'Bravery': The folly and the vanity

Where have all the good men goneAnd where are all the gods?Where's the streetwise Hercules to fight the rising odds?Isn't there a white knight upon a fiery steed?Late at night I toss and I turnAnd I dream of what I need

Bonnie Tyler***


Bravery, writes the American Tibetan Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chödrön in When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, is about being intimate with fear”. Bravery after all, is about encountering the possibility of disaster. So why do we bemoan the lack of 'brave' work? Why do we ask where all the 'brave' clients have gone? Are we encouraging our clients to make work that might fail? That might have no brand or business effect? That might actually be a total waste of time and money? That might indeed prove to be a total disaster?

If that’s what we are suggesting then we (self-styled students of psychology and human decision-making) are indulging in some truly Class-A dumb psychology. Phil Adams nails the self-indulgent naivety of this approach:

If you want to use reverse psychology to talk a cautious client out of approving an ad, tell her it’s a brave idea. It demonstrates a startling lack of empathy. Bravery is a function of risk and danger and she knows it. You apparently don’t.”

We are so keen, it would seem, to cast ourselves as heroes and iconoclasts, so hungry to massage our fragile egos that we choose to misunderstand both human psychology and the collective psychology of the corporation. But we should heed the words of John Hegarty:

There is no point in saying ‘I want you to be brave’, you’re not going to succeed. We’ve got to challenge this notion that we’ve got to sell more bravery because people won't like it”

Exhorting clients to be ‘brave’ enough to buy ‘brave’ work is not just poor psychology. It misrepresents and undermines creativity, passing it off as some roll of the dice, or reckless shot in the dark in which the possibility of total failure is deeply embedded. Yet if we look at what makes for effective work we see that it entails eschewing category norms and conventions, being distinctive and interesting not merely relevant, evoking visceral reactions, and leaving behind long-term memory traces. 

None of this is being ‘brave’. It’s not embracing of failure. It’s not reckless. It’s just prudent, effective brand-building. And so if as Nils Leonard has put it: “There is no such thing as creative bravery, only true creativity”, then the most foolhardy, risk-embracing and reckless thing a marketer can possibly do is to pursue the safe, the tried-and-tested, the formulaic, the unremarkable, and the unoriginal. As Bill Bernbach opined in an interview:

Playing it safe can be the most costly thing in the world”.

But talk of ‘brave’ work obscures the real heroes. For the true acts of bravery are those of clients who in championing creativity choose to take on the systemic biases of the corporation that employs them. Shepherding creative ideas - “true creativity” in Leonard’s words - through the layer cake of ‘stakeholders’ so often means navigating organisations that are process-dependent, entrenched in formula, slave to the advice of so-called experts, mired in so-called best practise, beholden to zombie ideas, uncomfortable with the unfamiliar and the new, and even downright hostile to the very idea of creativity.

Choosing to swim against the cultural tide of the corporation is proper bravery. As the psychologist Cynthia Pury puts it, courage is “the ability to act despite general social or cultural pressure.” And if Adland could just hit pause on its incessant need to lionise itself and think about the circumstances and needs of others, we and our clients might just make a little more progress.

Pury’s research has found that courage is more likely to emerge when a person sees a meaningful goal and then believes he or she has the ability to achieve that goal. Thus, argues Pury, a person is more likely to run into a burning building to save kittens if they have the training and equipment to do so.Conversely, a person who has the training and equipment but doesn’t see saving kittens as a worthy goal will simply stand on the sidelines. Action then, depends on a person’s goals, as well as evaluations of personal risk and one’s own ability to achieve the goal.

So if we want good ideas to see the light of day, it falls to the us as originators of ideas to demonstrate how the new and unfamiliar is in fact, the right thing, the sensible thing, and the best thing to do. It demands that we articulate how and why it is fit for purpose. How it will work. And how we will know if it is working. All those things that we devalue so casually and so thoughtlessly when we ask for a few slides of Powerpoint ‘setup’. As if this were merely some audience-fluffing warmup act ahead of the main event, rather than the exercise of rigorous idea stewardship.

Good agencies - good idea stewards - will be well-attuned to the assumptions, practices, personalities, politics, biases, quirks, and pathologies of the corporations they service. They recognise that the agency is not the only advocate for the work, that clients too must act as internal salespeople for ideas, and that the ‘sell’ continues long after the agency has left the room. They dedicate themselves to arming their clients with the argument, evidence and yes, confidence to make the case internally. And to ensuring that what might seem in the eyes of outsiders as utterly bananas, is understood and embraced as absolutely the right thing to do.

Not ‘brave’. Right.



Bill Bernbach interview, 1971

John Hegarty speaking at Advertising Week Europe panel, 2014

Phil Adams, ‘Why bravery is a bad idea

Cynthia Pury, in Greater Good Magazine