Why bravery is a bad idea in advertising

Phil Adams is planning director at Cello Signal. Follow him on Twitter @Phil_Adams

In the army, deliberately shooting yourself in the foot is considered an act of cowardice. The advertising industry does much the same thing in the name of bravery.

I have never understood the misguided fixation with being brave, mainly because, for an industry whose sole purpose is good ideas, this is a crap one.

If you want to use reverse psychology to talk a cautious client out of approving an ad, tell her it’s a brave idea. It demonstrates a startling lack of empathy. Bravery is a function of risk and danger and she knows it. You apparently don’t.

The alternative to being brave is staying safe, which sounds like a good thing to most clients. So bravado is poor strategy on the part of agencies. Brave is a bad positioning for ideas.

They say that nothing kills a bad product faster than a good ad. Well nothing kills a good idea faster than calling it brave. It is a stupid, unnecessary, self-imposed branding issue, like a car manufacturer paying a million Euros for the name of its new model, only to discover, too late, that it means wank in Chinese.

This penny hasn’t dropped for some in the creative community, who cling to the idea of bravery as a means of self-affirmation. When I worked in account management I resented being told by creatives that it was my job just to sell the ad. It was actually my job to create an environment in which the right idea sold itself, and I did it pretty well. So it would be galling to watch those same creatives undo my hard work, and unsell their own, by blurting out the B word in a sign-off meeting. I’ve seen it happen.

If you want a medal for bravery, climb a ladder into a burning tower block.

I have worked with clients who didn’t need the crutch of pre-testing research in order to approve an idea. And I have worked with a few who have ignored negative research feedback to press ahead with advertising that they believed in. I wouldn’t describe these people as brave. I’d say that they knew what they were doing.

Good ideas aren’t dangerous or risky, they are disproportionately effective.

The alternative to doing work that is remarkable as well as relevant isn’t staying safe, it is being unprofessional.

Agencies are also rank hypocrites in respect of bravery. We are as bold as brass when encouraging clients to be brave on their money, but we run a mile when it comes to being brave at our own expense.

This double standard is particularly prevalent on pitches. What we describe as being brave (and hence talk ourselves out of) is actually an entirely rational long-term strategy.

Let’s say that four agencies are pitching for a new account. All things being equal, each agency has a 25% chance of winning if they all present a serviceable response to the brief.

But what if one of the agencies decides to be “brave” and challenge the brief? This is usually seen as a high risk strategy and agencies have a habit of talking themselves out of it.

But, if you take the unhelpful emotion out of the language, challenging the brief is, from a purely statistical point of view, a smart thing to do. It turns the pitch into a binary decision for the client and reduces the odds in your favour. You have given the client a choice between the best of the three answers to their brief and your challenge to it. You are either going to come first or last, but the odds of success have shortened to fifty per cent. You have doubled your chance of winning.

Given that, in a pitch, the cost of coming last is no greater than that of coming second, this challenger approach has nothing to do with being brave and everything to do with being a savvy gambler.

Even if two, or three, or even all four agencies decide to challenge the brief, the worst that can happen is that the odds stay the same as they were at the outset. Only if three agencies all decide to challenge the brief do the odds swing in favour of a straight response, but this almost never happens, and it doesn’t matter anyway if you are more concerned with aggregate new business conversion over time than with individual pitches.

I have been that savvy gambler. But I have also been spectacularly out-gambled.

Back in the day, the brief for the Honda UK pitch was to make the Honda brand desirable by means of launch campaigns for the Jazz and the new CR-V. We (the Leith Agency) answered the brief with two strong ideas. Dougal Wilson (now an A-list commercials director) and Gareth Howells wrote a CR-V campaign which used the language and imagery of Commando war comics to dramatise the shopping trip and the school run. And our Jazz campaign was almost identical to the subsequent A Car To Be Proud Of ads for Toyota out of Saatchi & Saatchi.

It should have been pitch winning work. But we and the other pitching agencies were destroyed by Wieden & Kennedy’s Power Of Dreams campaign, which challenged the brief by showing no cars at all.

The Honda client made life difficult for himself by buying this campaign because it can’t have been easy to sell in a car-free campaign to an industry in which the conservative dealer network wields so much power. But, as it turns out, he also made himself famous. And I doubt that at any point in the proceedings W+K were stupid enough to tell him that he was being brave.

Advertising’s obsession with bravery only serves to blind us to sound new business strategy, and it only serves to spook our clients out of taking good advice. The only award that this kind of bravery deserves to win is of the Darwin variety.

Phil Adams is strategy director at Cello Signal. He can be found tweeting here

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