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Seeing the funny side: how laughter can save our strategy in these strange times

Comedy like Charlie Brooker's coruscating Antiviral Wipe displayed more insight than data alone could muster

​Right now, we still don’t know if it’s even safe to laugh in public. However, for Jonathan Fraser, founder and chief strategy officer at Trouble Maker, the power of comedy to drive deeper insights should never be underestimated. That’s why he sends his staff on stand-up courses.

I’ll start with the name dropping. In my 20s, I shared a flat with Radio 1 DJ Scott Mills. It was a time akin to a Channel 5 version of Men Behaving Badly. He knew I wanted to become a stand-up comedian and thought it would be hilarious to book me slots at top comedy clubs. He then had a segment on his show where my terrible performances were critiqued by famous names.

Despite advice from some very talented people, including Lenny Henry, Alan Carr, Russell Howard, I never made it as a stand-up. But I learned a lot that has helped me be a better strategist.

Henry taught me the importance of controlling the first impression. Ever wondered why comedians will immediately make a joke about how they look? You know, the classic, “I know what you’re thinking… Harry Potter has let himself go” from an overweight man in glasses?

It’s more than a cheap gag. It is because he knows that as soon as he walks on, people will notice his looks. Eventually they’ll realise that he looks like a fat Harry Potter, but all the while they’ve been trying to work that out rather than listening to the jokes.

This is a clear preconception strategy. Think about when Skoda relaunched. It knew people wouldn’t listen to it if it claimed its cars were good; it had to first address the elephant in the room. So the brand ran a campaign about how everyone thought it was crap, asking customers to ignore the brand and focus on the new product.

Carr taught me about developing a persona, making it clear what type of comic you are and what you stand for. Persona allows you to shortcut jokes without doing the setup. It’s why Stewart Lee (persona: mainstream-hating, intellectual elite) can write lovely lines like: “Imagine James Cordon watching me. It’s like a dog listening to classical music.”

In the same way, a familiar brand – say Marmite – can create brilliantly impactful ’Love It or Hate It’ ads without having to explain the back story, meaning it grabs attention straight away.

For a comedian, every night is a focus group. As they deliver the material, they’re constantly developing strategies to make sure that every second of the audience’s attention ends up having the biggest impact on the final goal. They are looking to create that sweet moment where people say: “Oh my god, that’s so true, I’ve never looked at it like that before.“

Because who understands people better than comedians? During lockdown, Matt Lucas brought the nation together with the ’Thank you baked potato’ song and his absurd Boris Johnson parody. So too has Sarah Cooper with her hilarious lip syncs to Trump’s musings, and Charlie Brooker with his coruscating Antiviral Wipe. They all displayed more insight than data alone could muster.

For its part, ad land doesn’t always understand people so well. We look at the popularity of Love Island and think that all viewers aspire to be famous rather than talented (I just watched After Life and don’t aspire to be a depressed widower). We pour through hundreds of surveys and stare at graph after graph, but that doesn’t mean we truly understand our audience.

Stand-up failure was a valuable lesson for me later on in my career and is something I inflict on my own teams. I send them all on comedy courses and book them gigs in actual, real-life comedy clubs, where they experience the process and then pull those skills into planning. Before I get my planners to write a creative brief, I get them to write a joke because it holds so much more power in understanding the audience, their frustrations or their desires than filling out boxes on a page.

Not only does the comic’s process reignite planning, but comedians themselves can be a great resource. My agency recently worked with the Liberal Democrat Creative Network to create a comedy event called ‘Cracking up the House’. It was originally conceived as a live event, but has been very successful on Zoom.

We invited comedians to pitch a new law. They talk about why something is wrong and their idea to solve it. The audience votes and the winning idea is presented to Liberal Democrat parliamentarians, starting its journey to the House of Commons. We have had ideas on how to protect against identity fraud and the creation of a Premier Safeguard League, where football clubs earn points for better practices with young people (which means Tottenham might finally win something).

The Creative Network has proved a huge success in helping the party shine a light on people’s concerns, and in inspiring more creative solutions.

We should never underestimate the power of comedy for driving deeper insights – even at a time when we still don’t know if it’s safe to laugh in public.

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