If you want to be right, try being wrong

The award winning BA bullet point ads by Uncommon Creative Studio. Because a travel ad without an image of the destination is all kinds of wrong.

The more fashionable parts of the advertising industry have always liked failure.

They go on and on about how important it is to fail. To be honest, I’m not sure what’s so great about failure.

While the more intellectual people in our business love tensions. They bang on about them all the time. ‘Where is the tension?’ they bark at you. To this day I have absolutely no idea what a tension is or how to find one. Even thinking about tensions makes me tense.

What I really understand is being wrong.

I’ve always believed that great work needs to be interesting. An interesting strategy delivered with an interesting execution. But I’m now of the opinion that the fastest route to being interesting is to be wrong.

Not totally, catastrophically, career endingly wrong. But a bit wrong. Because something in our world that is a bit wrong has always been worthy of note.

I’m no evolutionary biologist but I suspect that being alert to things that are amiss or not as they should be was one of the best ways for our ancestors to stay alive.

In other words, perhaps we are pre-programmed to pay more attention to things that are wrong than to things that are right – orange and black stripes in undergrowth for instance.

You would think that idea might be important in marketing, where we are locked in an eternal battle for attention and engagement. That we might be obsessed with the power of a strategy, idea or execution that is wrong.

But that doesn’t appear to be the case, in fact quite the opposite

As strategists, agencies and marketers we are constantly asked by our clients and organisations to be right. As right as we possibly can be. That’s why we obsess about research so much, not to find out interesting things that we really didn’t know but to try and show people that we are right. And if we aren’t, that it was the research that got it wrong not us.

Being right has a cult like status in marketing.

Of course, there are exceptions to the cult of right – work that gets it wrong, whether by accident or design. And often this tends to be the work that proves most successful in the market.

Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty is profoundly wrong and has been for twenty years. ‘Right’ said women don’t want to see normal bodies in beauty advertising. ‘Wrong’ said this was nonsense and that championing real beauty would unlock sustained growth.

KFC’s work is pretty wrong too. For a fast-food brand to talk so overtly about the animal that they intensively farm and then slaughter is totally and utterly wrong. And yet fixating on the chicken, the whole chicken and nothing but the chicken seems to have brought home the bacon for the Colonel.

While British Airways now runs ads with just three bullet points and no lovely holiday photos. How wrong is that?

And the all the work of which I am most proud, from Direct Line’s Winston Wolfe to a decade of success for EE, has been really wrong. Show me a successful campaign and I’ll show you something wrong about it.

After all, who the hell sells insurance by deliberately confusing their brand name with that of a family of Russian rodents?

It’s also an incredibly simple action standard to bring to your work.

Sit down with the campaign you have today – it doesn’t matter if it’s a brief, strategy or work and ask yourself ‘what is wrong about this?’ What are we doing here that is incorrect for the brand, category or wider world. And if you can’t find something perhaps this is the right moment to put a little wrong in somewhere. Not because you fancy it but because it will be far more successful if you do.

And you will know what it is because wrong isn’t subtle.

Wrong gets questioned and often rejected as soon as you unveil it. By you, by your team by your leadership and by your client. One clue that you are onto the right kind of wrong is when the same objection is raised by every stakeholder you talk to. At that point you will know very clearly what is wrong and what must be protected.

That’s why one of the greatest qualities of client-side marketers is the ability to take an idea that’s wrong – from Cadbury’s drumming gorilla to BA’s refusal to show us pretty pictures – through every internal stakeholder and still make the work with all the commercial success that it delivers.

Because wrong only happens when agencies and clients are aligned that wrong is the right thing to do.

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