I've been to my fair share of awaydays over the years, several of which certainly had elements that might have been organised by people with similar levels of ambition and professionalism to those currently competing to go into business with Lord S.
I still remember my first awayday, of course (don't you always?). It was, in fact, an away-weekend where the participants were put into teams to compete in a role-reversal contest. We had a superb team leader, who did absolutely no work at all, but broke up fights among the very opinionated team members. He also bonded us from the start. The teams were announced at dinner on the opening evening. Dave was announced as team leader, and then the names of the rest of us were read out. None of us knew each other, but Dave went round, found us all, and tied a blue napkin round our arms. "We're the Blue team," he told us. "And we're going to win."
Which we did, but only after breaking the rules.
The role-reversal in question was for us media chaps and suits to be creatives for the weekend. The brief was for the fictional (but surely much needed) Sausage Marketing Board*. We duly set about coming up with a strategy and then executing it for the pitch. We were working through the night – then, suddenly, the team leader, Dave, was called to a meeting with all the other team leaders and given an important message. He was told that a story had just broken, the night before the pitch, that sausages had been proven to contain poisonous substances by a research lab in the US. The idea was to throw the teams into confusion and see how professionally they would handle the news on meeting the client with little time to prepare.
My team were furious at the news. We felt pretty unanimously that the senior managers who were running the away-weekend had in some way cheated us. We were all ready with a smooth pitch and, in our view, mould-breaking creative work, and then they'd thrown this spanner in the works. Clearly all the teams had had the same spanner, but that didn't lessen our anger. This, of course, was exactly what the management team had anticipated; they wanted to see how we'd handle it.
This is how we handled it. We created a split in the team. One sub team carried on with the pitch preparation work exactly as we'd planned. The second sub team spent all night creating replacement front pages of newspapers that we substituted in the morning for all the newspapers at the venue (a hotel just outside the M25). The front-page headlines ran "Sausage research proved fake!" with follow-up stories explaining that a renegade piece of research had caused momentary concern but luckily the fraudulent nature of it had been uncovered before it had time to do any damage.
We simply opened the pitch with the pleasing reassurance that the stories were fake, then we went on to tackle the brief.
We were the only team that reacted in this way. We reckoned that if the people that briefed us could change reality, then we could change it back.
There was a massive split in the judges. Most wanted us to win; we had, after all, nailed the best sausage advertising, but a couple of the judges wanted us disqualified. Fortunately for us, the people who admired our initiative outnumbered the more disciplinarian judges. This was, after all, only advertising.
So my first, most resonant lesson from an awayday. Break the rules.
*Sausage Marketing Board. Yes, I know there is an FB page – of course there is.
Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom