Will it make the boat go faster?

If not, throw it overboard.

There’s a reason that agencies and clients need each other.

Beyond, of course, agencies not existing without clients, a big reason is that you can’t internalise an outside point of view. Clients need agencies to pull them out of their bubble, and sometimes agencies need clients to help pull their own heads out of their own you know whats.

That being said, how do you genuinely bring these vastly disparate worlds together on a project or ongoing relationship?

Put them in them same boat.

Some years ago at AWARD Creative Leadership, the great Warren Brown told this story. At least, I remember it as Warren. If it was someone else, then I apologise, but for the purposes of this post lets all imagine it was him.

The tale goes that in 1998, a middling British men's rowing team set themselves the insane goal of winning Gold by 2000. The strategy? Apply this question to every single decision they made from then onwards.

‘Will it make the boat go faster?’

And not just in regards to big things like training programs and rowing techniques. Everything. Even the small stuff. That clothing material. That late night movie. That going back for seconds. (Being British, the food thing was probably easier to avoid than the rest of us.) If it made the boat go faster, keep doing it. If it didn't, get rid of it.

In 2000, they won gold.

I've always though that, as an industry, we're incredibly adept at making what we do overly complicated. We're drowning in noise. Just ask anyone what their favourite ad is. Hell, just ask yourself. I'll wager that it won't be a multi-layered, wall-to-wall voiced, programmatic, re-targeted digital asset with a giant logo in the first 3 seconds and multiple call-to-actions.

It will be something delightfully insightful, naturally entertaining, and above all, brutally simple.

Getting to that last bit is the hardest of all.

At some point, everyone involved in the work needs to agree on what it is we’re trying to convey, and how we want people to feel about it.

There’s obviously a running joke in our business about ‘client feedback’. There’s nothing wrong with client feedback. In fact, it’s one of the most critical parts of the work. The problem isn’t feedback itself, but that 9 times out of 10, the feedback isn’t actually pegged against anything. It’s just a random subjective comment that has to be treated as gospel. This is where the boat analogy can really help. (But only if everyone’s in the same boat.)

If the work is about a product being easier to use, then that’s what makes the boat go faster. Will shoehorning in a second, or third, message make the boat go faster or slower? Slower.

If the spot is comedic, will taking out a funny moment for trivial reasons make it go faster or slower? Slower.

Will fighting a battle to get a 60 for your folio that doesn’t genuinely add anything to the campaign make it go faster or slower? Sorry guys, but sometimes the answer to that, again, is slower.

You’ll notice a bit of a trend. Most things you add to a piece of creative, like you would a boat, make it go slower. Often, the art is about reduction. Turfing the dead weight.

Sometimes, you can replace things - and this is where really paying attention to your client pays off. There might be a key insight they’ve uncovered that you can build into your idea. But rather than adding more weight, you may need to compromise by throwing something over that you just really wanted in there for the sake of it. Again, you just gotta look at the goal of the work and ask the question. Will this change make the boat go faster or slower?

David Abbott famously said 'shit that travels at the speed of light is still shit.' And I reckon that's never been truer. With the pace we're all expected to work at now, it's easy to get caught up in the whirlwind. We've all had campaigns die a death by a thousand cuts. A years work butchered in an edit suite. A seventh revision leave an idea completely unrecognisable.

And part of it is because we don't ask this question enough. Not just of others, but ourselves. CDs, writers, art directors, planners, accounts, clients, media... All of us.

Will it make the communication clearer? Will it make the ad more entertaining? Will it give that one key takeaway more room?

Chances are, that flogged to death joke, additional lock-up, quadruple-minded prop, 5-page feedback doc, 7-point mandatory list or 12-months-in-advance media plan will answer a sound no to all of the above.

If it doesn't make the boat go faster, throw it overboard.

(I wrote about this previously some time ago, and was contacted by one of the actual rowing team members themselves, who now runs a consultancy by the same name - https://willitmaketheboatgofaster.com/)


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