I was watching a programme about the SAS training some Free French soldiers.
The SAS sergeant told them to build two 30-foot towers, and the Free French soldiers jumped to it.
The sergeant stopped them and told them they’d all failed.
The French sergeant asked how could they fail, they’d hardly started?
The SAS sergeant replied that they didn’t ask any questions.
The French sergeant said they are taught to obey without question.
The SAS sergeant said THAT is the problem. The most important question is always ‘Why?’”
The French sergeant said they didn’t need to know why, they just needed to obey.
The SAS sergeant said, “What happens when something goes wrong? (And something always goes wrong.) What do you do if you don’t know why you’re doing it?
How do you find another way to achieve the objective if you don’t know what the objective is?”
What made the SAS different as a fighting force, was that they demanded their members use their initiative.
The dictionary defines initiative as:
“The ability to assess and initiate things independently: “Use your initiative, imagination and common sense”.
To use your initiative you not only need to know what you’re doing, but also why.
The sergeant didn’t put it this way, but what he’s talking about is ‘First Principles’ thinking.
In fact, anything that isn’t First Principles thinking isn’t really thinking at all.
Aristotle described it as, “The first basis from which a thing is known.”
Without knowing why we’re doing something, all we can do is carry on like robots.
In our business, the prime example of this was always the brief.
The section designed for First Principles thinking was the part headed: Why Are We Advertising?
This was the section meant to summarise the creative thinking behind the strategy.
Instead, it was nearly always lazily filled in as “To sell more (whatever it is)”.
That’s right, someone with a university degree, calling themselves ‘a strategist’, would summarise the creative strategy as ‘To sell more”.
They’re not thinking at all, they’re just filling in a blank box because it’s there, like a robot.
In which case, it isn’t a brief at all, it’s just a ‘start work’ docket.
So can we think of any examples where the actual creative thinking happened in the brief due to real strategists using First Principles thinking?
Well, how about Apple positioning itself as a domestic computer when the market was geared solely around office work.
Then later, Apple positioning itself for creatives, unlike every other computer company.
Then later still, Apple positioning itself as entertainment and lifestyle instead of calculations.
Or British Airways positioning itself as the world’s favourite airline, when actually it was fourth or fifth largest.
Or Lucozade, switching its image from a drink for sick people to an athletic energy drink.
Or Listerine, inventing halitosis as a problem, and itself as the cure.
Or the AA, switching from just a breakdown service to the ‘4th Emergency Service’?
Or MacDonalds, growing the entire fast-food sector by cutting out 80% of the menu.
Or London Docklands, repositioning other development areas as ‘The Middle of Nowhere’.
Or Levy’s, ignoring Jews to sell traditional rye bread to gentiles.
Or Nike, repositioning sports shoes as female empowerment.
Or Haagen Dazs selling ice cream as a sensual aid for sexual pleasure.
None of these were mere creative executions, they all came from First Principles thinking.
They all came from people who didn’t fill in forms like robots.
People who actually used creative thinking in developing the strategy.
People who actually deserved the title, Strategists.