By Jerry Judge

Every few weeks there’s a lot of buzz about a big brand moving from one agency to another. A lot of things change when these moves happen—people get fired, favors get called in, pitches get pitched, CMOs make speeches about “changes of direction” and “fresh approaches” and “new blood”—but strangely, after all the dust settles, the advertising often stays pretty much the same.

If your car isn’t running, and you can’t figure out why, you’re going to want to replace it with a new one—one that works.

But buying advertising isn’t like buying a car. Advertising isn’t an object. It doesn’t exist independently of the buyer. In the case of advertising, the buyer has a disproportionate influence on the nature of the product.

The client carries with them—in a move from one agency to another—many of the factors that are causing the advertising to come out in a way that’s less than satisfying. And if you move the same mess into a new room, it’s not going to feel like anything much has changed.

Buying advertising is more like buying therapy than buying a car. You’re hiring someone to tell you about yourself, but it ends up that you do most of the talking.

It’s a strange deal—one that demands a lot of the buyer while denying them many of the things that they want. There are no guarantees. What worked yesterday won’t work tomorrow. Influence and impact are only vaguely measurable. And successful campaigns are usually counterintuitive.

Take Old Spice, for example, selling body wash to men by bringing their biggest insecurities to life—an impossibly charming and handsome spokesperson talks directly to the target audience’s girlfriends about their boyfriend’s inadequacies. Or Patagonia—refusing to increase production in proportion to demand because they believe that there is already too much stuff in the world.

In hindsight, it seems obvious that these are good ideas, but imagine being pitched these in rough form? They would contradict almost everything on your average client’s checklist. It takes guts to buy good advertising.

And it’s not easy to be gutsy—especially when you are representing a brand. A brand (with the exception, maybe, of a company like Apple under Steve Jobs) isn’t an individual—it’s a collection of people who, even if they do all share the same objective, are going to approach that objective in wildly divergent ways.

And the bigger your brand is, the more difficult it gets. Big means inflexible. Minuscule changes can have huge consequences, so the tendency is to stand still unless you can be sure of how something will come out.

It’s natural that clients want research and data—evidence, guaranteed ROI. But that’s like only agreeing to go a on first date with someone if they promise to fall in love with you in measurable increments over the next three months.

We can’t quantify what “works.” We don’t like a painting because it has a certain percentage of blue, we like it because it communicates something that moves us, and the vehicle for that communication just so happens to contain a certain percentage of the color blue.

Research and data are reassuring, but data isn’t as simple as we like to think it is—at Vaguely Unpleasant we get it dead wrong, and at Most Unexceptional, it will only ever tell us about the past, and the past—as interesting as it may be—cannot predict the future.

Clients are caught in a bind—their bosses, their board, their shareholders are all looking for numbers, but in advertising, the more you concentrate on the numbers, the more you diminish the opportunity for value.

So clients end up confusing new with innovative, and trading in a lemon of an ad campaign for more of the same, produced under a different name.

So how do we break this cycle of mediocrity?

It starts with addressing problems head on—often our biggest opportunities come out of our biggest obstacles. And it starts with thinking like a disinterested consumer. There’s no room for wishful thinking, no room for telling your boss what she wants to hear.

And then you’ve got to take your hands off the controls. If you hold on too tightly you won’t let the people you’ve hired add value. The only way you make room for change is by letting go of what you think you already know.

And here’s another trick—you’ll know you’re on the right track if you’re scared. Nothing significant ever comes from staying in your comfort zone.

And take heart—the riskiest thing is to take no risks at all.