As well as winning Agency Of The Year, we were delighted to pick up the IPA Effectiveness Grand Prix last week writes Will Lion, Managing Partner, Strategy and author of the winning Audi paper as he explains how weights and sweat might have helped.

When you win an IPA Grand Prix for Effectiveness you get a lot of messages asking ‘How?’ Hopefully some of the detail might be in the paper here. But maybe I can talk about ideas that weren’t in there and that sit behind it all, starting with this barbell.



The former trader, now Professor of Risk Engineering, writer and general intellectual mischief Nicholas Nassim Taleb calls this one ‘Seneca’s Barbell’ after the Roman philosopher.  Why? Because Seneca was a dab hand at playing tricks on probability: he opened himself up to all the upsides of risk – one side of the barbell – and he massively minimised the downsides in all sorts of clever ways – the other side.  As a result he became a very wealthy man, the fat-cat philosopher.

Money is a good way to understand the barbell’s power. Investors use the barbell strategy to put 90% of their eggs on a safe and steady bet, like pensions, where it’s hard for things to go really wrong. And then 10% on something that might have massive upside. When it goes well, it goes really well. But if it fails is only going to hurt you to the maximum tune of 10%. Google stock in the early 2000s. And often losses from failures are covered by gains from the other steady returns. The barbell inspires us to play it safe in some areas and take a lot of small risks in others to manipulate chance as best we can. It’s a cheeky, blended strategy as its core.

I like that. Because as marketers we are here to play tricks on probability, to shorten the odds for our clients.

In these more cautious, procured, quarterly times you would think that leaning on the incontrovertible body of evidence about how growth is achieved at minimum risk would be the way to go. But when I look out I see us throwing our arms open to stuff that is actually incredibly risky and abandoning that which is proven and actually very low risk relatively. One side of the barbell gleams more to us. We have confused shiny with right. We are perfecting means while we confuse ends.

I’m being dramatic but it worries me. Enough to do something about it.  So the Audi strategy was a barbell strategy in essence.

It was simply a way to get risk to come to heel by making one side of our barbell about tried, tested, fundamental truths of marketing connected to all the new shiny stuff on the other side. It blended safe and experimental. Classic and contemporary. Commercial and cutting-edge. On one side: Brand roots. Understanding people. Fame. Emotion. Difference. Consistency. Thinking long. On the other side: Precision programmatic, fiendish data, 6s YouTube stings, Shazam partnerships, new social formats, out of home that recognises number plates and all that good stuff. We wanted Audi to benefit from the blend of extremes – proven and unproven – but in a balance that was never ruinous.

And I want to be really clear because sometimes when you say stuff like this you get the traditional label slapped on you. People love a side. I am not rejecting all the modern world has to offer us marketers. I am embracing it wholeheartedly but with the cautious, perfect probability logic of a 2000 year old Roman dude. I am both sides, but with judicious balance. Of course, as we learn more, ideas from one side can move to the other. Experimental becomes everyday. Shiny becomes standard. Strategy’s job is to be the gatekeeper between the two. ‘Best advice’ sits on BBH’s ten principles, engraved in metal. And I happen to think the barbell is the best advice for any brand dealing with uncertainty, as we all are. It is perhaps a way of keeping things simple, at a time when nothing is.

Final point: sweat. We are here to make the work work. And by any means. The edges of the strategist’s job description are only within that, as I see it.

The idea of strategy as a pristine process with white gloves and pure charts is one I have always tried to snub out. Instead: extreme ownership. Anything that affects the result, we’re there. Politics, production, budgets, casting, lines, whatever. It’s harder. You’ll sweat more. But if you don’t you’re letting that rascal probability get one up on you again.

Of course there are experts in those areas who need the space to do their thing. But their goals are sometimes different from the brand’s – the short-term happiness of the client, the immediate financial situation, the artistic vision – so strategic charm is needed to make their goals and the brand’s feel as one. In other words, your strategy needs a strategy.

This of course misses so many other reasons we won: John, John and Nigel’s incredible foundations, Nick Ratcliffe‘s love of the data, Jason Gonsalves and Edd Southerden‘s early strategic wizardry Benjamin Braun‘s maverick spirit, Ian Heartfield‘s genius for simplicity and difference, Polly McMorrow‘s technicolour puppet mastery, Sarah Cox and Anna Russell‘s good taste and a whole team and army of creative teams’ excellence.

But that’s the view from the strategy corner: we just tried to get one up on probability.