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MENA Power List 2023: Mediocrity isn’t cool by PHD MENA’s Daniel Shepherd

Daniel Shepherd is the Co-Managing Director for PHD MENA. His favourite movie is Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, a timeless love letter to the power of imagination.

A wise agency head shared a great anecdote with me the other day about The Economist account. I’m sure many other versions of this story exist, continuously shared by probably thousands of copywriters the world over.

And that’s fitting because, the story goes, for every tagline that was chosen to be used in The Economist’s famous ad campaign, the copywriter must (having first been handpicked anyway) write at least one thousand different lines.

Knowing that only one of these, max, would end up being used. Sounds like hard, pointless work, would you say? Well, no wonder the quality was so high. No wonder every copywriter worth their salt was desperate to be noticed and given the chance to write nine hundred and ninety-nine lines for nothing.

There is no shortcut to perfection and hard work. Talent counts too of course but the truth is, working to our full potential, we offer a value to our clients that can’t be replicated or beaten.

We can deliver truly transformational change to their businesses, because we often experience it first, prone as we are to reinvent and restructure ourselves to stay and keep our clients ahead of the curve.

The biggest threat we face isn’t the scare crows or boogeymen we place in our own path, like AI, consultancies, big tech, in-housing, thinking they’ll steal our jobs, our people and eat our lunch. No, the biggest threat is mediocrity, complacency or, worse, stopping believing in the magic we’re capable of when we’re at our best.

We are of most value to our clients when we help them transform their business through the power of brilliant ideas. Ideas that give them disproportionate competitive advantage.

Working in our industry isn’t an opportunity to push the boundaries of what is possible and be creative. It’s an obligation. This means finding new ways to do old things. Bringing innovation toevery aspect of ours and, consequently, our clients’ businesses.

The second Campaign Saudi Briefing event of the year will be taking place in Riyadh on 12th October 2023. A variety of panels and speakers will be discussing the themes of media and marketing. For more details, click here.

Our duty as leaders is to create an environment where this is most likely to be the result. To attract the people who have what it takes, to nurture them and liberate them so that their brilliance can emerge.

In practise, this means not only providing our people with the skills, tools and techniques, inspiration, expectation and incentives to push harder and achieve the impossible. Most importantly it means giving them the freedom to fail.

To build a safe space where ideas can flourish, without fear, but with enough safety nets in place to ensure that our clients’ brands can grow confidently.

It’s also about helping to educate on the impact the extraordinary can have. Micro-optimisations in the lower funnel are necessary, but they only deliver micro returns – of between 10-15 per cent in terms of ROI.

Whereas a truly great, strategically creative idea in the upper funnel, a big memorable, emotional one, can deliver as much as 500 per cent.

AI plays a role of course and we’ve already integrated it within our planning tools. There’s more to come to leverage the speed and computational muscle of large language models to provide the launchpad from which ideas can lift off.

But the very essence of AI is derivative, as it distils all the data it has consumed to date. Yes, it can still create original results and approaches but on its own or lazily applied, it’ll only achieve mediocrity. It is the time it saves, so that our people can bring the magic with their inimitable human qualities, irreverence, passion, empathy, vision and belief, that is the real game changer.

So, we still need to write those metaphorical thousand lines in pursuit of the one true game-changing gem. But modern pressures dictate that we need to do it quicker, smarter and across all areas of our business. We harness the brilliance of our people, and our tech, to let this happen.

That’s how we make the leap every day or, as a true original once said, fail we may, sail we must. Now write a thousand lines, “I will not be mediocre, I will not be mediocre….”

Believe in magic.