Earlier this month, we launched the second round of our Rainbow Laces campaign, designed to tackle homophobia in football.
It is spearheaded by Paddy Power and Stonewall, but this time, we also encouraged other companies, from all sectors, to get involved. And boy, did they ever: more than 40 brands (from Smirnoff to McDonald’s, Post Office to O2) showed their support in advertising and social media.
My favourite was Premier Inn, who changed its name to Premier Out, for the week.
This fairly unprecedented show of co-operation (even Paddy Power’s direct competitor, William Hill, came on board), got me thinking about one of the most over-used words in the marketing lexicon: "collaboration".
For years, clients have rightly criticised agencies for an apparent inability to "play nicely" with each other. Meanwhile, brand owners themselves have sometimes struggled to adjust to a new world, where alliances must occasionally be forged with former (or even current) enemies, in pursuit of a common goal.
Now, it probably doesn’t help that the word "collaboration" carries negative connotations from a bygone era. But it’s surprising that it still raises the hackles in some quarters.
So at the risk of over-simplification (I accept that it is easier to rally people to a good cause like Rainbow Laces, than behind a run-of-the-mill mission), I thought I’d capture a few thoughts on the subject, based on our recent experience.
1. Feed with two pizzas
Jeff Bezos of Amazon famously insists that any team should be small enough to feed with two pizzas
An initial observation would be that collaboration needn’t involve a cast of thousands. In fact, cramming people round the table for the sake of it, as many organisations do, invariably gets in the way of decisive action.
Jeff Bezos of Amazon famously insists that any team should be small enough to feed with two pizzas. If that’s good enough for one of the biggest and most successful companies in the world, it should probably be good enough for the rest of us, too.
On Rainbow Laces, while many people played their part, the core team this year would probably pass the test with a slice of Peperoni to spare.
2. Them and us
True collaboration depends on shared standards and values. Scientists have a term for this ("praxis") and go to great lengths to establish the ground rules at the start of a multi-party project, to ensure that everybody’s starting from the same place.
In my experience, a lot of marketing projects miss out this step. For instance, agencies of different standards are clumsily mis-matched. Or parties attend the same meetings but with conflicting agendas (intentional or otherwise).
In our case, we found that having a common enemy (homophobia) galvanised the team from the start and meant that there was never any question of "them and us".
3. Thinking partners not echo chambers
The perceived need for 'everyone to get along' can inhibit necessary debate
A third pointer is to allow for arguments. Margaret Heffernan has long championed the cause of collaboration, arguing in books like ‘A Bigger Prize’ that businesses which emphasise co-operation do better than those which obsess about competition.
However, she also makes the critical point that the best collaborators are "thinking partners who aren’t echo chambers". In other words, it’s OK to disagree.
With the mischief-makers of Paddy Power leading the charge, there was never any danger that our meetings would be conducted with anything but rowdy good humour. But sometimes, the perceived need for "everyone to get along" can inhibit necessary debate.
4. Set ideas free
True collaboration requires generosity. The late, great Paul Arden, of Saatchis, was brilliant on this subject, saying "ideas are open knowledge".
Arden wrote: "The more you give away, the more comes back to you." Instead of hoarding them, he advocated setting them free, to "float by on the ether" and be caught, shaped and improved by others.
Ideas are open knowledge; the more you give away, the more comes back to you
This is where I think Paddy Power, in particular, played an absolute blinder. Having worked so hard to create Rainbow Laces last year, it might have been tempting to get all proprietary about the initiative this year. But by opening it up to others, the impact was exponentially greater.
For me, this was collaboration at its purest – even though many of those involved never physically met or even spoke. So if you were one of the many marketers who helped, out there in the ether, thank you. It was nice working together (sort of).