In TV hospital dramas you’ll see a patient rushed in on a stretcher while a nurse yells “Get this patient to triage”.

I thought ‘triage’ must be a medical term for emergency, but I was wrong.

In fact it can mean almost the opposite.

It turns out triage is a French wartime expression.

After any major battle there were far more wounded than there were medical staff to treat them.

So the wounded were quickly sorted into three groups:

1)   Those that will die whatever you do

2)   Those that will live whatever you do

3)   Those that will only live if you treat them.

Then all available attention is quickly given to the third group.

Because attention given to the first two groups would be wasted.

Triage comes from the French verb ‘Trier’ meaning to sort or sift.

You can’t treat everyone, so sort out where your effort will make a difference and concentrate there.

For me this has always been a principle of life in general, and advertising in particular.

Years before I ever heard the term triage.

I quickly decide whether the effort I’m about to make will be wasted or not.

If it will, I don’t do it.

I save it for somewhere it won’t be wasted.

Take students for instance.

I quickly have to decide whether I can help them.

Not everyone wants to hear what I’ve got to say: many of them already know the answer they want to hear.

So instead of wasting time going through their portfolio honestly, I’m polite and get it over with as quickly as possible.

I can’t make a difference so I don’t try.

I save it for a student where I can make a difference.

It’s the same with clients.

Many of them don’t want to hear what I’ve got to say.

It’s too simplistic, it’s not the answer they want.

So instead of trying to argue them into it, I don’t go to that meeting, it would be counter-productive.

Better to use me with clients where I can make a difference.

Triage thinking makes particular sense when doing advertising.

It would be a waste to randomly talk to everyone, everywhere.

The market is too big and our resources are too small.

So keep it simple: use triage thinking.

There are usually three groups:

1)   People that won’t buy, whatever we say (core non-users)

2)   People that will buy, whatever we say (core users)

3)   People where our advertising might make a difference.

It doesn’t make sense to waste our resources against the first two groups.

So we concentrate all our resources against the third group.

We put all our effort where it will make a difference.

It seems so obvious, it’s amazing everyone doesn’t do it.

It’s just what smart people have always done.

It’s a basic principal in sport, business, warfare, relationships, in anything.

Put our resource where it will make a difference.

Don’t waste it where it can’t.

This is simple triage.


It’s another name for creativity, or common sense.