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.






10 thoughts on “TRIAGE THINKING”

  1. Dave,

    Do you make your quick judgements of students and clients based on the same criteria?

    Either way – can you tell us what clues you’re looking for? What makes you think ‘yes’ or ‘no’ when you ask yourself if they really want your help?



  2. Hi J, it’s quite simple
    I start by saying what I honestly think and see what reaction I get.
    If a student wants to learn from me, I go through their book carefully and tell them what I’d change and why.
    If a student wants to argue me into liking something, I know they don’t want to learn from me.
    So I go through their book politely and quickly and never see them again

  3. Thanks for that Dave. I guess I’ve been using Triage post-advertising. I’ve spent the last 2 years building up my work. I now have about 18, but have not exhibited any as yet as I need 45 for a full exhibition, which is a lot of work. I also needed to identify my market. I have done that recently with a 10,000 mile trip to a place, where it seems some of my work has been identified as getting an electric response in yet another continent. Having identified my market and target audience it seems I have had to do Triage again to concentrate on the most effective areas. I’m reading a fascinating book right now by Terry Brighton called Masters of Battle, about Monty, Patton, and Rommel at war. It’s a fascinating book because it places all three in the same time and space and explains how each of them became who they were. Two of them died and one of them survived. Whether you call it Triage, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, or Survival of the Fittest, there’s a massive lesson to be learnt in what you say. I know for myself, in Adland I wasted far too much time producing good work for clients who never appreciated it. As Barry Smith once told me “This is not a dress rehearsal”. It certainly isn’t now either. I know I haven’t written for a long time and this is the reason. My campaign now is to punch a small breach in the art world, and for that, I’ve had to train and build up my troops in the form of canvasses. Then when I reach the critical mass of 45 or so, it will be time to go “Over the top.”

  4. Dear Mr. Trott

    I believe that with the knowledge you possess and the high quality of your visual acumen you only need to see one line on the first page of any portfolio you are evaluating, and from this first glance you can ascertain how proficient the student is. Your analogy and analysis of triage is brilliant.

  5. Hi Robert,
    Whether I get involved with a student has less to do with their ability and much more to do with their attitude.
    A good portfolio from a stubborn person would not interest me.
    i cannot help them, they already think they know everything.
    A poor portfolio from someone desperate to learn is a place where I can make a difference.
    So that’s where I’d put my energy

  6. Dear Mr. Trott
    Thankyou for explaining most clearly how a student’s attitude is an important part of the criteria you use when assessing their ability and potential. In your excellent post of March 2015, “Creative Coach”, you demonstrated how you meld the people you select to work with you into a potent team. To me the analogy you use is very interesting. I am in the fortunate position that my grandson, who is aged 10, is a football player for one of the leading clubs in the world. One cannot apply to his club for a trial Any potential players they wish to consider have to be invited by them to an interview and after initial assessment they are then studied during a period of one year on a trial basis. Only then are they offered a contract. The intake to this stage is only about 2% of those who are initially invited. At this stage the level of coaching and care then given to them is wonderful to see. As time passes they begin to ‘meld’ into a team, however their individual creativity is constantly encouraged. I have had the enjoyment of watching this happen on an ongoing basis. They regularly play against other leading clubs and they win most and they lose some. Team spirit is very important and can carry the team to great achievements. My grandson and his teamates sing and dance after their training and one of the songs I frequently hear them singing is ” Lipsmacking, thirst quenching, ace tasting, motivating etc.etc. which I personally consider to be one of the greatest advertisements ever created. Clients should be eternally grateful to you for helping their brand into popular culture. I have seen many examples of this where your work is concerned.

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