This past weekend, as I watched the Texas Longhorns dismantle my Missouri Tigers, my mind turned to advertising. Why? Well, for starters, to take my mind off the pain, but also because neither team used a huddle.
I'm not sure when the huddle was invented. The Marx Brothers used it to defeat Darwin College in 1932's Horse Feathers, and that's good enough for me. For decades, the huddle has served as the preferred method for keeping nosy opponents from spying on your next play.
Now, the huddle's a has-been. A part of the game that made such complete sense that not even Groucho questioned it doesn't make sense anymore. All because of something called the spread offense.
It doesn't matter if you know what the spread offense is, or how to illustrate it on a telestrator. All you need to know is that it works. Defensive coaches go cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs trying to stop it, and the more success it produces, the more NCAA teams adopt it. After starting out as a novelty, the spread has reached Malcolm Gladwell's tipping point. And since the spread doesn't employ a huddle, the huddle has become an endangered species in college football.
What's that got to do with advertising? Everything, Jim, everything!
There are lots of huddly things ad agencies do just because they've always done them. Expensive pitches. Awards trophy cases. M&M's in focus groups. But somewhere out there looms advertising's spread offense, a way of doing business so unique it can provide an advantage to any agency that adopts it.
I'm going to share my personal spread offense for advertising. There may be better spread offenses, but this one's no slouch. It works. It works on digital. It works on TV. It works on brand-sponsored talking magpies.
I call it Reverse Radical Strategy(tm).
Sounds like a crock of hooey, right? Maybe you're right. That's what Michigan thought about the spread offense last year before little Appalachian State dismantled them with it.
Reverse Radical Strategy works like this: When developing a brief -- which should indeed be brief, but that's another topic -- pick something as fresh, compelling and true to consumers as possible. This may mean developing five strategies to find the most "radical" one. So what? You're willing to consider five creative campaigns, right? Why should the strategy those ideas are based on have to clear a hurdle that wouldn't challenge Verne Troyer?
What constitutes "radical"? Well, for starters, "different." Here's an example:
In 2003, initial sales of the BMW X3 -- the smaller version of the popular X5 -- were disappointing. We felt that the launch positioning missed the mark, but we were BMW's regional agency -- not much we could do about it. With no assignment in hand, our planners dug into research and came up with several different briefs. One of them was based on the growing consumer feeling that SUVs were getting too big. Building on that, we took a perceived negative -- the X3's modest size -- and turned it into a positive: The X3 was the nimble SUV that handled like the Ultimate Driving Machine. The creative showed the X3 outmaneuvering monster trucks. Coupled with some smart product and pricing adjustments on BMW's part, we helped turn X3 sales around, both regionally and nationally. Reverse Radical Strategy triumphed.
Not radical enough for you? Remember what the Beatles' chief creative once said about carrying pictures of Chairman Mao. In other words, "radical" must be defined in terms of the market and your client's stomach for it. Above all, your radical strategy must connect with consumers.
And the "reverse" in "Reverse Radical Strategy"? That's the part that keeps you honest. Someone outside your organization can recognize a proper radical strategy -- somebody who isn't drinking the British tea served by your planner. So, think of strategies in reverse -- starting with the creative that they'll likely produce and working backwards.
Take Combo's work from a little over a year ago -- "What your mom would feed you if your mom were a man." Let's extract that strategy based on the creative. Here's a snack food that's pretty much saying, "Women, don't bother. This is for guys. And guys, don't look for any nutritional value in these things. We're not even sure what's in 'em. But they taste really good." How many clients would have the guts to buy that? How many agencies would propose that? Not many, and I'll bet that on the bad-for-you scale, Combos don't even crack the AP's top 25.
The resulting Combos creative was inspired. That mom was all man. But what would the creative have looked like if the strategic target were "men and women, 21-49, who enjoy snacks"? Or if the brief mandated mentioning calories? Not nearly as effective, right? By reversing the strategy, we can confirm it's a radical one.
Expecting your creatives to rescue a bland, me-too or multi-mandatory strategy is like expecting your quarterback to bail you out while wearing handcuffs. Could happen, but doubtful. And even if he bails you out, he won't be able to strike the Heisman pose. But given the combination of a brilliant QB and a brilliant game plan, you've got a shot at upsetting any agency.
Got to run. It's time to for me to make some advertising, which usually reminds me of beer and college football.
Bob Merlotti is a Cannes-winning freelance creative with an MBA from Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management who normally hates sports analogies.