11 mins

A very short history of feeling safe

By Steve Cook


In about 1850, when I was a very young, starry eyed art director, just starting out in my career in one of the worlds foremost advertising agencies – back in the days when Mad Men really ruled and data hadn’t sucked the life out of… life; and Soho was one giant ball of creativity – I was given one of many pearls of wisdom. It went something like this…

‘Never, ever tell the client that by choosing xxxx creative/campaign option, they will be ‘brave’ – even if that is what the markets and audiences will love. Tell them they will be insightful, ground-breaking, market changing, awesome in every way, but not BRAVE. The concept of being ‘brave’ will ‘shrink nuts faster than the North Sea in January’ – or so the charming theory went.

And this advice was coming from some of the most creatively brave people in the world. It was ok, even an imperative, for us to be brave but not the client.

It also flew in the face of all I had been taught, studying conceptual thinking with the distinctly brave and game changing Paul Peter Piech (look him up) and Stanley Kubrick (you don’t need to look HIM up). They taught me how to think and be brave and here I was in a really brave industry being told, specifically, to tell clients NOT to be brave. Go figure.

We even had our own mantra – a credo for living – ‘Don’t seek permission, seek forgiveness’.

Think for a moment how empowering that concept is but also think about how it makes you really seriously think things through before you commit to being brave and ‘taking the path less travelled by’.

I didn’t want permission but I didn’t want forgiveness either. I wanted to prove that the brave option was provably the right option. There is very little point in being brave but also wrong. That is truly dumb.

Recognising that it’s ok to fail actually makes you better equipped to ensure that you don’t fail. Those that seek permission rarely get it and therefore don’t try.

Clients didn’t, in the main, want to be brave, (no-one ever got fired for buying IBM). So, the brave option was the one you presented, knowing that the not-so-brave client wouldn’t choose it – this time. It was incumbent on us to build their confidence and bravery over time so that eventually, they would choose a brave option. Over time, it usually worked, but not always.

When it did, the earth moved. Back then, my showreel and portfolio were full of campaign ideas, scamps and visuals that really were brave but not so much finished work that was. Such a shame – so many missed opportunities.

But when the stars aligned and great, robustly considered and rationalised concepts met brave clients, oh the joy and oh the increases in all sorts of business metrics (yes, we did understand that concept creative was a serious commercial endeavour, not ‘art for arts sake’).

But that was advertising and marketing, not the real world – apparently.

Cut to about 2001 (the year, not the Kubrick film, although it was something of an odyssey).

I’d grown up, left advertising and over a few years migrated to brand, then strategy, then by combining the two, brand strategy – but not branding, oh no, proper strategy with vision and purpose and meaningful business change at its core. I called it (and still call it) Future Conduct.

My clients had changed too. No longer earnest marketing folk trying to prove their worth or testosterone fuelled sales leaders trying to prove their hyper-elevated sense of self-importance (one even told me he wanted to commission me because he wanted ‘one throat to choke’ – it’s true, what a wanker!).

Increasingly, my ‘clients’ or as I preferred to call them, collaborators or better yet, friends, were the people who actually defined the future strategic directions of travel that everyone else, including Sales, had to subscribe to.

They were and are the true leadership in organisations. And whilst I still worked with leaders in corporate business I increasingly found my home with leaders in all sorts of other organisation types from institutions and think tanks to charities and governments.

If marketing, one of the ‘bravest’ (but also one of the most beleaguered and reined in) parts of an organisation, wasn’t being brave, then the desire for organisational leaders to be brave and inspire bravery, even if they gave themselves permission, was significantly less.

And who could blame them? The stakes were much much higher, the breadth and depth of getting it wrong were much much graver and the stakeholders/shareholders who would fall on you from a great height were much heavier.

Besides, everything was loaded against change. The need to maintain the status quo, the understanding that businesses sole purpose was to make profit, the idea that a business needed to define what it did, then focus on doing it better and better – a well oiled efficiency machine that could out-deliver it’s competitors rather than out-think them or, god forbid, change things to gain distinct advantage.

