Kevin Chesters: If brave is best, what are we all afraid of?

Kevin Chesters, is the partner/CSO of The Harbour Collective and former chief strategy officer of Ogilvy UK.

If brave is best, what are we all afraid of?

I think we all have always instinctively known that the best ideas are the brave, distinctive ones. Gorilla, Cog, ‘Dumb Ways to Die’, Skoda Cake, Nike's 'Nothing Beats a Londoner' – work that helps to define categories.

New research that came out last week finally proved what my creative partner, Mick Mahoney, always told me was “bloody obvious, Kev”. The study carried out by Mark Ritson and published in AdAge analysed 6,000 campaigns to try to isolate the primary factors in making more effective work. Guess what came out on top? Bravery. Brave work is the most effective work. Work that is conservative (with a small c) is the least effective work. It turns out that the safest option for agencies and clients is to take a bigger risk.

As Mick said, I think we all instinctively knew this already. Ritson has validated it but it isn’t anything new in terms of theory. We know from lots of other studies (especially by Binet/Field) that the most commercially effective work is the most creatively original work. We also know that doing fame-making, brand-building work is more effective (even in response campaigns) than doing the dull, massive-phone-numbered, dull-as-ditchwater generic campaigns. For things to be creative they need to be original (just check your dictionary) and original means new and different.

So, it’s obvious, proven and unarguable that being conservative is commercially damaging. We know that doing things that are outside our comfort zone will benefit our brands and businesses. So why don’t we do it? Why are most campaigns asinine, obvious and as far from brave as it’s possible to be?

Well, like most things, it is a combination of nature and nurture. There are some behavioural science factors that stop us doing what we know is better for us. But equally I think we have some industry-wide bad behaviours that get in the way of developing braver and better ideas. The former are hard to stamp out, the latter should be a lot easier.

Let’s start with evolution.

There is one core characteristic about new and brave ideas that we don’t like to admit: they make us feel uncomfortable. This is because humans are not good with new things; they set off every single ‘fight or flight’ mechanism from back in the prehistoric day. We aren’t a brave species. We’re far comfier with cowardice. Remember that your brave ancestors all died fighting the sabre-toothed tigers. The cowardy-custards who hid, trembling, behind the mammoth carcass? Those are your genes, mate.

We actually fear the new. It’s a real thing: neophobia. We fear the unknown more than the known bad, it’s hard-wired into us. It drives the principle called ‘risk aversion’ and means we’ve been trained over eons as a species to fear and distrust new things. So, does that mean we are off the hook? Do clients and agencies tend to steer clear of the brave and hug the average because of our evolutionary blueprint. Well, sort of. But I’m not going to let us off the hook that easily.

There are some industry factors that are compounding the issue.

Any form of good creativity involves taking a risk. You will never take a risk with someone that you either don’t like or don’t trust. The best work comes from a different attitude between client and agency. It happens when that relationship is one of mutual respect and trust; not a master/servant, JFDI relationship. But these trusting relationships don’t form overnight or tend to happen in one campaign. They develop over time as people get to know and trust one another. Declining tenures of CMOs and the pitch/switch addiction of clients changing agencies like shoes have really got in the way in the last decade. No one, client or agency, seems to have the time (or be afforded the time in the age of short-term metrics) to develop those longer relationships. Look at the agencies and clients that are doing the best, most effective work (and bravest) – they tend to be the ones who have developed a long-term relationships (Mother/Ikea, adam+eveDDB/John Lewis, W+K/Lurpak). Duh!

Every new business lead, meeting or project win we’ve had in the last few months at Harbour has come from a former client or colleague with whom either Mick, Paul or I had developed a strong relationship of trust. Trust pays.

The second industry factor that gets in the way of brave work is how the role of account management has changed recently (for the worse) – from relationships to service. If we are going to get to great, brave work then we all have a role to play, but Account Management’s role is disproportionately crucial. They create the conditions within which great creative can happen. Without them, strategists and creatives are wasting their time. Brave work won’t get developed, presented, sold or ever made if Account Management don’t create the framework for it happen within. And the mutually respective relationship between agency and client is key to this. If account management think their role is client service, then it’s unsurprising if they and their agency get treated like quasi-servants.

Account Management have to work harder than anyone to create the relationships that will nurture those risky ideas that we all want to make. The best work has always come from good client relationships. I’d suggest getting back to some of the things that used to make for strong, mutually-respectful relationship building: a focus on commercial understanding of your client’s business and adding intellectual value beyond standard agency scope, for starters.

So, let’s get braver. Let’s break those pesky evolutionary shackles. Let’s do new and ‘risky’ things because they are what will get us lauded, awarded and rewarded (Ritson just re-proved it). Let’s get back to having relationships with clients, not just three-bags-full agreeing with them. Let’s get back to what we know works. After all, it’s not brave to do what is proven, is it? It’s just bloody obvious, as Mick never grows tired of telling me.

Kev Chesters is the CSO of The Harbour Collective.

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