. Instead we apply our brain power to what they need, and will want, and make sure we’re there, ready.”2
The second king is Steve Jobs, a phoenix among mortals, the inventor of the spiritual successor to the Walkman and übermensch above all3. His biggest legacy is, of course, his own extraordinary and multi-blockbuster career.
His gift, therefore, carries more than its weight in meaning; his words express the philosophy of a man who seemingly4 demonstrated their truth, time and again: "You can't just ask customers what they want then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they'll want something new."5
The last king is Henry Ford, an American icon who did more to transform the world (by making the car affordable) than we can possibly realise. His gift is the Hattori Hanzou6 sword of every creative ninja: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.“
As along as we have horses and period dramas set in Victorian London, this is the closest we will get to a Euclidean ideal of marketing.7
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If you lived in ancient Greece or Rome and wanted to be known as a genius, your only option was to hope for rebirth, preferably as a creature of fantasy.
Because until the 15th century, a genius was not a human being. Instead, some overachievers had ‘a genius’8 - an other-worldly spirit, divinely assigned to them, who was the true source of their godly prowess in their chosen art.
The gifts of the talented, therefore, were not their own. Their creations were the result of a coalition of humble human contributions subject to a tsunami of creative forces unleashed by a supernatural collaborator - their attending genius.
This construct - of a human amanuensis and a genius spirit - assuages much envy, but also captures a fundamental reality of the creative process.
The act of creation is inherently a dialogue. A dialogue between primal unknowable forces and an all too human interlocutor - while the former makes unbridled brilliance possible, the latter ensures it remains relatable to human experience.9 We cannot have a masterpiece without either.
The ancient duality of a genius-human tag team offers space, even a distinct identity, within the creative process for a proto-consumer.
The same is true for our own three kings. They indeed had genius, but this genius was not free-standing - it was in attendance to an inherent consumer.
Their gifts do us no service by equating an absence of a formalised dialogue between disjointed creators and consumers as proof of the absence of any dialogue at all.
And if there ever was a gift horse that needed its dentures examined, it is Henry Ford’s.
Even if the people of his time naively longed for “faster horses”, Henry Ford the astute listener and creator knew which one of those two words mattered more. This does not signify a breakdown in communication; it is the perfect example of exactly the opposite.
That creation is effected by dialogue does not mean all or any exchange is good and should go unchallenged. Much of the current apparatus of formalised dialogue in our context - market research - is based on outdated assumptions10. There has never been a greater need to inject genuine empathy, communication and understanding back into our creative processes.
But we do ourselves no favours by attempting a reformation of this process with fingers pointed squarely at the consumer11 - by endlessly repeating assertions that he cannot possibly know anything valuable and therefore has nothing to contribute12.
Just think of the almighty genie13 - the genius - of the lamp, blessed with the power to summon or create anything at will. He still needs to ask someone, “What do you want?”
References and Notes:
0. I have kept things stylistically simple by using the standard convention of referring to a reader or consumer as ‘he’, without intending to imply that I think of them exclusively as male.
That said, in the headline I have specifically departed from the female pronoun of the David Ogilvy original quote to avoid the suggestion, or misunderstanding, that it’s only the male half that can possess creative genius.
1. Greek for ‘anointed one’ - the second name added to Jesus by early Greek-speaking christians. (Behind the name: Christos)
2. Akio Morita notably ignored focus groups that hated the Walkman (Man and Superman).
3. Chris Dixon uses the great man theory of history to suggest that firms run by intuitive geniuses like Akio Morita and Steve Jobs end up defying the natural lifecycle of companies (Man and Superman).
4. Seemingly, because his failures are often forgotten or ignored. “When Steve Jobs has fancied himself the chief creator, disastrous failures often ensued. His instincts were often wrong. For example, his much ballyhooed Apple Cube, which was in fact a successor to the NeXT cube he'd developed during his Apple hiatus, was a $6,500 dud. He was also openly disdainful of the Internet in the late 1990s. And before his hiatus from Apple, in 1985, his meddling and micro-management had gotten out of control.” (Co.Design: What made Steve Jobs so great?)
