Stress testing ideas to the extreme

Political debate can be frustrating. Just when you think the representative of your ‘side’ has landed a knockout blow you see the opposing leader (or patsy) come back with something reasonable, well executed and stress-relieving. Before you have time to examine the answer, things have moved on.

Prime Minister's Questions, Theresa May

This is no mistake or coincidence. Each side will have rehearsed the potential questions and their own responses time and time again, whether for Prime Minister’s Questions or a TV debate. This is why the only time you see politicians truly rattled is when a journalist or a member of the public throws them a complete curve ball. An ‘I was there, actually’, a ‘when did you stop beating your wife?’. Refusing to accept the rehearsed answer works too, but even that may have been rehearsed beforehand.

Debate of this kind is often compared to chess and that is a great analogy. The best players think dozens of moves ahead, mentally playing out different scenarios or unusual moves and able to adapt to each one. It is truly obvious when you see a politician who has been too busy, stressed, tired or lazy to stress test their ideas. It often makes the headlines or sets social media alight.

But, so often, this rigorous process is not carried out when thinking about ideas within business or organisations. Rehearsing and stress testing ideas and their consequences is a service that I offer for businesses, but it is also something that I do with ideas that I have for clients, whether they are charities, companies or individuals. I often have ideas that rely on a second trigger to work (such as in a media campaign – creating a scenario that thrives on response), could cause controversy or could play out in a number of ways.

Stress testing is a game of chess

So I am there at my mental chess board, exploring the outcomes. I want to know if I have thought of something that will get a client on the front pages or simply crash their share price. They do too.

When I am commissioned to come up with a broad set of ideas for a client, I do just that. As broad as they come. From ideas that will please your grandmother to ideas that will make her hair stand on end. One to frighten the horses for every one that pats the finance manager gently on the head. You can guess which ones undergo more stress testing.

This testing is sometimes best done within the proposal document itself, or in front of the client. Showing your workings can often make them more daring and emboldened to try something new. Some may even choose the ideas that rely on the reaction of others to work. They’re a calculated gamble. But even the favourite at Ascot loses every now and again.


How the **** do you sell ideas?

“How on earth does selling ideas work?” “You do what?” “Are you making this up?” “Is that even a job?” How do I get in on this?”

These are just some of the reactions I get when I tell contacts, friends, family or acquaintances what I do for a living. Ideas are at the hub of everything, from business to faith, from politics to the arts.

But they are so often neglected as an isolated part of a process. Some people are great at selling, organising, leading or creating. But not all of these are great at ideas. Which is where I come in.


Selling ideas is a sensitive business, which relies on subsuming ego. After all, our ideas are what make us who we are. Letting someone else put their name on your ideas means losing all the glory, as most people or businesses don’t want to admit to going elsewhere for idea. That is why a lot of my ideas work clients are not listed here.

But as someone who has hundreds of ideas a week, letting go is actually a good thing for me. Releasing ideas into the wild means that great things can come of them, and it also leaves brain space for new ideas to flourish.

So, how does the process work?

How do you buy and sell ideas?

Mostly, the process begins with a business or individual approaching me. They may have a desire or a project in mind. Or they may just want a blanket set of ideas as to how they can promote their business.

I usually set up an initial two-day contract. One day for learning about the client and one to have ideas and writing them up. This can increase for large projects, such as re-branding. But two days is usually enough to begin with.

The ideas are then presented as a report, with notes about their execution or variance. These ideas vary from the safe to the brave (and, often, the extreme), as I am freed up from internal politics, potential for toe-stepping and massaging the egos of whichever department head usually gives these things the nod.

There may be critiques of current practice, ideas that counter the business’s usual narrative or ones that delve into its data or heritage. The ideas could include prompts for anything from an office party to new products and new markets. It’s a mixture of business thinking, scriptwriting, storytelling and connecting the dots. It is all those blue-sky, outside the box business jargon clichés, but for real. It could undo a business disaster, find new ways to keep my clients’ own clients happy or finally nail what a brand is.

But mostly, clients want to know how they can get noticed, get in the papers or become a wow on social media. In a world where every PR idea has been used up, it helps to be someone who knows how the media works and has a track record of innovation outside of the PR world. After all, if you don’t start with an idea then you don’t have a clue. Which means you don’t have a hope.

Can you make us a viral?

