The best thing my dad taught me was: “The spirit of the law, not the letter of the law.”
Which might seem strange, because Dad was a policeman.
But what that phrase taught me was never let anyone else do your thinking for you.
And never let a set of rules be an excuse for not thinking.
As a rule the law is there to be followed.
But there’s often something that couldn’t be foreseen.
No rule is perfect, so how do you decide when there are extenuating circumstances?
Well, then you have to look at the reason the rule was made in the first place.
So, although Dad didn’t put it in these words, the reason laws were made was to enforce the Social Contract, so what’s the Social Contract?
That’s the agreement whereby we willingly sacrifice some freedoms to the state, in order to receive protection by the state.
For instance we agree to give up weapons in order to have a force that protects us from other people with weapons.
So if you find a man in the street with a weapon, he’s breaking the law.
But what if he’s looking for the person who kidnapped his child?
Then should you apply the letter of the law, and arrest him, or the spirit of the law, and help find the kidnapper and child?
Pretty much all my thinking has stemmed from that phrase.
For me it taught me to question everything, to get upstream of any conclusions and find the reason they existed.
Particularly, it led me to people like Descartes, John Locke, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Bishop Berkeley and eventually Jean-Paul Sartre.
“The spirit of the law, not the letter of the law” allows us to agree in the main with someone without accepting their conclusions parrot fashion.
To follow their thinking back upstream bit-by-bit, possibly keeping the parts we like and leaving the parts we don’t.
Instead of having to accept their thinking as a complete package, it allows us to pick’n’mix.
It encourages us to use their conclusion as a springboard, not a straitjacket.
Which is exactly what creative departments used to be able to do with briefs.
A brief represented the end of the planning (aka strategic) department’s thinking, and the handover to creatives for them to begin thinking.
But now, the brief isn’t handed on like a baton in a relay race, now it’s like a ball and chain.
The brief is where everyone must stop thinking.
Consequently, knowing they aren’t allowed to question the brief, creatives have stopped contributing to it.
Now a brief is a requisition form with all the requirements of the job filled in.
An idea isn’t judged as good or bad, the phrase: “It’s not on brief” kills it immediately.
Creatives are not there to think, they’re there to execute the brief.
Perhaps add a new typeface, a piece of music, a visual technique, but that’s all.
There is no possibility of creatives adding anything different, new, or exciting to the brief.
So creatives have become too lazy to question the briefs, and because planners (aka strategists) know that, they are too lazy to write exciting, challenging briefs.
The dull conventional, formulaic keeps everyone happy.
So we have the same old briefs and the same old executions all done by tired robots.
As Rory Sutherland said: “Creatives have a fear of the obvious, but they must sell their work to people who have a love of the obvious.”
No wonder the motto now is: “The letter of the law, not the spirit of the law.”