Key take away: following a metaphor to its logical conclusion can inspire new perspectives on old problems with surprising results.

My last MAD//Insight metaphor post talked through how bad metaphors get in the way of understanding, impeding rather than inspiring thought.

It’s probably best to start with the problems that metaphors can produce to highlight how arbitrary and contingent they are, and to show you why you might want to <free> yourself from the idea that there is only one way of thinking about a particular problem.

But the solution here is not to avoid metaphorical speech entirely. There are two reasons for this.

Firstly, it is very hard to say anything very interesting without using metaphor. The cat may indeed be on the mat.

That much we can say without ‘seeing one thing in terms of another’ – which is my working definition of metaphor. But once we want to say anything more about the cat, we need to bring to bear other things we know about the world to make sense of what we see in front of us.

Is the cat <stretched out> on the mat? Is she <in front> of the fireplace? Do you feel <warm> feelings towards her? Or is this example beginning to <get on your nerves>?

Not all of language is metaphorical, but most of it is. So we should give up any hope of not speaking metaphorically, and start choosing good metaphors with which to speak. 

The second reason for embracing metaphor is that an apt analogy can not only explain the world as it is, but also suggest new ideas that we haven’t thought of already.

Extending a bad metaphor leads to absurdity. Extending a good metaphor can help us see the world in a new light. 

The Exchange metaphor inspires the creative revolution

Take, for instance, the metaphor of Marketing as Exchange. Marketing used to be seen as a sub-species of sales, which in turn led advertising to be thought of as poor proxy for a physical salesman.

Yes, yes, I know: Bill Bernbach, creative revolution of the 1960s, yadda yadda yadda. But what you forget is how weird and counter-intuitive DDB’s work was, in comparison to the likes of Ogilvy & Mather, whose mantra, lest we forget, was ‘We sell, or else’.

Most advertisers worked on the assumption that if they could have sent a salesman, they would have, but they couldn’t, so here’s this ad instead. 

In the 1970s, people like Philip Kotler, Sidney Levy and Richard Bagozzi articulated a new metaphor for marketing. Instead of being seen in terms of sales, marketing became the discipline of exchanging… anything!

What was interesting was not how marketing was like a sales process, but instead, how to marketing was like an exchange, even if no money changed hands. Marketing thinking could be broadened to account for charitable giving, church attendance, information dissemination between and within organisations.

Whenever an exchange took place, that was marketing’s business. 

Bagozzi in particular took this metaphor and ran with it. Pushing the idea of two parties trading things of value, he analysed the economics of commercial television: a complex circular exchange in which advertisers pay TV stations money to air advertisements, and people <pay> attention to the ads and get free entertainment in return.

The genius of the insight is to see that both brands and consumers are trading something to the TV stations – just different things.

Here, then, is the magic of a new metaphor. By seeing marketing in terms of exchange, rather than sales, Bagozzi was able to reveal an important truth about marketing and provided an intellectual justification for the attention-grabbing brand ads – rather than hard selling direct response ads – from the 80s onwards.

And there must have been something in it because, as Binet and Field will tell you, investing in big brand ads is far more profitable than sweating the small stuff. 

A new metaphor unlocked a new truth. That should inspire us to find new metaphors, or at least choose to use the good ones we already have. 


  • What: A good metaphor can open up new ways of seeing the world that were otherwise hidden from us
  • So what: Just as there are bad metaphors (see previous post) so too there are good ones
  • Now what: We should choose to use metaphors that helps us understand the world – and abandon the ones that get in the way