We need to serve our clients ideas that could get us, or them, fired

Agencies know, in theory, that they should push the envelope to deliver unexpected, brave work, even if it's difficult. But risqué work doesn't have to be risky, says Colenso BBDO's Dave Brady. The balance lies somewhere between 'Why hasn’t someone done that already?' and 'Are we legally allowed to do that?'

A client recently dared us: “Bring me an idea which will get us fired”. It raised a few eyebrows. And rolled up a few sleeves. It was a great challenge, but it also provoked questions about why so much of what our industry produces is homogenised blancmange (a dessert that fits a mould and is served cold).

There are a few obvious culprits: Formula, apathy, presumption, comfort, conformity, legal departments, research, textbooks and fear. Especially fear.

So, to serve up campaigns that aren’t as boring as 80s desserts, do we just apply the opposite? Clearly, it’s not that simple.

The unexpected, passion, questioning, pushing comfort zones, rebellion, risk, guts, invention and bravery all sound amazing. But the reality of implementing these on a daily basis is more than a little difficult.

Why is that?

Do our clients really want to produce safe, formulaic wallpaper that goes utterly unnoticed? Of course not. But neither do they want to buy risky work, because among that risk is the chance they will actually get fired. And serving up risky work might just mean we get fired too.

Fortunately, daring work is no longer the same as risky work. Those times have long passed. If investment is made upfront to rigorously diagnose the problem, the answers become inevitable.

“It’s only risky if you’re guessing,” is how our CCO, Levi Slavin, puts it.

The obvious challenge is to build a desire for discomfort within ourselves, our peers and our clients if we are to create the kind of work that gets noticed and earns a response. But what else can we do to create an environment for brave ideas?

The first step is to interrogate ourselves.

How empathetic are we being to the client’s position? How do we empower them to champion great work internally? How many layers does the idea need to get through and who can we draw upon to help clients navigate them successfully? What data, strategic backup and hard evidence have they been armed with to make our daring idea an irrefutable solution to a clear business problem?

Solid strategic thinking and data are powerful tools to eliminate risk. But they’re not enough to make great work. There’s still the getting noticed bit.

Nick Worthington, our creative chairman, often talks about touching nerves when evaluating work. Identifying the tingly bit that turns on lights in brains and widens perspectives (and eyes) –  that’s the bit to protect.

It’s somewhere between ‘Why hasn’t someone done that already?’ and ‘Are we legally allowed to do that?’ If it’s touching nerves in culture, behaviour or society in a way that’s relevant to your client’s brand or product, it’s worth exploring. If it’s not, perhaps you should keep looking.

Katie Evans, UK marketing director at Burger King, recently said, “If something makes us slightly nervous, we’re in a good place.”

That does sound like a good place for a client to be. And it’s working too. Just after the Game of Thrones final season launch, the Burger King app overtook HBO’s fantasy juggernaut in Twitter’s trending topics and saw a 100% uplift in sales on ‘Whopper Day’. Yet Burger King have also been accused of creating campaigns that mock vegetarians and make puerile references to Donald Trump. Risqué? Maybe. Risky? Probably not.

We recently pitched Visa Australia with a reality show that was doomed to fail because of their product. It took a leap of faith on the client’s behalf. But with a lot of very smart people helping up front, the resulting branded content failure proved incredibly successful: 1.5 million views in the first three weeks and an 88% higher association of Visa with mobile payments overall.

Of course, it’s not always possible to deliver that kind of work. When it is, it’s hard work. But it’s interesting.

I guess it’s about knowing when to be a troublemaker, when to be a peacemaker and always remembering you’re not an expert at everything. I’m fortunate enough to be surrounded by smart people who’ll catch me when I fall and back me when I need it.

Getting ballsy work made will never be easy. Beige, flavourless stuff is everywhere. But this Kurt Vonnegut quote gets to the heart of why it matters: “Out on the edge, you see all the things you can’t see from the centre. Big, undreamed-of things – the people on the edge see them first.” I like that.

Dave Brady is creative director at Colenso BBDO


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