Do marketers and brands need to be braver?

In order to stand out from the crowd and punch above their weight, Australia's creative agencies often feel compelled to take risks. Zoe Samios speaks with senior creatives and strategists about whether that risk should actually fall with the clients themselves, and what brave work really means.

‘Brave’ is a term often coined in adland to describe outstanding or unique creative work.

As digital and new technologies continue to change the media landscape, marketers and advertising agencies are encouraged to think outside the box to attract consumers.

At the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity this year, independent agency Quiet Storm’s executive creative director Trevor Robinson spoke with CNBC about encouraging brands to be brave, in order to make more memorable ads.

“We have to do work thats stand out and work that people love and take to heart and remember,” he said.

Trevor Robinson: We have to do work that people take to heart. Source: CNBC

He said the hardest thing about trying to do brave work was not only challenging himself, but selling the ideas to clients, and encouraging them to come on the journey.

Earlier this month, Phil Adams, planning director at Cello Signal wrote a piece on The Drum opposing the idea of bravery, arguing he had “never understood the misguided fixation with being brave”, pointing out it was a “bad positioning for ideas”. 

But what do Australia’s creatives and strategists think – should clients be braver?

Steve Coll, creative partner, With Collective

Coll: The point of marketing is to get noticed

“It’s not brave to break category conventions”

“Brave. It’s an odd word in our business. My view has always been the bravest thing a client can do with their marketing spend is produce wallpaper.

“If the point of marketing is to get noticed, following convention is like investing money in a megaphone that helps you whisper the loudest.

“It has always puzzled me to hear ground-breaking, standout work described as brave. Like the recent Samsung ad. Like the Lamb ads.

“I’d argue it’s not brave to break category conventions and get everyone talking. It’s just very smart.”

Alex Speakman, managing partner and director of strategy, Saatchi & Saatchi Melbourne

Speakman: Too much of a focus on perfection

“Rocking the boat” is what “we’re supposed to do”

“Absolutely. Too many clients – and agency partners to be fair – focus on ticking the boxes than doing something that aims to genuinely disrupt the market.

“The marketing and advertising industries appear afraid to rock the boat, when ‘rocking the boat’ is almost the definition of what it is we’re supposed to do.

“An old creative once told me that ‘It’s always better to be interesting than perfect’ … and I think too often we focus too much on getting everything ticked off and perfect rather than stepping back and ensuring it’s interesting to begin with.”

Helen James, executive creative director at Clemenger@Myer

James: Budgets and bravery are shrinking

As audiences decline, so does bravery

“Today an entire universe of entertainment has opened up and the freedom to block or skip advertising is part of the deal. As audiences shrink along with their attention spans, so too have budgets and bravery.

“Generally, in my experience working in the retail space, when sales plummet, so does the appetite for creativity and we are reduced to shouty ads that would make Harvey Norman rejoice.

“What’s interesting however is these now don’t work either and we’re reaching a tipping point where braver, more unique work gets heard far louder than shouting.

“Retailers and brands alike need to entertain us, educate us and surprise us, in order to make us feel something for them and that doesn’t come from ‘skippable’ advertising.”

Dylan Taylor, creative partner, The Dylan Agency

Taylor: Clients don’t need to be brave 

No need for bravery when there’s “direction and trust”

“Yes, in the respect a brand platform is set that provides a clear tone of voice, reason for being, ambition for where they want to go, and measurable business targets to achieve, so filling the sales funnel for years ahead.

“No, for doing work that is crass, ‘look at me’, doesn’t push the brand story, or build sales.

“Clients don’t need to be brave when there is clear direction and trust. It’s that simple.”

Luke Chess, creative partner, Mammal

Chess: Risk is risky 

“Bravery suggests risk”

“No, clients do not need to be more brave. Bravery suggests risk, and risk is risky. If you’re a shareholder, how impressed are you likely to be with a couple of million dollars poured down the tubes on ‘brave’ work? Me neither.

“What clients do need is to have an agency that properly outlines why the work they’re presenting is the right work. How is it going to improve business? Why is it right for the target?

“When you sit down and really consider the full marketing environment and business case, a bunch of work that looked ‘brave’ suddenly looks just silly, or indulgent, or lazy.

“But the very best pieces – ones that on the surface looked ‘brave’ too – can be revealed to be the most rational way forward.”

Alison Tilling, head of planning, BMF Australia

Tilling: Ad agencies and clients need to be brave

“Bravery is necessary in this game”

“To get the best, most effective advertising, yes they do.

“A good catalyst for bravery is briefing for the problem you want to solve, not the solution you want to get. It’s an approach that is brave in itself given timing and team pressures. But it’s an approach that ensures everyone, client and agency alike, is open to a new and different creative route, medium, strategy – and that everyone is open to working together to ensure it really does solve the challenge at hand.

“Real bravery is built on trust, consistency and a strong relationship. That’s when you get the kind of quality of work that BMF has developed with Aldi during our partnership of 15 years, and FFA for eight years, for example.

