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The Greatest Risk Is Not Taking One

Why Playing It Safe Leads To Poor Advertising

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Take your chances
Image courtesy of Håkan Dahlström

It's too risky.

We're not ready to take that step.

That's pushing way too far.

As a creative in any kind of advertising or design agency, you will hear that phrase a lot in your life (and if you're just now getting out of ad school, get ready to hear it again and again). It comes from people who aren't creative, but control the creative product. They are not brave. They sit in the big offices, with the big salaries and bigger vacation homes, and make their money through corporate politics and safe bets.

The Safe Bets Never Bring In Big Money

If you've ever placed a bet you'll know how true that is. If the odds are low, the payout is low. If the odds are high, there's a greater payout…but the chances of getting that big payout are much slimmer.

In advertising though, the story has a different outcome. If you play it safe you'll probably make some money; but it's the risk-takers who are more likely to come out on top again and again and again. In effect, betting on the long shot is much more likely to bring home the bacon. The long odds are in your favor. Strange? Let's examine that theory.

What To Expect From a "Safe" Campaign

The ad agency has just pitched three campaigns. One is way out there. One is a little but dangerous. One is as safe as houses, being a slight variation on a campaign that has already been out there. That campaign got no complaints, sales figures didn't drop, no one was hurt, it came in under budget, everyone was happy. Well, everyone except the creative department who are cursing themselves for presenting it.

So, your business picks the safe campaign and runs with it. And it's the same story as the previous quarter. The sales curve doesn't go up, but it doesn't drop. The product or service is making some money. The ROI is ok. It's all ok in fact. No one gets fired, no one gets angry, it's all nice. And boring. And predictable. The BEST that can happen with a safe campaign is that you maintain the status quo. Big deal. Why bother?

What To Expect From a "Dangerous" Campaign

This time, your board members decide to run with the biggest, bravest, boldest campaign. The one that has people sweating, and account managers protesting in the hallways. It may cost more (although sometimes, the big ideas cost less). It will take more effort to sell the idea to the other branches. But screw it, it's time to take a risk.

And what happens is astonishing. People love it, and people hate it. The traditionalists, the old guard of your brand, have their nose put out of joint a little; but certainly not enough to stop buying your product. There are people who love it, and share it. The ads go viral, and it generates its own PR across the internet. Suddenly, everyone is talking about your product, sales go through the roof and everyone is happy. Of course, sales may just stay the same.

But the WORST that can happen with a risky campaign is that you get complaints and get talked about in the news. But even that gets your brand being talked about on the dinner table. As Dave Trott has said in Creative Mischief , we are all so worried about being liked that we become invisible. 89% of ads go unnoticed. 7% are disliked. Only 3% are liked. But that top 10% is where you want to be, whether you're popular or not.

Take risks. Buy the scary campaigns. Be bold.

The biggest mistake every business makes is trying to be just like their competitor. That's wrong. Be different. Be outrageous. Get people talking. Advertise when others won't.

It's a lot less risky to take a risk than it is to rest on your laurels. Think it over.

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