View from a garden: The necessary joy of fucking up

What a disastrous McDonald's presentation teaches us about the necessity of failure.

I remember with ghastly, testicle-shrinking, arse-sweating clarity my very first presentation to our intimidatingly clever client, Jill McDonald.

She had just joined McDonald’s from British Airways and had come into Leo Burnett to hear our initial script ideas for the Big Tasty burger. At this point, I do have to declare an interest in the product we were trying to advertise – I love the Big Tasty. Like, proper love. Like, bring it home to meet your mum and buy it an inappropriately large gift on the second date kind of love. There is something about the delicious smokey flavouring they add to the burger sauce that blows my tastebuds’ tiny minds. Oh, how I do love the Big Tasty (but not the Big Tasty with Bacon, I hasten to add – this, to my mind, is gilding the lily somewhat).

My deep romantic love may go some way to explain the nature of the script Jim Bolton and I had devised for it. Being superfans of the product, we had written something that we thought paid the burger the respect and grandeur it deserved. The ad featured Queen guitarist Brian May, stood on top of a McDonald’s restaurant as the sun set behind him, a light breeze blowing his flowing curls away from his face. In the proposed ad, Brian would sing out the seven ingredients of the burger, accompanying each bellowed ingredient with a flamboyant power chord from his infamous home-built Red Special electric guitar.

With Jill to the front of me and Jim to my left, I went for it. I am, by nature, a socially awkward human being who has ruined many a party for my long-suffering wife, but there’s something about presenting work to a client that brings out the dreadful show-off in me. According to my mother, I was a horribly precocious child who would dance in front of the telly when Top of the Pops was on, shrieking "Look at me! Look at me!" at the top of my voice. For some reason, client meetings bring out this delightful side to my character.

And so I stood up on my chair to give Jill the most vivid impression I could of what it would be like to witness the full technicolour glory of Brian May paying electric homage to her new burger.

"SESAME SEED BUN!" I roared, miming a powerful guitar chord: "THWAAAANG!"

This extraordinarily moving performance was met with an unexpectedly deathly silence. From the corner of my eye, I could see that Jim had turned bright red and was looking fixedly down at the table in front of him as if there was something really fucking important going on there that he had to pay attention to right this very minute or the world would come to an end. I looked up at Jill.

Jill is one of the finest clients I have ever had the privilege to work with. Ambitious, imaginative, forward-thinking, collaborative, driven… all that good shit and so much more. The only drawback with having Jill as a client partner, I found out that day, is her absolute unwillingness to hide exactly how she feels about an idea she has just had presented to her.

And the facial expression Jill was wearing in response to my first enthusiastically performed "THWAAAANG!" was one of abject horror, total disbelief and profound disgust.

At this point, a sane human being would have simply put down their script and sat back down on their chair, apologised profusely for having misread the expectations of their client so badly and offered to be stripped naked and publicly flogged in the car park of the East Finchley McDonald’s headquarters as some small recompense for the discomfort they had caused. Not me.

For some unaccountable reason, I ploughed on.

And on.

And on.

Six more ingredients to go, don’t forget.

"ALL-BEEF PATTY – THWAAAANG!"

"EMMENTAL CHEESE – THWAAAANG!"

"ICEBERG LETTUCE – THWAAAANG!"

"TOMATO – THWAAAANG!"

"ONION – THWAAAANG!"

"BIG TASTY SAUCE – THWAAAAAAAAAAAAANG!"

Pissing sweat, panting from the exertion and the shame, I wasn't finished yet. Oh, no. There was still the five-note sting at the end – that classic McDonald’s "da-da, da-da-daaaaah" sonic branding – that in our genius minds Jim and I had also decided would be played by Brian on his Red Special…

I struggle to put into words the atmosphere in the room at this point. The coldest place on Earth is reportedly the Soviet Vostok Station in Antartica, where the lowest-ever temperature on historical record is -128 degrees Fahrenheit. Chilly, to be sure, but I promise you this: after my gala performance to Jill, it would have felt like fucking Hawaii compared with the meeting room in which I now sat.

But, nonetheless.

Jill didn’t lose her shit. She didn’t fire the agency. She didn’t shout obscenities and dead-leg me for being a total arse. She didn’t even ask for Jim and I to be taken off the account and be replaced by less obviously buffoonish creative directors. She just patiently explained why this was the most off-brand and appalling idea she had heard in her working life and asked for us to go again.

I’m proud to say that Jim and I did go again – and spent the next five years working closely with Jill (and lots of other excellent human beings, both agency- and client-side) to help create a campaign for McDonald’s that still runs to this day. It’s a campaign that has won many of those advertising awards things that our industry takes so seriously and, far more importantly, contributed in its own small way to nearly 14 years of continuous growth in the UK.

Many times in my career, members of my team have expressed worry about an idea we were about to present and claimed that it would unnerve, anger or panic the client, or even lose the business if the team were feeling particularly melodramatic and hadn’t had their morning coffee yet. With my hand on my withered heart, I can honestly say that no client I have ever worked with has walked out of the building because of a "risky" idea I have read out from a piece of paper. Experimentation involves risk or it’s not an experiment, and failure is a necessary step on the road to success of any kind. If you’re not getting it horribly wrong at least some of the time, you’re not great at your job – you’re just being boring.

Which is the last thing our industry can afford to be right now.

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