Orthodox thinking will be the death of agency

The prophetic George Orwell once wrote that “at any given moment, there is an orthodoxy – a body of ideas – which it is assumed all right-thinking people will accept without question and a genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing”.  Orwell’s sentiments, have, sadly, never been as resonant as they are today.

We live in an age when it is becoming increasingly difficult to have a nuanced conversation about a seemingly growing number of non-sensitive issues, whether it’s same-sex marriage, immigration, Islam, or Israel. Clearly, there are others – the list is not exhaustive – but the substantive point is the corrosive effect that this new norm has on our relationships and our future welfare.

To move from the conceptual, the idea of not being able to fully debate an issue is particularly problematic for creative work spaces, especially agency-side, whose point of differentiation is the imaginative value of their work to the client. We need to give voice to all of the feelings provoked by such issues during the creative process if we’re to achieve great work. A campaign’s objective is to persuade its target audience; that audience doesn’t think homogenously, so nor should we.

I would go as far as saying that our creative leaders – whether it be advertising, PR, or marketing – are obliged to push these boundaries, and not revel in the harmless and the anodyne. Pushing those boundaries undoubtedly takes courage, but it’s vitally important that we try as conservatism is a deadening force in creativity. Clients are increasingly risk averse, but creative leaders cannot allow that to influence their creative process. Political and economic disruption in recent years has shrunk the creative space; it can’t afford to get any smaller.  

Leaders cannot do this alone, but their freethinking will prove to be the catalyst for others to join them in looking to achieve better work. Ultimately, it’s critical that the dissenters and the heretics are embraced by business for a brand to stand any chance of succeeding. It is only with these people on board do we achieve a fuller understanding of the issue (and views) at hand, and only then can teams produce an honest depiction of such matters.

It has to be said, that I don’t look to undermine the real feelings that some people may have about such issues, but to acknowledge the need to legitimise all aspects of the debate irrespective of its flavour. So, I’ve done the easy bit of identifying the potential problem – what about the solution? The idea of having a richer creative business means we need to assess how our corporate cultures can be loosened; whether that’s in the shape of recruitment or our brainstorming sessions. For instance, we need to recognise the benefits of appointing those who don’t quite think and sound like us in terms of personal viewpoints; I would also urge us to rethink the notion of collective problem solving as the reluctance to voice ideas among team members is a lot more widespread in such situations.

The heretical ones need to be welcomed and orthodoxy has to be challenged. The dissenter can, ironically, bring us closer together as team members; they can also open our eyes to those threats that have yet to emerge and the opportunities that we cannot see.

This article first appeared in Mumbrella

The value of corporate heresy

International law firm, Slater & Gordon had a particularly painful reminder of the wide-reaching effects of ‘what if’ scenarios last week, when UK Chancellor, George Osborne announced an increase in the small-claims limit and the removal of the ability to claim for general damages from minor whiplash injuries. The firm’s stock price fell 68 percentage points to a low of 69 cents, which is a veritable plunge, from the highs of $8 a share in April this year – that’s $2.5 billion in share market value wiped away.

I can’t go into the details of the case, as I haven’t got them. The episode does, however, highlight the criticality of scenario planning for businesses to best identify and resolve the threats that could damage operations.

Most discerning organisations – and I include Slater & Gordon here – would undoubtedly have a risk register, which tracks the course of such threats, but the register is only as good as the threats that have been identified, which are usually borne of internal perspectives – that is, current employees. This is not wrong, but I would counsel organisations to have a heretic to hand. That’s right, the individual in the room who goes that bit further in terms of identifying nightmare situations. Such bravado is usually found outside of the business, as external advisors aren’t encumbered by the emotional baggage that hangs round the necks of most salaried employees – loyalty being one. Granted, such advisors don’t have the insights in regards to brand heritage or corporate politics, but these are gaps that can be addressed.

Scenario planning sessions are, if done properly, heresy writ large. Threats are duly recognised and tracked to gauge their impact from a range of perspectives – brand, political, financial, community and personal. In fact, it’s vital that the session gets personal as that’s what stakeholders – primarily, the media, are looking for if anything was to go wrong. In short, they need somebody to denounce. So, let us speak the unspeakable and save ourselves from the blame game.