5. A view he expressed to Inc. magazine as far back as 1989 (The Decade of the Entrepreneur). A couple of decades later when asked what market research went into the iPad, he famously said "None. It's not the consumers' job to know what they want." (Co.Design: What made Steve Jobs so great?)
6. A special katana sword - in the mythical tradition of fabled and enchanted weapons - prepared for the protagonist by a renowned swordsmith of the same name in the Quentin Tarantino movie Kill Bill Vol 1. The swordsmith and sword are named for a famous 16th century Samurai and Ninja master of the Sengoku era (Wikipedia: Hattori Hanzo).
7. Euclidean geometry consists in assuming a small set of intuitively appealing axioms and deriving other propositions from them, creating a comprehensive logical and deductive framework (Wikipedia: Euclidean Geometry). Plato - the idealist’s idealist - is supposed to have inscribed above the entrance to his famous school, "Let none ignorant of geometry enter here." (Wikipedia: History of Geometry)
8. This sense of genius also gives us the English word ‘genie’, both derived from Latin gignere, meaning “to produce.” (Lexial Investigations: Genius)
9. In the Indian myth dealing with the creation of the epic poem Mahabharatha, the scribe is charged with the job of understanding every word that’s being dictated by the creator - in fact, he is commanded not to write down anything until he has understood it. An effective way to ensure the genius’ work is understandable to a commoner. I wrote more about this in the context of story-telling: Ganesha, the Mahabhratha and Complexity as Narrative Device.
10. Faris Yakob’s blog post All Market Research is Wrong and paper Uncovering Hidden Persuaders do a good job of rounding up the objections to market research as it is currently practiced and proposing approaches to tackle the shortcomings.
12. Consumers do know a lot more about their needs than they are usually given credit for. Proof of this is the increased occurrences of user innovations. This phenomenon is captured by MIT professor Eric von Hippel in his book ‘Democratising Innovation’.
In the book he writes, “Product developers need two types of information in order to succeed at their work: need and context-of-use information (generated by users) and generic solution information (often initially generated by manufacturers specializing in a particular type of solution). Bringing these two types of information together is not easy. Both need information and solution information are often very "sticky"-that is, costly to move from the site where the information was generated to other sites. As a result, users generally have a more accurate and more detailed model of their needs than manufacturers have, while manufacturers have a better model of the solution approach in which they specialize than the user has.”
Therefore, the innovation that companies pride themselves on turns out to be a particular and limited kind of innovation. “One consequence of the information asymmetry between users and manufacturers is that users tend to develop innovations that are functionally novel, requiring a great deal of user-need information and use-context information for their development. In contrast, manufacturers tend to develop innovations that are improvements on well-known needs and that require a rich understanding of solution information for their development.”
13. The arabic term ‘djinn’ is rooted in terms meaning ‘conceal’ or ‘cover of darkness’ and is unrelated to the Latin word ‘genie.’ It was translated to ‘genie’ by the original French translators of The Thousand and One Nights because of its proximity to the latin ‘genie’ in sound and meaning (Mythical Realm: Djinn).
The djinns and spirits of the Arab world are mostly mischief makers, but among them were also the functional equivalents of the Latin genius. “Another manifestation, called Qareen, were devil companions appointed to every human being by Allah from among the jinn who, like Iblis, whispered evil things into their hearts and led them astray. Such was their influence that they were believed responsible for every inspirational work in pre-Islamic Arabia. Every poet was alleged to have a qareen devil of whom he was only a mouthpiece. A fantastic vision of the qareen given in one report shows him having a translucent body in the shape of a frog perched on the left shoulder bone of a man. It had a stinger like a mosquito’s, with which it actively probed the depths of the man’s heart and injected its message.” (Lapham’s Quarterly: Mischief Makers)