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There are times when trying to get even the simplest of tasks done feels impossible. I’m not talking about overhauling an entire corporate strategy, ousting someone from their seat or anything even remotely worth more than three grey hairs and a double espresso — but simple, progressive and small tasks or steps.
And yet. Ah yes, and yet. And yet some things remain more out of reach than they ought to be, more difficult than necessary and downright frustrating for no reason, because people almost get a kick out of being enemies of progress. We see it every day and in almost every context: security guards being difficult for no reason, customer-care centre agents unwilling to go off script to actually address an issue at hand, or bureaucracy just doing its best to get in the way of moving forward.
Saddest of all is that I’m beginning to suspect this horrid behavioural trend is starting to rear its ugly head a little too close to home. Is this why getting something done in the world of PR (and marketing as a whole) is so hard? Is marketing beset with enemies of progress? Are we killing what could be great quick wins because of… processes, hierarchies and closed minds?
The proverbial playing field is in many ways tougher than ever, with budget cuts across the board (with the marketing budget being the first to get the chop), increasing involvement from procurement teams and, a lot of red tape designed to ensure more efficiencies and optimisation, and yet doing the very opposite in most cases. We have become so bogged down by process, rules and red tape (and sometimes egos) that boring and dull have become the theme du jour. If we want to see big things, amazing work, and real impact, we need to rally together and make the most of every opportunity, no? This would, of course, be what logic dictates.
In December 2019, Burger King UK revealed its Whopper news: that every single Whopper advert, billboard, promo and pretty much any and visual depiction of the famous burger had a Big Mac hiding behind it. The mechanics were simple: every photoshoot of a Whopper has the Whopper placed in front of a Big Mac, ensuring the Mac was not visible — literally hidden by the more impressive Whopper or in its proverbial shadow. (Take a look if you have a minute; it’s really quite clever!)
Every single Whopper, for an entire year — the brand showcasing that nothing beats a Whopper, and it’ll always take centre stage. Adverts appeared in this way in every print, social media artwork and billboard ad. It was a campaign that was over a year (literally) in the making, and which dictated needing to wait an entire year just to see the impact.
Commenting on Burger King’s big stunt, Ian Heartfield, BBH London chief creative officer, said: “Placing our competitor’s product in our own ads throughout 2019 without anyone knowing has been one of the most-fun ideas we have ever executed. It is, of course, just a good old-fashioned product comparison idea, but it’s been brought bang up to date by some lateral thinking and rebellious media behaviour. We’re loving it.”
It was easily one of the most-memorable efforts of the year, and it’s not hard to see why. It didn’t stop there, either, for the flow of ‘cool’ continued into the new decade. For Valentine’s Day 2020, the Burger King offered a free Whopper for anyone who brings in a photograph of their ex.
On the opposite side of this, and entirely unrelated, a recent McDonald’s UK outdoor campaign didn’t even feature its logo, its tagline or any product imagining: just a list of burger ingredients, and you would have to be a hermit not to recognise the brand behind it all (pardon the pun).
Imagine being a part of the communications team that pitched these ideas to client… “Are you insane?” “Don’t be stupid” and “We would like to see real value from you, please” are just some of the responses I imagine would likely have come from the brand office. Imagine the energy in that team, and the sheer passion and purpose that went into cultivating the idea into life! Ah, to have been there!
To be fair, I’m not suggesting communication managers are solely at fault; the culture of putting the bottom-line first and immediate monetary returns continues to reign strong, no matter how hard we deny it, and the pressure on communications teams is now greater than ever — do more with less, no artsy stuff, no frilly ideas, and convert to sales without any fuss in between.
Like the NFL players groomed to be ‘blocking machines’, great ideas seldom have a chance to make it out the shoot before being shot down because we’re feeding a culture that inhibits creativity or chooses to dictate its bounds to a tee. Yes, even when we claim we’re doing the very opposite.
Procurement offices are dictating briefs, finance decides with a sharp pencil who gets work based purely on budgets, and people who don’t see nearly as strongly the inherent opportunities in their brands make final decisions on ‘creative’. The more pressure they feel from the top to deliver, the more they inhibit and hamstring the very ideas that would otherwise make them shine.
The effect is domino-like in every way: the creatives lose their mojo, their passion and their nerve to think outside the ‘box’ and the standard of work becomes a cyclical feed of mediocre. It devolves into a culture of needless blocking, unnecessary difficultness and passive-aggression, and ennui, as the French would say. Rest in peace, dear creativity. You were a dear friend.
So, what’s the cure, then, if there’s even one? I neither profess to know one, nor suggest a single silver-bullet solution. Yet it can’t be too hard, can it? To wake up each day, vowing to think progressively, creatively, and with true long-term foresight and open-mindedness. To be clear in our objectives, direct in our briefs and yet, equally so, open to new perspectives, new interpretations and a healthy amount of rule-breaking and unconventional action. No longer will negative energy enter the pitch or presentation room before you; you go in ready to be amazed and leave with firm refusal for anything short of that. Be curious, be passionate, and allow the intellectual and creative bandwidth of others to flourish.
Whether you’re on the client-side or the agency- or consultancy-side, don’t be the problem or the cause of any more than three grey hairs and a double espresso.
Be the Whopper who refuses to bow the status quo, and defies, by all odds, any chance of becoming an enemy of progress. There are far too many already, I’d say.