When she was 26, Debra Veal and her husband decided to row across The Atlantic.
Debra hadn’t rowed much before.
But it didn’t matter, her husband was 6’5” tall and muscular.
So they entered for the 2001 Atlantic Rowing Race.
And they began practicing on The Thames, which was their biggest mistake.
Because The Thames is a river, but The Atlantic is an ocean.
36 boats from around the world entered the race.
The other teams were all pairs of big tough blokes.
The race was supposed to last six weeks with someone rowing non-stop.
One person on the oars while the other slept.
But it didn’t work out like that.
Because after just two weeks they hit a bad storm.
Debra finished her shift at rowing and went to wake her husband.
But he was curled up in a ball unable to move.
He had a paralysing fear of the open sea, but they hadn’t known it because they’d only ever practiced on The Thames.
Her husband couldn’t even move, much less row,
Debra had to call up an emergency rescue boat to take him off.
And naturally they expected her to quit, too.
But she didn’t quit, she decided to continue the race on her own.
Rowing the 3,000 miles across the Atlantic alone.
And she found how hard and slow it was.
The boat was designed to be rowed by two strong men.
She was making less than half the speed expected.
Some days she would row 21 miles, then get blown backwards 30 miles while she slept.
And then there were the waves, sometimes as big as buildings.
And the sharks.
But worst of all were the super tankers and container ships.
Massive vessels that would plough on oblivious to a tiny rowing boat.
Which meant Debra couldn’t get much sleep.
And yet with all of that she wouldn’t give up.
And eventually, after 16 weeks, she made it.
What should have taken 6 weeks took her nearly three times longer.
Of the 36 boats that started, she finished last.
But three boats didn’t finish at all.
In each case a rower had to be rescued and the other rower decided he couldn’t make it on his own.
So big strong men quit, but she didn’t.
And Debra became the most famous person ever to complete the race.
All the world’s press and TV cameras were waiting for her.
They hadn’t been waiting ten weeks earlier for any of the winners.
Because big, strong men winning a race isn’t nearly as interesting as her story.
What made Debra’s story fascinating was that she carried on alone,
when none of the men could.
It didn’t matter that she finished last.
It was that she wouldn’t give up, no matter what.
A small, single woman taking on a challenge that teams of hardened men could barely do.
That’s the lesson for advertising, and everyone in the mass media.
Getting the public’s attention isn’t always about being better:
being faster, being stronger, being first.
It’s not just about conventional competition.
Getting the public’s attention is always about being unlike everyone else.
Standing out is always about being unusual, being interesting, being different.