Published in Nov-Dec 2021
A few years ago, while captaining the Marin County Cricket Club for Northern California Cricket Association, I was faced with a sudden predicament. It was the last game of the season, and an important one; the result of this match would have seen the team either stay in the lower league or be promoted to the higher one.
On the morning of the match, I was informed that two of my team’s players couldn’t play. Thankfully, I had one reserve player, but needed to find one more. Through a few calls, I was offered help from a young American player who used to show up to our nets frequently. Only problem? The boy was a star baseball player and was interested in cricket solely for the charm of it, but had no batting or bowling skills. Stuck with no other option and obligated to field a full team, I asked him to join us nevertheless.
It was the best accidental decision and a lifelong lesson. What the baseball player was good at, because of his experience in another sport, was fielding. Especially the fast, missile flat throw right back to the wicket-keeper all the way from the boundary. Thanks to a superbly trained pitching arm, he ran out four players from the opposing side that day, including their best batsman. We won.
A recent article in Harvard Business Review states that sometimes, the best ideas come from outside your industry, especially if they are analogous fields. “When you are working on a problem and you pool insights from analogous areas, you are likely to get significantly greater novelty in the proposed solutions,” say professors Marion Poetz, Nikolaus Franke and Martin Schreier. “People versed in analogous fields can draw on different pools of knowledge, and they are not mentally constrained by existing, ‘known’ solutions to the problem in the target field.”
Take one look at the Pakistani advertising industry and you will instantly notice a deluge of sameness – I once asked a client to differentiate between shots of their own commercial and their competitor, and they failed to do so because everything was either practically identical, or had almost the same message. This industry-wide sameness is often the result of the classic echo chamber syndrome, where it becomes practically impossible to allow something truly original to make its way in, simply because everybody is speaking from the same background and are bringing the same kind of knowledge to the table.
For years, advertising and marketing solutions have been delivered by classic advertising agencies. But the agencies of the future are not solely marketing solution units, they are business solution engines that will help innovate products and systems beyond just marketing for a brand. Take e-commerce, for instance. An advertising agency can completely revolutionise the way a distribution channel is built for a brand. Snickers’ ‘Hungerithm’ was a brilliantly innovative sales tool, as was Cathay Pacific’s idea to generate revenue from in-flight catering even when flights were grounded during the pandemic. Excellent examples of how advertising agencies have diversified their offering. But while that diversification happens, and as the borders continue to blur between commerce, entertainment, social engagement and marketing, there are other non-traditional agencies that are stepping into the marketing world. The Others.
While this may be a cause for concern for a few, I find this to be a positive development: a widening of the competitive field, so to say, a tide that will lift all boats. I think this disruption is exactly what an industry basking in its comfort zone needs: a tank driven through a room that has maintained this echo for decades. It will force agencies – and brands – to adapt to what resonates with consumers, because hey, there is a social media pop-up breathing down its neck, full of 20-year olds who know what makes people laugh, and they have never studied advertising. There is a consulting company who can speak to psychologists and determine a better strategic way into connecting with a consumer. There is a meme designer that somehow understands why a 1000-rupee post goes viral, while you are forcing consumers to watch the four hundred thousand rupee TVC you just made by repeating it after every over in a cricket match.
Creativity thrives in a competitive environment. And if ‘The Others’ manage to bring in a higher quality of work, it will automatically force traditional agencies and brands to take another look at what they are producing. And then it’s up to them to keep up, or be eaten.
The same Harvard Business Review article states a case in which the three professors spoke to three different groups to find a solution on the issue of people unwilling to use safety gear because of discomfort: roofers, carpenters and inline skaters. The groups were tasked to provide solutions on redesigning safety equipment for the three fields. As the professors expected, “each group was significantly better at thinking of novel solutions for the other fields than for its own.”
When I started out in advertising, a very amazing creative director who hired me as an art director told me “I’m looking forward to seeing what you write.” Echo chambers can be built inside your own head too, and when challenged by something you are not used to, you tend to produce better work – it’s ironic that I now write more than I art direct. Whenever I try to hire people, to bring about a disruption that can only push the creative department to think of solutions that they never thought of before, I also look to hire people outside the industry. The baseball pitcher who can play on a cricket team. The Others.
Ali Rez is Regional ECD for Middle East and Pakistan, BBDO Worldwide. He is a 17-time Cannes Lions winner, including Pakistan’s first. firstname.lastname@example.org