Don't play nice, play total

Sticking to the status quo might seem safe, but it's actually riskier than embracing innovation and transformation.

In the 60s, the Dutch pioneered a way of playing football called Total Football that revolutionised the beautiful game as we knew it. Totaalvoetbal in a nutshell? Every player should be capable of playing every position.

Totaalvoetbal was fluid and adaptive; a (gleeful) demonstration of "fuck status quo – we have a better way to win". It was transformative and brutally effective.

Playing Totaalvoetbal, the pride of Amsterdam – AFC Ajax – laid waste to all before them to claim three successive European Cups, while the "Oranje" (the Dutch national team, almost entirely made up of Ajax players) lit up world football with a distinctive, vibrant orange hue.

Totaalvoetbal is useful food for agency thought too (especially living in Amsterdam, as we do).
If Totaalvoetbal enabled the Dutch to transform their players, their teams and ultimately the game of football, could being a Total Agency enable our clients to better serve their audiences, their brands and the businesses behind them? 

What if there were no manufactured boundaries to the way our game is played? What if the boundaries between disciplines, creativity and business, cultures and countries were simply invitations to leap over and leap ahead?

What if we rejected the status quo and explored new possibilities with a unified and expansive approach?

What if we embraced change as the only constant, acknowledging openly that not one brand, industry or individual is exempt? What if we agreed that maintaining the status quo is actually much riskier than embracing the inventiveness required to evolve our game?

Could a Total Agency model be transformative for those in the business of delivering commercial creativity?

Axiomatically, emphatically, absolutely, our perspective is: yes, it can – and, yes, it does. And with good reason. We strain to create narratives in a world where the institutions we trusted turned out to be built on sand; where a hashtag has the power to bring down entire governments, let alone brands; where 80 per cent of our digital behaviours simply did not exist five years ago. And where brands are expected to be enabling, inspiring and storytelling; to be "always on, 24/7", create content, social and… sell stuff. All, of course, at the same time.

To be transformative, we must be fluid and adaptive, believe that the status quo sucks, and play all the positions we can to ultimately win this version of our beautiful game. Enough theory. As the Dutch would say: "Schiet op, man!"

We should play total for our partners. Absolut decided to work with us because we challenged the company on what its business should, could and, ultimately, will become. We asked: "What if we didn’t just talk about our brand, but immersed consumers in it? And, then, what if we monetised that experience?" 

What if, indeed. Adidas Originals has also become a true story – six years in the making – of business transformation via delivering the means for self-expression in all the brand’s forums. From "house party" and "cantina" to "represent" and "unite", we have transformed the way Adidas Originals collaborates with artists. New online platforms transformed the brand’s social communities from niche groups into activated fan bases big enough to rival most media companies. And, through Sid Lee Architecture, we have also transformed the Adidas Originals retail concept from an apparel-only space to a co-creation space with apparel at its heart. We have played a total game and, as such, have helped Adidas Originals transform from being a €700 million streetwear brand to a €2.5 billion media powerhouse. We should play total for our audiences.

We unveiled Sid Lee Entertainment at Cannes this year because we want to create more bespoke, real-world brand experiences with a global scale. Why? Because analogue still matters (more than ever, actually) and audiences don’t engage in "digital" in the way we talk about it – they simply reach out to their friends and family like they have always done, but with increasingly invisible technologies.

And we should play total for our industry. We created a global business conference for Fortune 1,000 CxOs on the subject of commercial creativity because we want to foster and disseminate more transformational agendas – and we understand that, in order to do so, we must think more broadly about what we, as an industry, can deliver in terms of value. What could we make by learning (stealing) from the creative entrepreneurialism of the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Philippe Starck and Arianna Huffington (to name but a few of our recent delegates)?

‘Totaalvoetbal is useful food for agency thought too’

At the same time, we stay close to our roots. The Sid Lee Collective works with start-ups in myriad industries, often taking a stake in their business, because we believe they have the power to transform the category they play in or the people they intend to serve.

We play a Total Agency game. But there’s a huge difference between being a Total Agency and what the marketing world fashionably calls "collaboration".

We think that, more often than not, "collaboration" is simply used as a euphemism for playing nice. And more often than not, collaboration is a compromise; a remnant of our industry’s obsession with integration and media-based connection plans.

We have been asked to play nice with other agencies and have said no because we believe it compromises business-transformational ideas and is an inefficient use of our clients’ money. Instead, we work with partners who can help us bring narratives to life in better ways – such as Cirque du Soleil, Google and Moment Factory – not simply those who can translate a campaign idea into different channels (we should all be able to do that ourselves as table stakes to the game).

Maybe we’re wrong but, inspired by Totaalvoetbal, Sid Lee keeps playing the Total Agency way, transforming our clients’ audiences, brands and businesses in the process.

Until it’s time to go to the pub. In which case, ours is an Absolut and tonic with a Tuborg chaser.


Simon Wassef is the head of strategy at Sid Lee Amsterdam


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