Viral image from Iain Aitch's Twitter

“Can you make us a viral?” is something that I get asked a great deal. It’s an occupational hazard of selling ideas for a living. The answer is usually no and sometimes maybe, but never yes. You can guess at the formula, but it shifts constantly in the wind. What is seen as witty one week is try-hard the next.

So, to give you a very live example, the above tweet, a flip remark on how a scene on Sky News looked as I ate my lunch, went viral yesterday and today. Well, if you consider almost 5,000 retweets to be viral.

It was no more aimed at getting shares than anything else I post on social media. After all, pretty much everything we post is a search for the dopamine hit of rising numbers and people laughing at your gags. But somehow it struck a chord. Why so?

Well, it is current, as it speaks about the election and Theresa May’s growing reputation as someone who shuns the public. It also speaks to popular culture, which is always a winner, according to arch-troublemaking PR men the KLF’s guide to how to have a hit single. People compared the image to scenes from Line of Duty, Street Fighter, Breaking Bad and Grand Theft Auto. It is also (if I may say) a good gag. Easy to get, Easy to share, as others will get it. It has a dig and a punch line. And a funny picture to boot.

KLF's The Manual

So, can you follow that formula and have a social media hit? Well, sadly not. The web runs on ideas and originality. Where once a Cassette Boy video was a sensation, the video cut up is now standard and the people who were his biggest fans are now a bit meh about his latest. He’s done well as a gun for hire, but the sharers want something new, even when his ire is turned on the targets they want to see satirised.

Those who want their campaign, policies, brand or star to go viral would do well to engage with original thinking, and lots of it. I tend to start at the extreme end and edit back towards sanity. The best and bravest clients are those who know how to say ‘stop’ at precisely the right moment.

When low tech trumps high tech in the election

rude election flyers

Photos of this rather rude set of election flyers have been shared across social media this week, proving that people sometimes prefer ideas set out in low tech, old school ways. When all the funny is in gifs on social media, a still image on the street stands out.

These are based on the sort of prostitution flyers you see in London’s phone boxes or stuck to lamp posts. Click on the above link to buy sets of postcards or posters based on them.

Pranks on postcards

I once used a similar idea myself (around 2001) for a column on pranks, publicity stunts and PR ideas that I was writing for Bizarre magazine at the time. And yes, that was a real mobile number. And yes, we did have some very odd calls.

Greek Loving Mastiff prank card

No-good punks – Brewdog run out of ideas

Malcom McLaren in CASH FROM CHAOS shirt

Disruptive brewing giant Brewdog seem to have finally run out of ideas. The brand markets itself as a punchy punk rock-themed brewer, but recent evidence has seen it displaying all the punk rock attitude of a pair of Primark bondage strides.

It has become the shouty pub bore, the office joker in comedy socks. It’s the Christmas jumper of brands. Once a joke, now in the mainstream and just annoyingly unfunny after a few years.

The latest stunt from Brewdog is to hint that its fans and funders should flypost its branding on the walls of our towns and cities. This is, apparently, guerilla marketing. But it looks more like a dearth of ideas.

Sure, the scandal may spread a few headlines, but this is becoming a one-trick pony with a gammy leg. The brand’s previous stunt was hiring a helicopter, pretending to steal it and then covering it in the brand livery before pretending to drop soft toys from it. Fat cats! Get it? Evil capitalism is trounced once again by a £5m fundraising round.

I didn’t see the stunt at the time, despite my social media bubble containing many ageing punks and fans of media stunts. It was cringe-inducing. A comedy red mohawk on a stag party of rugby lads.

The problem is that this punk schtick does not work when your products are available in Waitrose and you have bars emblazoned with your logo. All the shouting makes the brand owners just look like shouty public school boys who are doing rather well for themselves, thank you. Sure, that could also be said for some of the original art school punks. But at least they didn’t issue legal threats against anyone else having the temerity to market a punk business.

You can see why brands such as Brewdog latch on to punk as an idea and a way of marketing. After all, Malcolm McLaren was one of the greatest marketers of all time. He created the idea of punk and killed it too. He even made its commercialisation into a movie, disguised as a film about his punk band, the Sex Pistols.

Brewdog need to look farther than the Urban Outfitters studded wristband if they want to stick with this branding. Old punks can quickly become the mild-swilling Teds they once despised. Is punk brewing dead? Nah, it just smells that way.