One of my favourite advertising stories is the pitch made by Allen Brady Marsh for the British Rail account back in the 1970s.
It was BR’s first major foray into advertising and their senior management team was visiting a shortlist of agencies. They knew their account was valuable and prestigious, so they’d become used to a fairly high level of sucking-up from the agencies they visited.
When they got to ABM, however, they found the reception dirty and unwelcoming. The furniture was worn and coffee-stained, the air was thick with smoke and the floor was covered with discarded crisp packets. The receptionist was filing her nails and chatting to a friend on the phone.
‘We’re from British Rail,’ the chief executive announced. The receptionist glanced up, waved airily at the threadbare seats and carried on talking.
Ten minutes later, they were still waiting in reception. No one had come to see them. When coffee eventually arrived, it was served lukewarm and in cracked china. They were livid: enough was enough. They got up to leave.
At that moment, Peter Marsh, ABM’s colourful Chairman, strode purposefully through the connecting doors, his arms outstretched and a warm smile on his face.
‘Gentlemen,’ he beamed. ‘You’ve just experienced what it feels like to be a British Rail passenger. Now let’s see what we can do to put that right.’
It was a jolt of theatrical brilliance, which won the account, by forcing British Rail’s senior team to confront (perhaps for the first time) the reality of their service problems.
It’s what advertising people call the ‘dance of death’: the process of prompting your clients to face up to sometimes unpalatable truths about their brands.
When I talk about this to people who work in small businesses, they find it very strange. Why would you willingly ignore a problem which is obvious to your customers – and which, if left unresolved, will pose a clear risk to the future of your business? It makes no sense.
Yet there’s something about walking through the sliding glass doors of a large publicly-listed corporation that seems to have a strangely lobotomising effect on most people. We hear meaningless, made-up words and, instead of challenging them, we start using them ourselves. We parrot earnest value statements, when we know they don’t have any connection to the reality of our daily working lives. And we accept bad ideas because they come wrapped in a veneer of fashionable buzzwords or backed up with obtuse data.
But customers don’t bother with any of that. If what we’re saying or doing doesn’t make sense, they just go and shop somewhere else.
That’s why we could all use a little dance with death every now and then.