Stacey Singer
Keeping + Growing Clients


Food for Thought

Goldilocks and the Secret to Breakthrough Advertising

In psychology, the inverted U theory is used to explain achieving optimal performance. The theory states that there is a relationship between performance and pressure, and the ideal performance occurs when there is just the right amount of pressure—too much or too little can reduce performance.  A similar theory is used in economics and sports. The axes are different, but the “just right” Goldilocks’ principle is the same. To create breakthrough work, agencies should consider the inverted U.

All too often, they don’t, or can’t. Clients often task agencies with assembling teams with deep brand and category knowledge and strong client relationships. Clients consider category and company knowledge and shared goals to be so critical that they are now a central part of the rationale for the increasing number of in-house agencies.

The inverted U theory, and Goldilocks, suggest that too much is not always a good thing.

1. Market Knowledge: Team members with in-depth market knowledge are invaluable. They can quickly recite the brands’ strengths and weaknesses, the user journey, and seminal events in the industry. They are often the voice of reason. They can also be the voice of “no”—what can’t be done, what will never work, what’s been tried and failed. They stop the team from dreaming.

Just the right amount of knowledge—enough, so teams understand their brands but not so much that they limit the possibilities – and mixing it up a little— is the key to success. That means refreshing the lineup with successful people from other categories, enforcing “no bad ideas” during brainstorming, and encouraging leaps of faith that, at the very least, display true passion for the business, and might result in a spectacular idea. Consider this: it was not a hotelier that created Airbnb or a retailer that developed Rent the Runway.

2. Client Relationships: A strong client relationship is the foundation for great agency work. There must be mutual trust and respect and a healthy dose of empathy. Good agencies understand their clients’ perspective, goals, concerns, and challenges and can build a bridge between the clients’ world and a big idea. On the other hand, we all know agency people who are too connected to the client. They don’t just understand the client—they identify with the client. They mistake their relationship for friendship; they’re afraid of losing a friend. It is the agency version of Stockholm Syndrome, and the risk is increased with in-house agencies. These people know their client (in this case, their brand manager) so well they anticipate their reaction and may even hesitate to bring a great idea to presentation. They are afraid to push back for fear that it will hurt their relationship.

Agencies benefit from just the right amount of relationship—enough that there is confidence in the agency and comfort in taking a risk, but not so much that being liked is the primary goal.  

3. Business Tension: Good agencies know they have to earn the clients’ business every day. They understand that other agencies are waiting in the lobby and eager to take their place. Successful agencies use this tension to motivate their teams by encouraging the development of new ideas, without waiting for the terror of a review or pitch. Letting the relationship become complacent—too little tension— also kills agencies, when a crisis catches them napping. For in-house agencies, whose jobs are (relatively speaking) more secure, the lower level of risk can backfire.

Just the right amount of business tension—something in between fear and comfort—produces the best results.

These are essential considerations as agencies build teams. There are benefits to adding the creative with little category experience or moving the account person who was the best man at the client’s wedding. In-house agencies have a more significant challenge. The very traits that are valued by their proximity may ultimately work against them. These agencies may find themselves too insular, too comfortable, and too friendly to serve as honest brokers.

Agencies who consider the inverted U when assembling teams have a better chance of creating breakthrough advertising, or as Goldilocks would say, “advertising that is just right.”


Stacey Singer is a client retention and growth specialist with 25+ years of experience helping agencies keep and grow business. If you’d like Stacey’s help in achieving that “just right” balance in your teams, please contact her at or (908) 313-6539.





Stacey Singer