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It's good to bend the rules

The rules we tend to take as gospel truth are quite often the very things that get in the way of creativity and critical thinking.

I've never been one for rules. Despite being 41 and a quarter, whenever someone tells me what to do, just because, I have a natural reaction to resist it. Just because.

I blame it on my Dad. He was extremely strict and while some rules made sense; like eating your greens and going to bed early. Quite a lot didn't. His irrational view of condiments is just one example. Horseradish goes with roast beef. Cranberry sauce goes with turkey, apple with pork and so on. Mixing and matching simply wasn't allowed. His list of rules was endless and for my poor old Dad, wherever there was a rule, there was resistance.

This trait has undoubtedly got me in a bit of professional trouble from time to time but I'd say it has helped more than it has hindered. In my experience, the ability to question the way things are done, in an environment where colleagues and clients are open minded, is one of the biggest factors that lead to great partnerships, great teams, great discussions and ultimately great work.  

In particular, I tend to be critical of the abundance of marketing fads and principles that increasingly govern marketing. Not that any of them are officially rules, they are rules we should all follow nonetheless.

Admittedly, they are all very well and good in certain situations, but if everyone is doing the same things, at the same time, it removes the creativity and competitiveness that's required in marketing. And like it or not, marketing is more akin to sport than either art or science.

Of course, not advertising booze, betting and junk food to kids are rules we should adhere to, but everything else can and should be challenged. That's the fun and important part of our jobs. It's the part that leads to creative, lateral ideas.

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to talk to some brilliant students at The Australian Academy of Media on the importance of creativity and critical thinking in the workplace.  As much as I enjoyed it, the day after I felt a bit deflated. Perhaps as I reach old age, at least in agency years, I'm probably not taking my own advice, finding it easier to follow groupthink and dogma. Or worse, maybe the environments today simply aren't comfortable with diversity of thought. After all, nobody gets fired for following the marketing manual or the conventions of the category. Potentially, I'm just turning into my Dad.

Given the Olympics is on, let's return to the sports analogy. Many rules rightly keep the playing field level and fair. Stuff like, not taking performance enhancing drugs. However, like marketing, sport is full of unwritten rules that can be exploited in your favour.

Conventions are probably the easiest ones to see but the hardest ones to challenge. Groupthink normally ensues and nobody wants to sound like a dummy.

Prior to 1968, when competing in the high jump, everyone used to straddle, scissor or roll over the bar. But along came Dick Fosbury and his now ubiquitous Fosbury Flop. A technique that allows athletes to jump backwards over the bar and reach greater heights.

Now, when it comes to sports marketing convention says you should try and sponsor the biggest team or athlete you can afford. But what if you can't? Well, Burger King, knowing millions play the video game Fifa, decided to sponsor lowly Stevenage and challenge players to make them the best team in the world. Online.

Even at an elite level, many sports people still have weaknesses. The basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain is one of the greatest of all time but he couldn't make a free throw to save his life. However, at the time, nothing in the rules said you could dunk it, as long as you jumped before the free throw line. Knowing he was decent at slam dunking the ball, that's what he did; improving his shot percentage by 100%.

It's an oldie but a goodie. When car rental company Avis found themselves significantly trailing Hertz, rather than talk about all the benefits they simply told customers; because we're number two, 'We try Harder'. Now imagine selling that brand idea into a CMO?

In 1974, Muhammed Ali made the 'rope-a-dope' famous against the big and powerful George Foreman. The 'rope-a-dope' is a strategy that aims to wear your opponent down before hitting them where it hurts.

Aldi is a great example of this. Using Twitter to irritate competitors and demonstrate its brands are just as good but cheaper, drawing brands like Marks & Spencer into a fight; generating huge amounts of chatter and coverage all off a single Tweet. And who is even on Twitter these days, surely it's Tik Tok. Journalists, that's who.

I don't intend to dismiss marketing manuals but the rules we tend to take as gospel truth are quite often the very things that get in the way of creativity and critical thinking.

And as Pablo Picasso once said: "Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist".

Words by Carl Moggridge, Managing Partner.

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The rules we tend to take as gospel truth are quite often the very things that get in the way of creativity and critical thinking.