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Think BR: The pitfalls of enthusiasm

As a recent cycling safety campaign from Karmarama shows, it can be worth listening to the sceptics, writes Peter Gilheany, director, Forster Communication.

Peter Gilheany, director, Forster Communication

Peter Gilheany, director, Forster Communication

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If you work for a creative agency, you’ve probably had that moment - an idea forms, what seems to you a brilliant thought, one that will not only solve the issue at hand but will be ground-breaking, epoch-making, career-defining, simply brilliant.

You can almost taste the canapés at the inevitable awards ceremony where your peers will form a triumphant arch of appreciation as you march to the front to collect your award from a mid-ranking TV celebrity.

Then someone starts to pick holes in your idea. At first you are dismissive, you bat back objections with disdain, then with a little aggression and defensiveness.

Then the objections and comments start to sink in, the day glow certainty of the brilliant idea starts to fade, to become blurred around the edges. You quietly shelve the thought, briefly mourn its passing then move onto another, this one a real cracker. And so it goes.

Except, sometimes the brake isn’t put on, an idea that sounded fantastic in the anything goes atmosphere of a brainstorm makes it to the outside world unscathed and unchallenged, not subjected to critical thought or healthy scepticism, perhaps borne aloft by enthusiasm or the seniority of the person who gave birth to it.

Such ideas can be ground-breaking, revolutionary, game changing. They can also be spectacularly ill-thought through, unsuccessful and profoundly damaging.

Ad agency Karmarama seemed to have had a fit of the vapours this week and suffered a massive dent to their reputation as a result.

A campaign appeared early on Tuesday 12 November called ride-smart.org, seemingly aimed at the cyclists to raise awareness of cycle safety, which on the face of it seems an entirely laudable enterprise.

However, they chose to do so by writing a series of 'amusing' limericks highlighting how irresponsible cycling behaviour such as red light jumping led to death and dismemberment. These limericks were also featured on some fly-posted signs put up around central London.

The website centred on a series of Youtube clips lifted without permission from the people who filmed them, featuring supposed examples of irresponsible cycling, with a delightfully grating voiceover identifying the cyclists involved as "stupid twats" and urging other cyclists to take heed.

I’ve described the site in some detail as you will no longer find it in its original form online, It was replaced by an abject apology before Tuesday was out.

The site was spotted by some cycle bloggers and tweeters on Tuesday and the response was swift and brutal. Howlingly critical tweets led to outraged blogs, led to coverage in online cycling news portal, road.cc, which then led to dozens of angry cyclists tweeting current Karmarama clients to raise awareness of what their ad agency was up to, and also led to the inevitable parody site - advertise-smart.org.

Karmarama, to their credit, acted swiftly, made an unreserved apology and removed the offending website.

As a cyclist, I was angry at the unthinking idiocy this campaign seemed to demonstrate. So far this year, over 100 cyclists have been killed in the UK, with research suggesting that in the vast majority of cases the blame for those deaths lies with the motor vehicles and drivers involved.

The Times has been running a fantastically committed campaign to raise awareness of the dangers faced by cyclists, and then this campaign appears within a week of the UK’s first Tour de France winner being knocked off his bike.

But at the same time as feeling angry, I also felt some sympathy for Karmarama and the predicament they found themselves in, self-inflicted though it was. That sympathy was undercut by some relief, a feeling that "there but for the grace of God go I".

At Forster, I’m known as something of an ideas man, a good person to turn to for a nice tactic or a good turn of phrase. However, those ideas come in many flavours, a great deal of them bad.

There is a simple device you can use in brainstorms - the yes and approach - recently beautifully satirised in The Thick of It, the basic premise being that you build on what the last person said rather than shooting it down.

It can be very effective at unlocking creativity, but it really only works if it is followed up by a good dose of its mirror image - the yes but approach - subjecting the ideas produced to some good old fashioned challenge and scepticism. This stage is essential if you want to turn good ideas into effective ones.

Also important is some testing with key audiences. In the case of the Ride-Safe campaign, it is hard to believe that Karmarama did much testing for this campaign with cyclists and cycling advocates, as it would almost certainly not have seen the light of day if they had.

We sometimes have great difficulty persuading clients of the value of paying for audience testing, but it is a vital part of the creative process. Without it, you are relying on instinct, intuition and experience. In many cases, these will be enough, but you can become spectacularly unstuck.

We’ve recently been working up a set of key messages for a prominent charity. They had been passed by various internal stakeholders with flying colours before we strode confidently with them into a series of focus groups involving people who supported the charity and were affected by the issue they campaigned on.

We then watched on impotently as they trashed almost every single, carefully scribed word, royally and rightly pissing on our creative bonfire. We went away, tail between our legs, bitched about the points they raised, then read them properly, made changes and improved the key messages no end.

Great ideas are the currency of creative agencies, they are the thing above all else that clients want to buy. But great ideas rarely arrive fully formed; they are most often the result of a series of revisions and developments where the end result often bears little relation to the original thunderbolt.

So, beware of riding the initial wave of enthusiasm, and make sure you listen to the annoying sceptic sitting in the corner.

Peter Gilheany, director, Forster Communication

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