Leaders need followers

In 1099, Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar led his troops out of Valencia against the besieging Moors.

His troops were greatly outnumbered, starving and sick, but the sight of Diaz de Vivar on his horse gave them the courage to fight like demons.

They won an amazing victory against overwhelming odds – Diaz de Vivar’s presence was that inspirational.

What they didn’t know was that he was dead at the time.

Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar was known as El Cid.

His wife had her servants dress his corpse in armour and tie it on to his horse.

Just the sight of their leader helped his troops do the impossible.

A leader, a flag, a symbol can have that effect.

In 1944 on D-Day, Bill Millin marched up the beach playing the bagpipes.

One of the commandos, Tom Duncan, said: “It made us feel proud, it reminded us what we were fighting for.”

It gave the troops the energy and belief to fight their way off the beach.

Throughout history, having a symbol to follow made people feel part of a greater whole.

For the French Foreign Legion, it was a wooden hand, nowadays kept in a glass box.

The hand belonged to Captain Jean Danjou – he led 65 men against 3,000 Mexican soldiers, only five legionnaires survived.

His prosthetic hand was the Legion’s most revered possession and always had pride of place at special occasions and parades.

Having a leader, or a flag or symbol, that unites and motivates everyone is therefore how the best advertising works.

Without the agreement, and ownership, of everyone involved, it’s a damp squib.

It takes the entire company to adopt the campaign: to repeat it, spread it, have fun with it, and use it – that’s what makes it go viral.

Everyone from marketing, to management, to the sales force, to retailers, to receptionists, to delivery drivers.

The first modern example of this was Avis.

Their campaign admitted they were smaller than Hertz, the market leader, so they said Hertz could afford to be lazy whereas Avis couldn’t.

That’s why the Avis campaign was: WE TRY HARDER.

That line made the staff feel proud – they wanted to wear it on badges and T-shirts, they wanted to demonstrate it everywhere, from cleaning the cars to smiling at customers.

That’s why it’s still the most remembered advertising of the 20th century.

The same thinking was true of Apple’s THINK DIFFERENT campaign.

They didn’t just run it once, Steve Jobs made that the theme of every speech and every product launch.

It made everyone in the company feel proud because it said they were different to other companies and, consequently, so were their customers.

I saw the same thing when I was at BMP – John Webster wrote a campaign to sell milk: WATCH OUT THERE’S A HUMPHREY ABOUT.

The campaign was so loved by the people who delivered milk that, all over the country, milkmen decorated their floats with the name HUMPHREY and images from the campaign.

Which made children, and consequently their mums, join in with it.

That’s how the best advertising works: PAID-FOR media triggers OWNED media, which triggers EARNED media.

That’s how clients can make advertising go viral – the ads won’t do all the work on their own, they’re just the start point.

They’re the flag, the symbol, that the entire company needs to gather round and follow. 

Dave Trott is the author of The Power of Ignorance, Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three

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