Opinion

14 March 2024

Endless edits and suicidal doves: why you need psychotic optimism to succeed in advertising  

Candy-floss positivity is not enough to make it in advertising, says Colenso BBDO's chief creative officer, Simon Vicars. You need deranged optimism.

I’m writing this while sitting on the floor of Colenso’s worst meeting room. Down the road, Publicis is building an advertising terminator, and global economists are doing their best impressions of a shrug emoji. What a perfect moment to talk about optimism.

I love optimism. It’s been a driving force for me throughout my career, and a universal trait of all the best people I’ve worked with. But before we join hands and skip somewhere, let me clarify what sort of optimism I’m talking about. Because it’s not the Getty Images version. It’s much more unhinged than that.

‘Psychotic optimism’ is a term coined by the iconic creative agency that was Crispin Porter + Bogusky. Alex Bogusky and his team made ideas like Whopper Freakout, Ikea Lamp and Subservient Chicken. They kicked the shit out of Big Tobacco and made Mini an icon in the US. In 2006, they published a book called Hoopla that tried to distil what made the agency magic. In among the killer ideas (and endless office pranks) those two words of ‘psychotic optimism’ jumped out at me and have stayed with me ever since.

Psychotic optimism is the industrial-strength version of optimism. Off-the-shelf optimism just doesn’t cut it in our industry. A stuck-on smile will come off too easily in the third round of qualitative research. A cheery disposition will fold under the force of edit version_108. You have to be deranged.

In 2016, mainstream beer was in decline across New Zealand. People were working longer hours, spending less money and were becoming more health conscious. It was like society had revoked drinking permissions. So we decided to give drinking beer a higher purpose.

By taking the leftover ethanol in the brewing waste we were able to create a biofuel called Brewtroleum. Suddenly drinking beer became a selfless act of environmental heroism. You might know that idea, but what you wouldn’t know is the disaster-riddled horror ride we went on to make it.

Victory will go to the psychotic optimists—the people who know they’ll find a way, even if that way isn’t clear.

Simon Vicars, Colenso BBDO

Every week, Brewtroleum died, then came back to life, then died again. The ethanol was so volatile that no one would process it. Or transport it. It took us almost two years to make, and at one point it was almost five special taxis imported from Argentina (it ended up being distributed to 62 petrol stations around the country). 

When we opened the flagship fully-branded petrol station we released doves from a chillybin. For some inexplicable reason, they all stayed low and flew directly into oncoming traffic. It was disaster after disaster after disaster. But no disaster could stop us. We were relentless. From our marketing team at Heineken to our bulletproof Colenso production team. Now, don’t be misled into thinking that I’m describing some high-performance advertising SWAT team. We weren’t. But the one attribute we all shared was this sort of mad and joyous resilience.

We have a poster on the wall at Colenso (due to renovations it’s actually on the floor. Like me). It’s something I saw when I first worked at the agency in 2011, and I’ve carried the slogan with me for the last 13 years. In big bold type, the poster says, ‘Success is going from one disaster to the next with no loss of enthusiasm.’ When one person possesses that trait, it’s powerful. But when a collective of people subscribe to that mindset, it’s unstoppable.

As an industry, we’ve found ourselves back in the middle of ‘uncertain times’. I don’t know what AI’s impact will be or if the value of brand building will reclaim its importance in the eyes of CEOs, but I do know that candy-floss optimism won’t be enough. Victory will go to the psychotic optimists — the people who know they’ll find a way, even if that way isn’t clear.

Because in those moments when everyone else has their head in their hands, I’ll always love the people who are laughing.

If you’d like more reasons to be optimistic about advertising in 2024, read VCCP chief strategy officer Clare Hutchinson’s piece on the same subject here.

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