Like a lamb to the slaughter
January 2012

Sheep have their uses.

They make great car seat covers, they keep delinquent border collies off the streets, and of course they go really well with mint sauce.  Not to mention the nefarious games that lonely antipodean farmers are rumoured to play with their woolly chums.  So we won’t.

But what I will mention is that if you are trying to hold down a responsible marketing position, you should be scared, very scared, of sheep.  Especially at night.  Because despite the widespread advice for insomniacs that they can drift off to slumberland by counting the little woolly critters, the truth is that sheep are the last things that marketers should have anything to do with.  Sheep should trigger nightmares, not peaceful sleep.

You see, sheep are creatures of habit.  They follow where others lead.  They do the predictable, and are risk averse.  They are pack animals with no ability to think for themselves.  A flock of sheep acts like a single organism, they make those super-compliant Japanese tourists seem like eccentric mavericks by comparison.

Marketing has no need for sheep.  Marketing is about differentiation, about standing out from the crowd. Offering things that no-one else does, and adopting a tone and personality that is nothing if not unique. In other words, to be extremely un-sheep like.

But sadly, sheep seem to be flourishing in marketing circles.  We are all showing signs of growing woolly coats.  Caution has become the prevailing emotion, and everywhere I look I see brands adopting strategies that can best be described as “last year plus ten percent”.  Or even less.  And while I am heartened by those who argue that this is merely a short term response to the global recession, my deeper instincts tell me this is not the case.  The creativity and the risk-taking are slowly being squeezed out of our profession, driven largely by the pressure to be seen to be more professional, more commercially responsible. 

This pressure comes both from clients and from our own skewed and deluded self-perceptions.  By demanding a more robust approach to evaluating the return on their marketing investment, advertisers are pushing their agencies and media planners into choosing those channels which are quantitatively measurable, as opposed to those that have the potential to be the most effective, even if it can’t be proven up-front.  And by looking in the mirror and concluding that what they see has no place in the pinstriped and shiny-shoe surroundings of the boardroom, agencies are delivering a self-inflicted makeover that strips them of the very attributes that made them successful in the first place – creativity, experimentation and the ability to surprise.

But financial directors and procurement officers don’t like surprises.  They like predictability and continuity, they like incremental rather than radical change.  And because our fees and bottom lines are dependent on keeping these unadventurous souls happy, we become unadventurous ourselves.

I’m not sure what keeps marketing directors awake at nights, but whatever it is, counting sheep is not the way to go.  It can only have the effect of making sheep part of the solution, when in fact, in the real world, they are increasingly part of the problem.

Pass the mint sauce please.