All the while of course, in the background (or foreground in some organisations) the need for hierarchy, strong leadership, binary systems for everything, ever larger layers of management, ever smaller areas for exploration and the rest, created ever diminishing desire or recognition of need (confirmation bias) to think about real change. There is no need to be brave when all you think you need to do is what you have become comfortable with.

Almost more importantly, the people who could rise up from beneath top level leadership if they got it wrong, ie, those that had to implement strategy, aka, employees; and those that could vote with their feet by not engaging anymore, aka customers or voters or donors etc. all conspired to make being brave a very very dangerous prospect for leadership.

The solution to these challenges, for me at least, wasn’t to shrink back, give leadership clients what they said they wanted (such a cop out) and walk away. The real answer was to work even harder to ensure that ‘being brave’ didn’t need to feel like being brave at all.

My way (not necessarily THE way) was, and is, to ensure that everything from ideas, vision and purpose to strategy, culture and operational conduct, were so well considered, researched and argued that they just became, boringly, right. Maverick thinking is only maverick until it is accepted. When that happens, it just becomes, over time, ‘the way we do things around here’.

This way of doing things was, for me, brave, partially because I was always putting heart and soul, beliefs, ideas, arguments and my nuts on the line, often amid much resistance, often with little reward and always with nagging self doubt. But when it worked, wow, did it feel good for me and the people I worked with.

Even so, most leaders in most organisations found being brave a challenge – which often meant that making critical change was a challenge too. Too much fear, too much risk, too much reputation at stake to move away from the BAU, steady state, comfort zone.

Some leaders didn’t think about being brave at all. It just wasn’t in their frame of reference or mind set to even think about anything that required bravery. Just keeping the wheels on was hard enough.

That was then, when it was still possible to hide within a broadly unchanged world and traditional ways of thinking about organisations and leadership as glorified management of the status quo.

Cut to 2015 and right up to date.

Actually, let’s cut to a little bit earlier – 2008 and the previous great catastrophe. I and many others saw this as the (cheap analogy alert) first serious tremor in what became an increasingly unstoppable earthquake that, by 2015 had started to shake the foundations apart and by 2020 and the pandemic, finally brought the house down around us.

I tend to think that the house was rubbish anyway, so to have it, finally, fall into a pile of dust gives us great opportunity to build again and actually make this one the house we want to live in rather than the one we inherited – but that’s another diatribe for another time.

2015 also happens to be the year that I was brave enough to change my world and the year that, more importantly, I directly witnessed one of the greatest examples of bravery that I’ve ever personally seen, as anyone who knows my wife will testify.

But, back to the plot.

2008 > 2015 > 2020 has seen more serious debate, argument and evidence about the need to profoundly change than I can remember. The issues discussed and, in woefully few cases, acted on, have been wide ranging but the thing that has really struck home is the systemic nature of required change. This cuts to the heads and hearts of all of us in ways that change never has before. It has cut to the very fabric of society and the various roles we play in it.

I’m not going to add to the noise about all this here but I am going to state that bravery, for most people, is when we decide to do something that flies against convention and accepted ways of thinking and doing. Something that might put us at very little physical risk but that could risk damaging our reputations or standing or status quo. The very definition of bravery is ‘confronting our fears’ and by this definition, most of us are being brave most days, one way or another.

So, maybe, right now, choosing to let go of our ego’s and desire for ownership, choosing to explore and do things differently, choosing to change ourselves, our conduct and how we believe we are measured by others; and choosing to climb out of our comfort zones – in business and as human beings in society – is not choosing to be brave at all. It can’t be if everybody is doing it. It is just ‘the way we do things around here’. No bravery required.

Maybe the bravest thing we could do right now is to NOT embark on change. What a turnaround that would be.

Perhaps we have reached a point in time now where we all need to overcome our fears, decide to cast bravery aside and just get on with doing what is manifestly right. Together.

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