Thinking small can lead to advertising greatness

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We sweat the small stuff because, like Team Sky's theory of marginal gains, it's the little things that can lead to advertising greatness.

Do you ever find yourself wondering if it’s all worth it? The interminable strategic discussions, the soul-sapping executional debates, the "What did you do at work today?" moments.

After all, as Jeremy Bullmore has pointed out, "By far the most important decision that an advertiser makes is the decision to advertise."

Rather, that is, than how to advertise. So maybe we should all just crank the stuff out and quit caring so much about our strategies, our fonts and our edits?

Jeremy’s point – his "first and most basic truth about advertising" – was that any advertising will have some value as long as it follows a couple of primitive rules: "If the medium you’ve chosen reaches the people you want to reach, and if your medium clearly carries the name of your brand, your money will not have been wasted."

At first glance, that reads like licence to idle, granted by the great man himself. In fact, advertisers should reach the very opposite conclusion.

"Maybe we should all just crank the stuff out and quit caring so much about our strategies, our fonts and our edits?"

Unburdened by anxiety about any material downside to what we do – since any advertising that passes the above test is of value – we should instead feel liberated to reach for the stars.

It’s a conclusion that makes eminent sense, as even Jeremy’s offcuts do, but the problem is this: all that "reach for the stars" stuff is exhausting. These days, we seem to claw our way painstakingly towards those stars rather than make glorious cosmic leaps.

Every inch of progress is hard-earned. Only the doggedly determined get all the way, often burning goodwill as they go. Is the output and, more importantly, the outcome of what we do really worth all that hard grind?

The answer to that question lies in cycling. Or, rather, the management principle that Sir Dave Brailsford and Team Sky deployed to transform the fortunes of the British cycling team: the theory of marginal gains – that mighty leaps in performance can spring from a succession of relatively minor improvements.

A better-defined problem, a more precise objective, a more vivid picture of our audience, a more resonant insight, a sharper strategy, a crisper idea, a better-crafted execution: these are advertising’s equivalent of Team Sky’s improved nutrition, saddle ergonomics, tyre weight, pillows and, er, handwash.

On its own, none of the above makes much difference, whether we’re working on briefs or riding bikes. But in aggregate, compounding one another, they explain why some advertising flies so much higher than the rest, just as a cycling team can leave its rivals behind.

By way of illustration: a contrary insight; a script with a delightful twist; Dougal Wilson’s impeccable direction; the counterintuitive choice of Mancunian melancholia as the soundtrack to Middle England’s festive season… "The long wait" was built on them all, brick by brick. The whole undeniably more than the sum of the parts. The aggregation of marginal gains in all its glory.

It’s this underappreciated truth that explains why everyone’s contribution to advertising development matters and why the culture of agencies in particular is critical.

Just as President Kennedy was told "I’m helping put a man on the moon" by a broom-wielding janitor at Nasa, our industry’s best work springs most reliably from companies where a similar sense of ownership – and responsibility – is alive from top to bottom.

"Our industry’s best work springs most reliably from companies where a sense of ownership is alive from top to bottom. Where people instinctively ‘do small things in a great way’ even if they can’t do great things."

Where people instinctively "do small things in a great way" even if they can’t do great things, to paraphrase Kennedy’s contemporary Martin Luther King.

The flash of gold tooth in Cadbury "Gorilla"; the frog leaping from the drainpipe in Sony "Balls"; the rocket breaking through the cloud in Ikea "Beds". These are things we fight for because – slight as they are in their own respect – they are waymarkers to greatness in the company of other, equally nuanced, strategic and creative choices.

The advertising business has never felt more complicated, or more rushed, than it does today. But the hat-trick of great strategy, idea and execution still serves brand owners brilliantly, regardless of medium or moment.

Scratch beneath the surface of the stuff you really love and you will find all three at work. Whether we are aware of it or not, this is what keeps us all sweating the small stuff: grind out a series of little wins and you may find yourself sitting on a big one.

It’s a painstaking path that invites inevitable disappointment. To moments that recall John Cleese’s desperate reflection in Clockwise: "It’s not the despair, Laura. I can stand the despair. It’s the hope!" But thinking small may reward the advertiser just as much as thinking big.

Laurence Green is the founding partner of 101.