“Ad agencies need to be brave just as much as clients do. That can be a different breed of bravery – sometimes showing restraint, handling difficult situations before they become terrible situations, and investing in people and culture in ways whose dividends might not be immediately apparent, but are ultimately long-lasting.

“Bravery is necessary in this game. It comes in many forms, but its foundations are trust, teamwork and openness.”

Al Crawford, former chief strategy officer, Clemenger BBDO Sydney


“Brave work” an outcome of more important things clients and agencies need to understand

“There are only two things that really piss me off in this world: early morning visits from Jehovah’s Witnesses and the use of the word ‘brave’ when describing work.

“Now you’ve got me all riled up, allow me to deliver an irate mini-listicle.

“1. It’s incredibly patronising, being that the opposite of brave is lilly-livered surrender-monkey. Just imagine if your financial adviser turned around and said ‘Someone needs to be a little bit braver when it comes to investing their dollars and cents, don’t they?’, whilst stroking you under the chin. You’d just roundhouse kick them and take your hard-earned cash elsewhere.

“2. It’ll achieve precisely the opposite result if you choose to deploy it as means of goading someone into buying better work. Only people with rock bottom emotional intelligence tend to utter it as a result: hucksters, morons and psychopaths in my experience. Our responsibility is to show clients that our ideas will work, especially the ones that initially seem left field. As my old creative chairman used to say: ‘The more outlandish the idea, the more it needs to be cloaked in science’.

“3. Brave work is an outcome of some far more important things that we need to instil in clients and agency folk alike: a sound understanding of how communications work, a deep knowledge of work both present and past, global and local, and an understanding of the crushing indifference of customers to every brand. There are far too many people wandering around who seem to have only a passing acquaintance with any of these facts.

“Do we need fresher, more arresting, more relevant work? Absolutely. Is there a dangerous reversion to the mean that we need to guard against? Yes. But this won’t be solved by rolling out the ‘b’ word. It’ll be solved by more skilled practitioners who understand that NOT to do fresh, arresting, relevant work is the biggest risk they can take. Because it guarantees that you’ll sink into the swamp of sameness and be utterly ignored by all and sundry.”

Michelle Schuberg, executive creative director, Imagination

“It’s easier for marketers to back brave ideas in a small market”

“It’s hard to go out on that limb and historically Australia was great at it, because we were a big enough market to have some budget and be of interest, but are far enough away from the global spotlight of the UK or the US to actually take some risks.

“It’s easier for marketers to back a brave idea in a small market.

“As things have become more global and as work gets rolled out in a more seamless way around the world we lost some of that ability to speak plainly, we’ve felt like little pioneering cowboys 10 or 15 years ago, and now New Zealand feels like that.

“As work gets rolled out in a more seamless way we’ve lost some of that ability to be creative.”

“We’ve become a much more serious player in the global marketing mix and we’ve lost our ability to agitate.”

“Integration is a really confusing issue for clients at the moment, because there’s so much chatter around is TV dead, and of course it is not dead, but what is the right mix?

“The idea of understanding what kind of media mix you should be looking at is more critical than ever.”

Simon Rich, head of strategy, The Core Agency

“The stronger the strategy”, the easier bravery is

“The best and most successful campaigns have always come from brave clients: VW think small, Cadbury Gorilla, #OptOutside (2016 Cannes Grand Prix) etc.… the list goes on.

“It’s true that in today’s fragmented media, where viewers have the power to skip  or avoid ads, creative needs to find new ways to engage with audiences. Agencies need to explore new creative structures and clients need to be brave enough to buy different kinds of campaigns.

“However as much as this all true what’s even more important for success in the new landscape is strategic thinking. Because it’s only when a creative is based on a solid core idea does it have the agility to take advantage of bold new opportunities that create long term brand growth.

“The stronger the strategy the easier it is for a client to be brave.”

Kate Richardson, general manager and head of strategy, Red Engine SCC

The trick is knowing when you’ve hooked a good idea

“Last week, Phil Adams published this clever, insightful piece on the fallacy of bravery. If you want an idea to fail he says, just call it brave. He argues that good ideas aren’t dangerous or risky, they are disproportionately effective.

“The trick is, knowing when you’ve hooked a good one. We are after all, operating in the realm of probabilities rather than certainties. And the combination of technological change and greater competition for just about everything, means much like the fine print on a financial investment, past returns are no guarantee of future success.

“Clients must have instinct and insight. They need the confidence that comes with experience but also education, which sadly, is increasingly lacking.

“They should be cognisant of their own psychology and its influence on ideas. A previous client I had, always played the contrarian, and never nailed his colours to the mast, so that ultimately good work either stalled or became hopelessly diluted.

“And of course, clients must be able to trust. They need to put their best people in the frame, inspire and challenge them to do their best work, and who knows, maybe even come up with a good one.”


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