In the last quarter of 2016, the regional arm of a multinational financial institution invited us to pitch as the agency of record for a campaign they were hoping to roll out. At that particular time, we were at the penultimate stage of a project of a rather sensitive nature (both confidential & timewise) for a new client we had just gained. We were very tempted to send a regret explaining that we were unable to honour the invitation. As it so happened, two of the people on the marketing team were acquainted to us, having worked with us on other projects before they moved to the financial institution in question. So, despite the long and arduous hours the entire team was putting in, we felt it would be a professional courtesy for us to at least take the meeting.
In hindsight, we must have looked like the most ragtag group, as the other agencies had arrived with all the might and fire expected with acquiring a lucrative account. On the other hand, we walked in with our Moleskine notebooks and weather beaten and sleep deprived faces. Three straight weeks with an average of about 3 hours of sleep a night had obviously taken its toll on us by the time we arrived for the meeting. All agencies were briefed on the project and handed the task sheets. We left the meeting and jumped straight back to the project we had been undertaking before, hoping to finish it.
Fast forward to two weeks later, and despite having had the ‘new project’ chalked up on the boards, we had hardly looked or even discussed it. The project we had been working on had taken new twists and turns and we had thrown the entire might of the whole team behind it. When we had finally released everyone to head home and get some rest (this was around 10 pm), and there were only two of us left to carry on, we received an email reminding us that our pitch to the financial institution was due in several hours (according to the calendar app invitation, we were to present in at 8:00am). All thoughts of sleep had to take a back seat as we put on pause the project we were working on and started brainstorming for the pitch…
It took us about 4 hours to put the campaign together– 4 super intense hours to conceptualise, storyboard, script, shoot, film and design a campaign that spanned 4 social media platforms, 3 print platforms, 2 digital platforms, activations, 1 installation, not to mention a rather ambitious proposal to bring in the very founder and president of the institution into the project on a mentoring, Q&A and engagement platform via use of Facebook Live and Instagram stories.
By the time we were done laying out the designs, rendering various artworks and printing pitch boards, it was quarter to 4:00 am. That left 3 hours for sleep and 45 minutes for the drive to the pitch. There was no time to rehearse.
When we arrived at the pitch the next day, we were running on Red Bulls and adrenaline. 8:00am sharp-ish, we were at the client’s offices – ready. Although we were slotted in as the first agency to pitch, everyone seemed surprised to see us there at that particular hour. The head of the marketing team walked into the office and when he saw us, he asked why we were so early. We said we were there at the appointed time. A quick look at our emails on our phones and it turned out that our calendar apps were reading 8:00 am GMT and not East African Time. We were effectively 3 hours early. Going back to the office was out of question and any attempt at catching some desperately needed sleep would mean us crashing entirely (“crashing” is a term we have skewed at Sticks & Stones to represent when we have been pulling long hours of work and should one attempt to close their eyes for even 2 minutes, they wont be able to get back up again). We went off to the parking lot and rushed to a nearby mall where we set up at a restaurant and continued working on the project from the other client while liaising with the rest of the team back at the office. When our hour finally arrived we went in and presented our pitch.
One would think the lesson herein lies in the rather long-winded story above and while some of it indeed does, the biggest lesson actually came a week later when we had won that pitch. We were called back to be given the good news and meet the marketing team. The team while very pleased with all the ideas we had pitched, they were very eager to in essence ride on the social media gimmick that was making rounds at that particular time: The mannequin challenge! In fact, they insisted that the campaign could be entirely based on this gimmick given that another banking institution had beaten them to the challenge and they wanted to catch up. Our proposal had encompassed not just the campaign and project at hand, but also creation of an entirely new brand engagement and galvanisation direction that could be adopted in various countries and rolled out at no added cost. In fact, the proposal outlined how new clients would be attracted and current clients retained. We were crestfallen, we left and sent a regret email explaining that perhaps we were not the agency they needed. The campaign and indeed the whole project never rolled out, despite another agency getting engaged.
It has unfortunately and very sadly become the norm for brands, businesses and support industries to resort to gimmicks and fads. The proliferation of connectivity through social media and the internet in general has given rise to cheap thrills and elevated gimmicks and stunts to revered levels.
The number of ‘influencers’ and brand ambassadors who have little to bring to the table apart from mediocre approach and assimilation to communication that rely heavily if not solely on serendipitous occurrences is staggering. Effective, organic, impressionable and lasting communication requires critical thinking, planning, strategy and execution, with measurable and quantifiable results that enable brands and their related suppliers or collaborators to review, analyse and refine their communication, message and perceived, projected and achieved ends.
If as a brand, the best that your PR & Comms team/agency can come up with is a gimmick, a meme or riding on the coat tails of a fad, they deserve to go home. If as a marketing, comms, PR team or agency what you have in your arsenal are these asinine and honestly cheap tricks, you are what is wrong with the industry. The reason that there has been a proliferation of offensive, ineffective and insensitive communication in the recent past is that there is little or no substance to the communication we as an industry are putting out. This is not a time to point fingers. We all collectively need to take responsibility.
In August 2014, the world was in the grips of the Ice Bucket Challenge. Everyone was getting in on it. Unfortunately, while most of us knew about the challenges, many of us even as of now do not know what ALS stands for or even what the campaign was about. A great idea was hijacked mid-journey, savagely beaten and robbed of its purpose and dignity. The sad part is the organisation that was hoping to raise money and awareness from the campaign didn’t raise a lot of either. We need to be better as an industry; we need to be better as brands, we need to be better as audiences. We must stop insulting the intelligence of our audiences and clients. If not and this is the path that we have chosen to take, we might as well hand the reigns over to the teenagers traversing the Internet who have named themselves ‘humble meme farmers’.