Learning to Play Rugby

One of the great things about rugby is that it has a place for anyone. Small folk with nifty hands and feet, tall rangy runners, short stocky pit ponies and lumbering giants can all find a place in the team. The modern game has brought a coming together of sorts – the big forwards need to be fast with good ball skills and the nifty backs need to be bigger and stronger. They all need to be sharp and fearless and they all need to follow a game plan but yet have the ability to adapt this to the circumstances they face. Rugby is therefore the best analogy for marketing these days and we all need to learn how to play it, agencies and clients alike.

There is a good article by EuroRSCG in Campaign which describes the way agencies need to adapt. Farewell (and good riddance) discipline silos and in particular Brand Planning and Creative sitting in two very separate ones, and hello Brand Choreography for a multi-disciplined team which works, in my view, more like a modern rugby team. Yes everyone has their expertise to bring to the table but they co-create ideas and adapt to circumstances. This recognizes the reality that ideas can come from anywhere – digital, PR, consumer insight – and that they develop best when worked on as a team rather than being passed on like a baton (E.g. “Here’s the big idea – any thoughts for social media or a web site?” – wrong!).

Some time back Chris Satterthwaite of Chime Communiations gave me the idea of a multi-disciplined brand team working like a newsroom – meeting on a daily basis (perhaps weekly is more practical) and reviewing what’s happened in the market, how stories have developed, evolving the brand message and coming up with new storylines. Back to my rugby analogy, this makes sense to me. The brand team not only has a place for a diversity of expertise and perspective but indeed it is made stronger by this. Like the modern rugby team (where backs have to be able to scrum, forwards must have ball skills and all must understand and be able to adapt a game plan) the brand team must all be marketers with an appreciation of each other’s specific areas of expertise so they can build on ideas. You can’t ‘leave it to the digital guys’ any more than the digital guys can leave it to the planners or creatives – they must all be creative, strategic and born digital.

The interesting thing here is who is the chicken and who is the egg? Should agencies play rugby and bring their clients with them or should clients take the lead and demand a different way of working from the agencies? Should they – can they – be just one big client/agency team? I guess it’ll be different stokes for different folks but there are arguably more challenges on the client side. It is not so hard to get a client marketing team to work as rugby teams – ever since open plan offices became the norm this has happened fairly naturally in my experience. The issue is the silos between marketing and the rest of the business. A specific challenge is the business planning cycle – typically an annual plan and rolling 3-5 year long term plan. This requires the marketing team to commit budgets, and therefore some kind of activity plan, months in advance and it makes this more fluid, adaptive way of working very hard in practice. The finance function wants to know what is going to be spent and for that expenditure to be justified as an ROI. The new way of working wants to “learn fast and fail cheap” with a range of executions and budgets that flow and grow as the ROI emerges.

There are no easy answers. It would help to keep a high percentage of the budget uncommitted to support ideas as they come up and it may also help to have a broader definition of who forms the client ‘marketing team’. I’d be interested to hear of anyone’s first hand experience of trying to apply this new way of working.

If you’ve no clue about rugby it might help to talk to someone who has. I am convinced it has lessons for us.

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