A view from Dave Trott: I don’t know what I want, but I want it now
A view from Dave Trott

I don’t know what I want, but I want it now

In 2005, Kyle MacDonald wondered if you could trade a paperclip for a house.

Obviously not, but what if you traded it for something better and kept going, bit by bit?

He decided to see if it was possible, and opened a website called “The Paperclip Challenge”.

Two girls offered to swap the paperclip for a fish-shaped pen.

Someone saw the pen and offered to swap a hand-sculpted doorknob for it.

Someone saw the doorknob and offered to swap a camp stove for it.

Someone else had just bought a new snowmobile and was willing to swap their old snowmobile for the camp stove.

(Now it was getting interesting – he went from a paperclip to a snowmobile.)

Someone wanted the snowmobile and offered to swap a camping trip in Canada for it.

(People were seeing things they wanted but couldn’t afford, so they were thinking what could they offer in trade, it was becoming fun.)

Someone wanted the camping trip and offered to swap a large for van it.

A rock group wanted the van so they swapped it for a recording contract.

(This was old-fashioned bartering, you may not have money but you can get creative, what else could you offer?)

A musician offered their apartment, rent-free for a year, for the recording contract.

Alice Cooper’s secretary needed somewhere to live, she offered an afternoon with her boss for the rent-free apartment.

Someone then offered a motorised Kiss snow globe for the afternoon with Alice Cooper.

Colin Bernstein was a Hollywood producer who collected snow globes, the one he was missing was the motorised Kiss snow globe.

He offered a paid-and-credited speaking part in his next movie for the snow globe.

Then the town of Kipling, Saskatchewan, offered a small house for the role in the movie.

They had a population of just 1,000 and had built some houses they wanted to sell.

So they advertised that auditions for the part in the movie would be held in their town.

Three thousand people showed up, the whole event took place under a giant red paperclip logo.

The story, and the town of Kipling, got nation-wide media exposure.

MacDonald had managed to trade a paperclip for a house but it had taken him a year and 14 trades, and that’s the lesson for us if we want to learn it.

MacDonald swapped something for a slightly better thing, all along the way, bit by bit.

But ad people see the end point and think that’s what you do, swap a paperclip for a house.

I’ve often heard clients say “We want a campaign like Virgin”, not understanding it took ages to build the Virgin brand – they spent millions upon millions and had celebrity billionaire Richard Branson as their spokesperson for decades.

So what we should be looking for is an idea that can change and evolve in stages over time until it eventually takes us where we want to go.

That used to be called “an idea with legs” and the best ad people could recognise one.

For instance, Comparethemarket has been changing and evolving its “meerkats” for 13 years – it now owns the market.

Meanwhile, Confused.com and Moneysupermarket (which used to own the market) have had many totally new campaigns in the same time.

Meerkats started with a simple idea, then kept evolving in small stages – the other two companies kept trying to do it in one leap and when that didn’t work, start again.

Figuratively speaking, they wanted to swap a paperclip for a house straight away.

But you don’t just jump to the top of the ladder, you have to go up a rung at a time.

Evolving a campaign is putting money on top of the pile you’ve spent ages building.

But a new campaign means starting all over again at the bottom trying to build a new pile.

A decent ad agency should be able to explain the difference to a client.

Dave Trott is the author of The Power of Ignorance, Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three

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