Paying for Nothing

When I founded Propaganda twenty-five years ago, nearly all the communications I received from people, whether they were trying to introduce me to their business or sell me their products, took the form of handwritten letters. I used to read them all.

Since then, the Direct Mail Marketing industry has taken root and grown into a behemoth. First came the proliferation of over-produced mail-outs, with the guiding principle being ‘the fancier the better’ – often amounting to countless acres of trees being consumed in the process. Today’s equivalent is the quantity-over-quality approach to digital marketing, with campaigns that fill feeds and flood inboxes with impersonal messages; emails which simply ask you if you’ve read a previous email; and best of all perhaps, the ever-mysterious LinkedIn invitation to follow someone who “read your profile and thinks we really should connect”.

It often seems to be the case that, out of a desire to produce something “novel” and “eye-catching”, we are missing the forest for the trees. What if companies were to go full circle by reverting to a simple handwritten letter? A throwback to simpler times, so unassuming that it inadvertently ends up cutting through the noise and saying more than any amount of marketing budget ever could. Essentially, no design or copywriting to be paid for, just a few personal, thoughtful sentences, which the client can often write themselves.

How many agencies would propose that to a client, let alone charge them for it? No big production budget, just an idea. Where is the margin in that? But the smartest client should always be happy to pay for the best strategic answer. Even if that answer is to take no action or spend no money.

To further illustrate this point, consider the following three case studies.

In 2011, when BBH revealed their creative response for British Airways’ biggest campaign for years, they recommended that the new strapline for the brand was… their old strapline. They rightly chose not to make a change, given that the one they already had perfectly answered the brief.

Exhibitions and trade shows are another example of action driven by convention. For most companies, the default option is to invest tens of of thousands of pounds for the luxury of putting their business services on display in a room where they are, unfortunately, guaranteed to be surrounded by their competitors. Inadvertently, they end up investing time and money in their own hard-earned customers being directly courted by the opposition.

What would be a smarter, more strategic approach to trade shows? Simple: not doing them. One soft furnishings firm became famous for diverting their trade show budget into the lease of a rustic stately home. When the guests arrived, all the cows in the adjacent field were ‘dressed’ in the brand’s latest fabric designs. That represents real talkability and real one-on-one business. The ingenious manoeuvre became industry folklore, which everyone in the soft furnishings industry still remembers, while not a soul can remember the participants in that year’s trade show. The smart-thinking firm stole the show, and stole it without even going.

A few years ago, Propaganda was tasked to advise a company who made innovative training cups on how they could combat an established rival baby brand, who were on the cusp of launching their own competing cup. How should their business respond? After undertaking an extensive Discovery process to understand the brand’s competitors, their market, and their place within it, our consultancy announced that the right move was to do… nothing.

It would have been easier to recommend a more conventional campaign. Easier but unwise. Because our client’s brand would suddenly be perceived as small and reactive, rather than the confident category leaders they were. They paid £10,000 to be told to do nothing, and were happy to take the advice and pay the fee. They would have been willing to pay much more, for a whole barrage of tactics, but it wouldn’t have moved the needle, so we didn’t recommend it.

Sometimes, the best course of action is strategic inaction. Restraint has its rewards. And that kind of advice is well worth paying for.