‘Go big or go home.’ I remember those words as if it were yesterday.

It was April 1986 in Knightsbridge, I was sitting in an advertising agency office overlooking the majestic art deco façade of Harrods.

The words delivered by my new Creative Director Bill Thompson, were meant as both encouragement and warning.

I had just been hired to establish a new direct response unit within his agency and he wanted to see bold creativity from ‘the get go’. As part of his induction, Bill was showing examples by way of his personal portfolio, of the standard of creativity he wanted to see.

He flicked through multi award-winning work for Commercial Union, The Welsh Development Agency, Ruddles Ales and Volkswagen; but the one that really caught my eye was a press advertisement for a diet supplement product with the unpromising name of HPD. The layout was conventional, a simple three column grid with the product shot in the centre. What made this concept so arresting was the headline – HEY, FATSO. READ THIS.

‘How did you get this through?’ I enquired.

Bill leant back in his Pollock Executive Chair and smiled. ‘The client challenged us to be more creative, so we showed him this. While he initially loved it he was worried it might turn off his target market. Knowing this, we had commissioned research into the concept, which was very positive, so he gave the green light. The ad tripled sales and won many industry awards.’

I always remember this story when I’m feeling unsure about pushing boundaries for clients. In today’s fractured media landscape with attention so hard to grab, more than ever marketing should be about innovating, and for agencies, being smarter about getting new ideas accepted.

On being smart, I was delighted to hear that Julius Wolff-Ingham the Salvation Army’s long serving Head of Marketing and Fundraising had won an OBE for services to charitable fundraising. On numbers alone this was well deserved, having raised hundreds of millions of pounds he must be the UK’s most successful professional fundraiser.

I have known Julius for over 30 years as both friend and client, he has never been afraid to be bold and even controversial if he felt it was in the best interests of the charity.

‘We need to put the Army on the map, do something…surprising,’ he declared when he first got the job. He was concerned that although the charity was the UK’s second largest social services provider, it was still viewed as irrelevant, old fashioned and bible bashing.

He briefed us to develop some hard hitting advertising and DRTV creative to showcase their incredible work in some of the toughest places in the country. These campaigns (an example of which is shown above) helped give new substance and credibility to the Salvation Army brand and over time, provided a platform for one of the most successful fundraising programmes in the sector.

Clients always want agencies to be more challenging, ingenious and original; they can often sack them when they are not perceived as being so. In truth this can be harsh, without prior proof of success, it can be difficult to persuade a client to try something new.

We’ve often shown work we felt was breaking new ground but often the reaction has been: ‘We love the thinking, but have you done it before – and did it work?’

It can seem an impossible question to answer.  Often the only recourse is to do as Bill Thompson did and commission research (at your cost) to prove its merit. At Campfire we research ideas all the time through excellent online panels, they can quickly prove strength of concept and soothe client anxieties at relatively low cost.

Along with nervy clients, for agencies another arch enemy to boldness can be self-inflicted: self-censoring. A very easy trap to fall into, especially when you’ve worked with a client for a few years. It’s natural not to want to show ideas which, through previous experience, you think they might reject.

While this might seem prudent and even time saving, in reality this is precisely the moment to push harder to break any ‘bold impasse,’ otherwise the creative solutions get all too predictable.

An example I can share to illustrate this concerns Practical Action, the brilliantly clever overseas development charity. We had been struggling to get a particular campaign idea through a large stakeholder group; because of a number of separate needs and agendas at play, it was proving hard to land a single-minded idea.

Faced with a third attempt to sell them a concept they all liked, we were starting to lose confidence. We developed a series of new approaches, then put them in order of most to least chance of getting through. Our final approach (and the one I liked best, featured above on the right) was pushed to the back of the presentation. We agreed this would only be shown as a last resort.

As we had received encouragement that they had liked something earlier, we concluded our presentation without showing it. However when summarising, the client noticed there was another concept on the slide show and asked to see it. Immediately as one, the room declared this was now their favourite. As you may have guessed, it proved to be their most successful campaign ever and won many awards.

It was a salutary lesson for all involved in creative endeavours, whether that be book writing, painting, dress making, pottery, architecture or creating marketing – do not censor yourself. Give your creation to your audience, let them decide whether you have produced something brilliant or terrible. Just when we had started to lose the courage of our convictions, happily a stroke of luck reminded us: ‘If you don’t show it, they can’t buy it.’

Of course, finding the courage to be bold is always easier when you have others alongside you striving for the same thing. Campfire was born out of collaboration and the belief that many heads are better than one. Covid has made close teamwork challenging to achieve over the past two years, as a result, we’ve sometimes found ourselves getting a little more conservative, safer. So before Christmas we got together (at a safe distance) and reaffirmed our commitment to boldness and its importance to our ethos and success.

We took vows to…

Take more risks. Invariably they create opportunities, fame and fortune.

Be more honest, even if it stings. Push each other to reach higher. The moon is in reach.

Say no. To bad briefs and short deadlines. Boldness needs insights and time.

Say yes. Originality takes positivity, energy and a can do attitude.

Be more unpredictable. Hunt for the unexpected, bin the derivative.

Stick to our guns. Steer our course true, do not be deflected by naysayers.

Share our enthusiasm. Present with passion, facts and persuasion in equal measure.

Make the first move. Look to innovate, take the initiative.

Take pride in our boldness. Celebrate our inquisitiveness, tenacity and results.

Root out timidity. It will kill our reputation, relegate us to also rans.

Bring our clients with us. Collaborate at every step, get buy-in early.

So if bold is often the pre-requisite for successful marketing, why can it be so hard to achieve for agencies and their clients?

The Oxford Dictionary’s definition of the word gives up clues – Bold: A person showing a willingness to take risks; confident and courageous.

It’s a truism – we all aspire to be courageous. In the real world of course, there are times when being brave is easier than others. It’s easy to see why a client may be unwilling to take a gamble when their job that may be at risk.

By the same token, playing safe and being me-too can be riskier options. So often it is proved that doing the same thing as everyone else means getting lost, not being seen, failure.

At Campfire we’ll always be passionate about pushing boundaries with our clients, to find ideas that locate the edge of what is acceptable, and still retain the power to gain attention. We do this partly because it’s more fun, also mainly because invariably we get much, MUCH better results.

Bold is a relative term of course, one person’s bold is another’s timid. Bold messaging is always measured in the times that it appears. Happily the Practical Action work still looks fresh, the Salvation Army work perhaps appears even punchier today. As for the ‘HEY FATSO’ advertisement, it would probably have never seen the light of day in today’s more sensitive culture. Ergo, too bold.

By the same token, bold should not simply be a slave to subjectivity. To boldly go where no one has gone before should be an objective, it’s as relevant and essential a marketing component as it’s ever been. Along with Bill Thompson, I still believe it’s the passport to success.