News & Views

How to get lucky in 2014

by Contagious Contributor

Andy Nairn, founding partner of creative agency Lucky Generals, argues established advertising methodology does not allow for serendipity

In 1992, scientists were running out of patience with a new treatment for angina: UK92480. They had hoped that the drug would relax veins carrying blood to the heart, but the initial tests were proving disappointing. In fact, the researchers were just about to give up, when they began to notice an unusual side-effect in male triallists: lots of vigorous and sustained erections. Spotting the potential for an entirely different application, the scientists switched their focus and after much further investigation, the drug we now know as Viagra was developed. Eventually, it became the fastest-selling pharmaceutical product ever. All quite by chance.

This method of discovery is not unusual in the scientific world. In fact, experts estimate that between 30-50% of breakthroughs are due, at least partly, to luck. Most famously, these have included Newton's work on gravity, Einstein's theory of relativity and Fleming's invention of penicillin but chance has also played a key role in lesser-known stories such as the discoveries of microwaves, x-rays, pulsars and rockets.

In marketing circles, however, this approach is actively frowned upon. The approved methodology is to start with the business problem, work your way doggedly through the competing strategic options, translate this into a single-minded proposition and then, from all of this, deduce a killer creative idea. To reverse the process and begin with an exciting concept, is to invite accusations of post-rationalisation and haughty assertions that the approach will not be robust.

Now I would never suggest that we should throw our strategic rigour out of the window. Our industry is at its best when we are solving a commercial problem so it makes sense to start with the challenge and work forwards. But I do worry that an overly rigid adherence to this modus operandi prevents us from making the kind of breakthroughs seen in other fields. Ideas which apparently come from nowhere are thought to have no integrity - and thus no worth - but it may be that their unexpected nature is exactly what makes them so powerful. Likewise, concepts which lie outside the parameters of a pre-established framework are often dismissed as off-brand and/or off-brief when it may be precisely their boundary-pushing qualities that make them immensely valuable.  

Perhaps this is another consequence of the dialectic view of communication which has traditionally dominated our industry and which has been compared unfavourably, on this very site, with the dialogic model of the digital era.  

Where the assumption is that there is only one right answer to a given problem, then the temptation is to search exhaustively for that silver bullet and exclude more tangential ideas that present themselves along the way. However, where there is an acceptance that there may be several effective approaches, problem-solvers are more open to lateral solutions. Even if these answers result in the original question itself being completely reframed.

On this point, it's instructive to remember how the word 'serendipity' was coined in the first place.  Typically seen as an ancient term, meaning a discovery made entirely by chance, the term was actually created by Horace Walpole as recently as 1754 and was used to describe something a little more complex than the 'happy accident' which is usually offered as the dictionary definition today (in 2002, 'serendipity' was named one of the hardest 10 words to translate, in the English language). 

In fact, Walpole minted the word from a Persian fairy tale, The 3 Princes of Serendip, whose heroes were 'always making discoveries by accidents and sagacity (my italics), of things they were not in quest of.' The presence of sagacity (in other words the experience and open-mindedness needed to realise the value of apparently random or innocuous occurrences) was as important as luck. In Walpole's mind, serendipitous discoveries were not pure flukes but skilful interpretations of chance events.

This is a recurring theme in the scientific literature too. Louis Pasteur once remarked that 'Luck favours the prepared mind' and Nobel Prize winning biochemist Albert Szent Gyorgyi agreed that 'A discovery is an accident meeting a prepared mind'. Empirical analyses make the same point: that while luck has played a huge role in many of science's greatest breakthroughs, an equally important factor has usually been a particularly open-minded disposition on the part of the researchers.  

So what does all this mean for modern marketing? Well, firstly that we should still focus hard on tackling business problems, as robustly as before. But also that this rigour should not be equated with rigidity. Increasingly, marketers must be open to the possibility of there being several right answers to a given question. They must be alert to ideas that have failed their original objective, and willing to transfer them to different sectors, times, geographies or contexts. And they must even be prepared to tear up their original brief and redefine the problem, in the light of a great idea.

Working in this way might not yield results quite as impressive as those achieved by UK92480, but it could increase your chances of getting lucky in 2014.

Andy Nairn is founding partner of Lucky Generals