Recently, passengers on a flight from Heathrow to Düsseldorf experienced a bit of a surprise: they landed in Edinburgh.
Apparently, the pilots had been given the wrong flight instructions and only realised their error when they announced that they’d landed in the Scottish capital and were greeted with stunned silence, followed by angry complaints.
Personally (and you would be right in thinking I am somewhat biased here), I’d be delighted to land in Edinburgh rather than Düsseldorf. I mean, who wouldn’t prefer the "Athens of the north" over the "Reading of the Rhine" (don’t hate on me – that’s its official twin town)? Who wouldn’t love a city whose icon is a famous castle, rather than one with a not-so-famous cartwheel? And who wouldn’t be impressed by the world’s biggest arts festival, rather than a bunch of old kunst?
Alas, though, the pesky passengers on flight BA3721 disagreed. They’d paid good money to get to a specific destination, probably chosen after some very sensible research into the available options, and had a host of other arrangements that were reliant on things going exactly to plan. A bit like our business, one might say. Except that maybe it shouldn’t be?
The truth is that any creative process should allow for an unexpected landing. Sometimes it can be a bumpy one. For instance, when the brief calls for revolution and you get evolution, that’s annoying. Or when the business challenge demands urgency and the proposal is slow-burn, that’s not helpful. But note that these are general parameters, rather than highly specific instructions. A description of the kind of journey we want to embark on, rather than a strict itinerary to a preordained destination, with no deviation permitted.
In my experience, creative people respond best when you set them a vivid challenge, rather than tell them exactly where they need to go, when and how. To continue with the travel metaphor, it works better when we say "It’s cold and rainy outside, so find me somewhere beautifully sunny but not too far", rather than "Take me to Ibiza for 2pm – or else". Of course, we may add a list of further criteria (the equivalent of the kind of attractions we hope to visit, the budget we’re working to and the dates that will suit us). We may even offer some starters for 10 (places that appeal to us and why – or visual references to help stimulate the imagination). But we don’t make the brief so tight that there can only be one answer. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Likewise, when creative ideas are presented, we should actively hope to be surprised by something original – and disappointed to end up exactly what we’d envisaged. For sure, the team needs to have met the original requirements, but we should be looking for an additional flourish that is simultaneously on point and delightfully off-piste. If we end up off the beaten track, we shouldn’t wave our briefs around like airline tickets and frame the debate as a contractural dispute. Instead, we should take a deep breath, survey our new surroundings and wonder whether we’ve landed in a place that’s even better than anything we could possibly have imagined ourselves.
To be clear, this is not a call for chaos – a reckless suggestion that briefs don’t matter or that prior conversations count for nothing. After all, as a planner, I’m quite keen on… um… planning. All I’m saying is that, at a time when some seem to be intent on reducing our work to advertising by numbers, the ability to surprise is more important than ever.
Too much marketing these days simply meets expectations – when we should be aiming to exceed them. Predictability is great if you’re going to a business convention, but not if you’re trying to disrupt a business convention. Unlike the airline industry, we need more flights of fancy, not stricter scheduling.
Andy Nairn is a founding partner at Lucky Generals