Michael de Souza
Nov 6, 2013

Internal language: Why we should resist the hype when talking about our work

In this business, hyperbole is an occupational hazard. Does it also present a danger to our ability to understand each other and get our jobs done?

Michael de Souza
Michael de Souza

A couple of months ago, a client at a bank sent us a request: ‘We want to own food this quarter.’

I was instantly annoyed, and I’ve been mulling over my response ever since. Why was I upset?

I think, to rephrase their instruction more reasonably, that they wanted to spend some search budget on dining-related terms to raise their profile in that area, since they earn a lot of credit-card revenue from restaurant transactions. That sounds a bit less ego-heavy, right? But it wasn’t the ego of the request that riled me.

It was this: They know how much time and work is needed to dominate a category. After all, they’ve spent years trying to ‘own’ their own category, which includes credit cards, mortgages, investments and so on.

What makes them think that they can dominate an entire unrelated industry?

And the kicker—‘this quarter’—made them seem like a kid picking up a shiny new toy, which they’ll soon be putting down to move on to the next thing.

To put aside my pedantry for a moment, I have to acknowledge that their instruction communicated what they wanted, and did so efficiently, in a kind of industry shorthand. We know not to take that kind of request literally, and no one will accuse us of failing to ‘own’ food in three months time.

So, we’ll look for some low-hanging fruit in this area, with the budget that they allocate, and we’ll probably achieve a decent result (some credit-card applications).

The fact that we’ve become immune to the hype contained in the language of this request disturbs me, though.

The advertising and marketing industry, like the journalism industry, frames everything in hyperbole. After all, it’s our job to create excitement and engagement. What’s the harm in hyping a benefit or claim? It won’t just 'decrease', it’ll 'plummet' or maybe even 'crash'! It isn’t just 'good', it’s 'stellar'!

By taking everything to an extreme, we remove the nuance and filter out the finer insights from our communication. That weakens us. In this instance, we could easily understand what they were asking for. But imagine the potential for misalignment in a wider, more comprehensive brief.

It would be great if we could learn to strip out the hype, ego and hyperbole from our internal language, keeping our interaction with our clients (and each other) realistic, authentic and rooted in truth. We’d be better marketers, because we’d be communicating with each other so much more accurately.

When it comes time to write copy for ads, we can sex it all up all we like. But until then, let’s tone it way back down. As a wise colleague of mine once said, “Never believe your own PR. That way madness lies.”

I’m so glad I don’t work directly in search any longer.

Michael de Souza is general manager for Mobext in Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam.

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