Orthodoxy is toxic


All my heroes are equal but George Orwell is more equal than others.

I’m not taken to affection for old Etonian propagandists, after all there are enough of them stuffing the country up at the moment. But I make an exception for George.

You may love him for his life-long opposition to totalitarianism but my hero worship is altogether less worthy. As far as I can see, as a master essayist, he basically invented blogging. While his exploration of society’s underbelly means he definitely invented ethnography. And at a push I’d try to claim that he was one of the first people to challenge their unconscious bias.

But Orwell is mainly my hero for his unrelenting opposition to orthodoxy. I mean, he didn’t pull any punches when he said “Orthodoxy means not thinking. Not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness”. Now, there’s someone that really hated cliché, truism and accepted wisdom.

Of all the challenges that face our business at the moment we forget that orthodoxy, in all its guises, is utterly toxic for our industry. Orthodoxy is our kryptonite. Because it stops us thinking, exploring, challenging, questioning. It stops us doing what we do best, which is to find a better way.

By definition, the explosive and sometime impossible outcomes that we search for and that are capable of creating a demonstrably different future for a brand, demand that we attempt things that have never been tried before. Strategically and creatively.

The AA’s 4th Emergency Service, a drumming gorilla, Lurpak’s love of food, The Superhumans, Direct Line’s gangland fixer. All these commercial triumphs were fuelled by the knowledge that what had been done by others could never provide a blueprint for success. As Bernbach said “the memorable never emerged from a formula”.

Indeed, a visceral loathing of orthodoxy ought to be the key qualification in getting a job in advertising or marketing. Those that take comfort from the accepted wisdom of others are ill prepared to face the future challenges of our brands and businesses.

All too often accepted wisdom becomes a reason for marketers to accept defeat, to give up and submit to the fate that a market has dealt out. A decade ago every drinks brand had given up on gin, the market was insistent that vodka was the white spirit of the future and every piece of lack lustre and unimaginative research reinforced this view. And then, from nowhere, Sipsmith refused to accept gin’s allotted fate and in doing so over turned the settled wisdom of the market and created a new future for Gin. Nothing is written and every brand with enough imagination and creativity can challenge the market and write a new history for itself.

And we all need to be vigilant in preventing the insidious creep of orthodoxy. For every new theory or approach, while revolutionary at its inception, stands to become the accepted wisdom, to a become limp and lifeless cliché with time. Yesterday’s radical new idea becomes today’s best practice and tomorrow’s dogma, stifling any better way of solving our problems. Dogma is a form of weaponised orthodoxy, for it not only blinds us to a better path but in its refusal to concede that there could be a better path it lays waste to new possibilities.

Set yourself against orthodoxy of any kind. Challenge the accepted wisdom of your category or business or brand. And fight tooth and nail against dogma and those that peddle their theories as unquestionable truths. This is the only way to ensure that our business, both client and agency side can offer real value and achieve the impossible for our businesses and customers.

The alternative is unconsciousness.

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3 Replies to “Orthodoxy is toxic”

  1. Richard. Thanks for the post. One of your best!
    I too am a big Orwell fan. Down and out… and Road to Wigan Pier (along with Ralph McTell´s Streets of London) made a big impression when I was growing up…. and still do!

    Yes…Question Everything!!
    “And fight tooth and nail against dogma and those that peddle their theories as unquestionable truths”.
    Amen to that!!

  2. Great piece, timely. Described as “maverick” by a former account director – surely an asset in the ad industry if not “the key qualification”? – I celebrated 140 years of the Mast-Jägermeister herbal liqueur with a selfie toasting the brand’s STAGgering success.
    Our group comprised a German, a British-born African, two Scandinavians and their dog, snapped on a Spanish rooftop. Unorthodox!
    The two-second shot (of the photo, not the drink) took three days to set up – unfavourable weather blighted the first attempt, flu-ridden participants pulled out…a great deal of quick thinking was required.
    After launching Jägermeister in 1878, the Mast family often ate at my friend’s family restaurant in Hamburg. Ours was an unofficial birthday tribute.

  3. Don’t you make ads for Head and Shoulders and work in an infamously ‘brutal, macho environment’?

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