Learning to love the elephant in the room

Elephant resized

Leith Planner, Thea, on how confronting the bad stuff can lead to better good stuff.

As ad folk, we’re hard-wired to focus on ‘opportunities’ and ‘consumer benefits’. This is great. But not if it means all the negative stuff gets ignored or swept under the carpet.

Because sometimes it’s squaring up to the bad stuff — looking it in the eye — that gives rise to the most interesting and effective solutions.

When Scotland failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, there didn’t seem any point in IRN-BRU doing anything around the event. Especially given the global mega-budgets of rivals like Coke and the fact IRN-BRU weren’t even allowed to use the words ‘World Cup’.

But instead of giving up and looking for a more obviously ‘positive’ opportunity, Leith and IRN-BRU wondered if they couldn’t use the limitations to their advantage.

And so the idea of “Bruzil” was born.


“Bruzil” was an integrated campaign based on the notion of Scots meeting and mating with consenting Brazilians to breed a world-beating football team in time for a certain global sporting event in 2034.

The campaign caught the public and media imagination and for a budget of £150,000 generated nearly half a million pounds worth of PR value.

“Bruzil” — for all its initial limitations— was named as one of Marketing Week’s top five World Cup campaigns. Coke (who spent £3.4 million on their World Cup campaign and faced few, if any constraints) were not.


But what if it’s not just the marketing context that’s challenging? What if it’s the product itself?

Take poo. Nobody likes the idea of ‘catching’ their own poo, poking about in it with cardboard sticks and smearing samples under fiddly little flaps. Which explains why many 50–74 year old Scots don’t do the NHS bowel cancer screening test when it arrives in the post — even though it could be a lifesaver.

When Leith began working with the Scottish Government to encourage more people to do the test — every instinct screamed that we should dial up all the amazing lifesaving positives, and avoid any reminder of how unpleasant the test is to do.

But creative testing revealed a counter-intuitive breakthrough. The more overtly our advertising acknowledged that the test was disgusting to do — the more receptive people were to the idea of having a go.

“Aye, we all know it’s a bit boggin”

Acknowledging the gross nature of the test disarmed people. It got them on side emotionally. And by coupling reference to the grossness of the test, with the fact that half a million people a year successfully do the test — we made people realise that maybe they could (and should) overcome the yuck-factor too.

The bottom line, (if you’ll pardon the pun) is that sometimes the most effective solutions come from being honest about your biggest limitations. Because once you’re honest about them you can start to think around them. To outwit them.

It’s an idea that Adam Morgan puts across brilliantly in his latest book, ‘A Beautiful Constraint’.

Morgan tells the story of how Audi focused their racing team on the ‘propelling question’ of “how do we win the Le Mans race, without building a faster car?”.

Squaring up to this huge constraint led Audi to develop a radically lateral solution. And they went on to win the race for six consecutive years.

I won’t steal Mr Morgan’s storytelling thunder by revealing the secret of Audi’s success here — but I do heartily recommend his book.

So when you next start work on a project brief, try asking yourself this question:

“What’s the single biggest thing that makes achieving our goal bloody difficult?”

Because once you’ve been brutally honest about that, you’ll be a whole lot closer to spotting the real opportunities.