Marketers whose work doesn’t stand out should be fired. This is the opinion of Ahmed Tilly, creative activist and founder of Number 10 – A Creative Consultancy.
It’s fair to say that he is an unequivocal guy, but he has earned his strong opinions, having won and judged many prestigious advertising and creative awards, including Loeries and Cannes Lions. I had a fascinating conversation with him for my podcast, The Lead Creative.
Ahmed Tilly was a specialist at reading the room long before the phrase was coined, except he wasn’t reading a room but a country and human insight. He produced some of the most iconic advertising ever seen in South Africa, including Nando’s instant and witty responses to current events and the 1st For Women campaigns that unashamedly excluded the male half of the population.
So, what does it take to create brave advertising?
Brave clients and strong creatives
“A brave client, firstly. Then you need really strong creatives who can do surprising and unusual things. There is a big difference between work that aims not to fail and work that aims to succeed. Lots of agencies produce decent work that is tame and passive. They don’t want to stand out. They’re just trying not to fail. Producing brave advertising means standing out and sometimes ruffling feathers.”
He acknowledges that vanilla is the one flavour you get in every ice cream parlour. It’s a good analogy. Lots of people want vanilla, but it’s not the ice cream they tell their friends about.
Becoming part of the wallpaper is okay as long as that’s where your market is. It’s more difficult for bigger brands because they want to be all things to all people so they have more to lose. They’re afraid of offending the market.
But this doesn’t apply to every big brand. Tilly references Nike. “No one in marketing can forget Nike’s support of US footballer Colin Kaepernick when he took a political stand – or should I say a knee! They upset a big proportion of the US population but their decision was based on their values and they stood by what they believed in. That’s brave.”
The thing about Nando’s bravery is that it was so quick, often responding to issues overnight. Such agility needed four key components.
1. Being up to date – First, you have to know what people are talking about. “Our creative studio [Black River FC] was small but we hired people interested in the world and curious about a wide range of subjects, from sport to politics, so everyone could bring ideas.”
2. Being intuitive – You must be able to articulate a response. “We would decide on a hot topic and I would give the team about an hour to put down as many lines as possible without editing themselves. I’d end up with 10 or 20 lines, refine two or three, and send those to the client.”
3. Acting fast – The client needs to respond immediately. “The Nando’s team had the freedom to make decisions so there was no waiting for reverts up and down the line. They all knew what they were doing.”
4. Publishing quickly – “There’s no time to filter or test so you really have to be brave. It worked 90% of the time, which earned us permission from our client to do it regularly.”
Attitude is everything
What does it take to get it right often? Over many years of interacting with marketing departments, Tilly says he identified a tendency to obsess over what their brands aren’t rather than understanding what they are.
“I had an 11-year relationship with Nando’s and I can tell you that everyone who worked there understood what their brand was. It makes the agency’s job a lot easier when everyone understands the client’s purpose and focus, and the client is unapologetic about who they are.”
He says consistency is equally important because people come and go but the brand remains. “Sometimes a new agency or CMO will move away from the brand’s essence because they want to make their mark. That’s when things go wrong. It’s so important to be true before you’re different. New people have a duty first to understand the brand.”
Put the brand first
Tension between the marketing and agency teams arises from putting ego before brand. Tilly fights for the brand and the consumer.
“A good client will appreciate a fight in the brand’s interests. A bad client will allow their ego to run the meeting. It’s the same in agencies when creatives fight for work that is aligned with their client’s brand essence; they end up losing credibility.”
Play the dating game
Tilly says building trust starts at the first meeting. It’s like dating. You give someone your phone number but when they call you don’t trust them. You take a risk and go on a date but you still don’t trust them. They have to build a track record.
“It’s the same for the agency/client relationship. It takes time and every interaction matters. If you want the client to trust you, you’ve got to give them things to believe in.”
Brave or provocative?
Tilly has produced both brave and provocative advertising. I wanted to know how provocative advertising differed from brave. He reminded me of the original Tommy Hilfiger billboards.
In 1986, Tommy Hilfiger was an unknown brand with aspirations, and then along came art director George Lois. He created a giant billboard for them and put it up in Manhattan among the greats of the day: Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Perry Ellis.
“Taking on the big established brands in such a provocative way created a stir that became a news story and that’s how Tommy Hilfiger’s multi-billion dollar empire got started. Provocative advertising does that, but you need a big set of balls,” says Tilly.
Want to be brave?
If you want to be brave or even provocative in your advertising, Tilly says you should just ask your agency for what you want. “Briefs need to be simpler and more single-minded. State the problem, not the solution. It’s for the agency to find the solution.”
He leaves me with two simple thoughts:
1. If you’re not different, you’re dead.
2. Be for who you are for. Stand for what you believe in and those who love you will follow you.
He makes it sound so easy but if it was, more brands would be more brave.
This article was published in INC Africa