I’m fresh out of the MAD//Fest conference – the first big in person meet up of adland in over a year – and it was really joyous, if admittedly overwhelming, to see the industry in its full splendour again. And aside from the usual paraphernalia of media owner swag, the main thing I took away from the conference was the fact that every presentation by heads of marketing at brands seemed to me to be about taking risks. Like a golden thread woven through the whole event, it came up time and again – often under different guises or names – but fundamentally the same. Soco Núñez de Cela, Marketing Director of Burger King, called it “Expect the unexpected” and Noel Mack, Chief Brand Officer at Gymshark, called it “The art of not doing it the way it’s ‘supposed’ to be done”, but both were talking about the same thing: the benefit of taking risks with your marketing.
So why, if a room full of hundreds of marketing and advertising professionals are listening to this, does our industry still seem so risk averse? So stuck in our ways? So nervous to say the wrong thing? So obsessed with tracking the ROI of each piece of activity?
This was made painfully evident by this moment. Noel Mack from Gymshark told a story of a time they did something out of the ordinary with an OOH site in Times Square which they got for the bargain price of £5k at the height of the pandemic. He showcased all these impressive stats about retweets, trending globally, press articles, consumer response etc. – and then someone in the room asked what revenue they attributed to it. Noel’s response? “I don’t want to sound like a dick but you’re asking the wrong question.” Bravo.
The thing is I think we all want to work like that really, we all want to tell our own keynote speeches filled with risky, innovative, and successful pieces of work, but we seem to get trapped. Trapped by things like measuring CTRs, VTRs, CPAs and every acronym under the sun – just because we can. And both sides are susceptible to this: brands expect agencies to report back on campaign performance, and so agencies flood them with the reams of data they have available now – rather than both sides looking at the bigger picture together.
So why is it we don’t take more risks with our marketing, even though we all want to do it and we all know it works?
I think one reason is that agencies can often fall into the pattern of simply giving clients what they want, whether so that the plan is more likely to get signed off, or so that they can turn it around in the two weeks they’ve been given to respond. Brand marketing teams need to avoid this by fostering a genuinely trusting relationship with their agency, so that the agency team has the freedom and time to develop strategies which are riskier, braver, and – based on the insights from MAD//Fest – more successful in growing a brand.
Another potential reason is that it can be scary to choose a risky approach in the world of Twitter trolls and ‘cancel culture’, especially with so many brands trying to flaunt their “purpose” now, which can often fall flat. But that didn’t seem to have put Burger King or Gymshark off, in fact both speakers referenced times when their risks didn’t pay off – Burger King’s well-known women’s day tweet, for example. They accepted that risks are exactly that – risks – and so by their very nature cannot work every time, but the pay off when they do makes it worthwhile.
So thank you to MAD//Fest and to the excellent speakers for reminding me and a room full of marketeers to do more, be braver, and take risks. It will pay off.