Square peg seeks round hole: in celebration of awkward, unconventional genius

How would marketing's creative heroes of yesteryear fare in today's overbearing corporate environment, asks Will Harris.

I want to write a book about square pegs and round holes.

It will look at the dozen greatest marketing breakthroughs of the past 20 years or so – the really big ones that required breakthrough creative or planning in a dramatically different direction from the conventional tide of the moment. The activity that changed the face of other campaigns by its innovation, and probably sparked a series of imitations.

But rather than look at the campaigns in detail, I want to focus on the people behind them. The creatives, the planners, the suits – and, most especially, the clients.

My hunch is that it would be a story of eccentricity, paranoia, unpredictability, tantrums and non-conformity. Of brilliance despite the system, not because of it. Of people and teams of people who refused to conform to the consensus, but instead went their own way. A book of risks with no guarantee of rewards.

The book would hinge on a chilling assessment of how those heroes of creativity would fare in these days of big-corporate Britain. How would they exist in a world of 360° appraisals and reviews, where how one behaves is just as important as what one achieves and where corporate reputations are made and broken, for the most part, internally, rather than externally?

This is assuming that those creative heroes of yesteryear would even get the job in today’s client companies.

Would they be able to survive the elongated selection processes, the multiple interviews with subordinates, peers and bosses, each one seeking conformity within the organisation they represent?

How would they score on the many and varied head-hunter reference calls that seem to continue in perpetuity until they find someone who has something bad to say about a candidate? And what about the process of creating the campaigns themselves?

What sort of modern-day chief marketing officer would run a campaign that they knew their chairman or chief executive hated and didn’t fully understand? Could they quietly ignore the Millward Brown link scores, turn their backs on the outraged majority in the focus groups and go with the quiet nod from the more-forward-thinking minority?

A few quick examples to illustrate my point. It takes balls and a touch of insanity to conceive a nationalistic Englishman (Ray Gardner) as a front-piece for a soft drink, culminating in him stripped to the waist, railing against the idea of exporting Tango to the French. Could you see someone approving that today? What sort of a mind would take a beer that had a reputation for being overpriced and deliberately talk up that attribute (Stella Artois)? And who would think that naming a mobile network after a fruit, then using a floating baby as a means of promotion, was a good idea (Orange)?

The creative leaps here are significant. They are perhaps some of the highlights of our generation, descendants of the Smash Martians, Fiat Strada robots and Benson & Hedges Gold campaigns that the previous generation bequeathed us. It is more difficult to see the great campaigns of today. For me, things start to blur after Guinness’ "Surfer", and we are probably too close to the music to be able to stand by and make an assessment of what will live on as truly groundbreaking.

Of course, the reason that I won’t, in all likelihood, write the book, is that the truth is too obvious and depressing to be interesting. That previous cast of marketing and creative "Incredibles" could not thrive and survive in the type of organisations that became famous precisely because they once could.

Marketers have become wrapped up in a sticky combination of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, instant accountability and procurement, all compounded by a prevailing wind of consensus and bridge-building.

While this is bad news for clients, surely it is good news if you happen to work at an agency. The long-predicted demise of the agency has not materialised, and perhaps part of the answer lies in the symbiotic relationship between conformist, risk-averse client cultures and the free-thinking agency entities. In many cases, agencies have become the life-support system for clients, thinking the unthinkable.

That’s fine as far as it goes, but when all is said and done, you are still going to need a client that knows one end of a creative idea from the other. If the massed ranks of HR are not attuned to those types of marketing people, and are seeking out legions of safe pairs of hands, rather than zany, creative risk-takers, then trouble is just round the corner.

So let’s make 2014 the year of round pegs in square holes, and celebrate the awkward, unconventional, creative geniuses who have made the UK a world leader in creative services. You can be sure that this is not a debate they are presently agonising over in South America.

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