The target beyond the target

I was sent this the other day:

Despite it being a bit of entertainment whose attachment to an artificially sweetened soft drink is tangential at best, I find something about it very interesting (and I’m not talking about the obviously set up reactions from members of the ‘public’): it appears to me that this would have cost a fair bit of cash to put on – far more than you could justify for the number of people who would sit at that bus stop. So for it to make financial sense it must have an intended audience beyond the few hundred passers-by. I guess we don’t have to look far to work out that its real audience is the 5.5m+ (so far) who have viewed it online, in which case it doesn’t matter how contrived the ‘public’ viewing is; the point wasn’t to make a fun bus stop; the point was to make a viral YT clip.

Having one ostensible intention that disguises another is neither new nor uncommon. How many people would have passed this car and understood its message?


Few, I would imagine. But the further PR about a VW with free air conditioning would have multiplied the possible audience many times over.

So far, so elementary.

But this practice is by no means limited to ambient media stunts.

For example, lots of ads are often presented to the client to demonstrate how much work the agency is willing to do on its behalf. The agency may not be very keen to make them, or think they are the best solution, but they make up a big wadge of paper that shows the client some measurable love.

Such work can also be used to ‘run interference’ (this is an American football term that basically means to distract attention so that something else can have an easier path to success). If the client is shown three campaigns then they feel they have been given a fair choice, but also that they ought to buy one of the three, otherwise they’ll look thick/indecisive. This gets a campaign bought earlier in the process and if that process is skilfully played, the sacrificial lambs will be the ones the agency didn’t want to make anyway.

I’m not saying that these methods are always used, or always intended, but they’re often sitting there in the background and can come into play depending on the nature of the client or how the meeting is going. The days in which the agency would confidently offer only one solution to a brief are generally behind us. There’s also the truth that you make money if you sell a campaign first time, break even if you sell it second time and lose money after that, so you want to increase your odds of first time success, and if that means work becomes cannon fodder, well, that’s life. Every team knows that if its work is one of three campaigns going to client, two will die. However, they’re all probably thinking ‘may the best ads win’, and in many instances, they’re right; it’s very hard to predict a client’s reaction with complete accuracy, so they might well choose the supposedly sacrificial campaigns, which then go on to be made into good ads. But sometimes work makes up the numbers and that purpose can be just as valuable as the creation of the winner.

So a creative’s job may not always be what he or she thinks it is. But knowing the secondary purposes can lead to other interesting situations. Take this ad for example:

Screen Shot 2014-04-05 at 14.42.28I remember laughing pretty hard when I first saw that, and like many CDs, the first place I saw it was the 2002 D&AD annual. So it went beyond the judging panel and into the permanent book collections of thousands of people who would be impressed by it. Brilliant.

This could take us on to the thorny subject of scam ads. People get very indignant about the ads for highlighter pens and nose hair clippers that litter the press sections of Cannes and D&AD, but what is the intended result? For the teams, CDs and possibly even the clients, an appearance in an award book could be a very cost effective way of spreading a message about the abilities of those teams and CDs, and the benefits of working on that client for any award-hungry creative.

When Daryl and I started Lunar BBDO we did some ads that were intended to get us noticed, to give us legitimacy and attract publicity and good staff. Of course we went through the proper processes with the clients, but we knew there could be a target beyond the target: more fame and exposure than the media budget would allow.

The same thing happens on pitches: the point is not always to do the most groundbreaking creative work possible just to show how darn brilliant you really are. That might scare a new client off, so you might instead choose to present something a little safer then stretch the boundaries once you win the business. So an opportunity to show your mad skillz is actually just an opportunity to coax a client into a more receptive position further down the line.

Do you always hire the very best creative team available? Yes, but the definition of ‘best’ may take into account those who can do that ‘safer’, pitch-winning work. The Pencil-winning superstars might seem the clear choice on paper, but if you want to win the business so that you can have accounts that other teams can do great work on you might want something more MOR; the target beyond the target.

So when you’re doing what you think you’re doing, think again.

You may be doing something else entirely.