Fighting Words

PORTLAND–It’s a drizzly Thursday afternoon, but inside Paddy’s Bar on SW First and Yamhill things are amazingly clear.
Dave Allen, a partner in Fight–the strategic marketing firm he launched last year with Justin Spohn and Rob Shields–is holding court. He asked me to join him in order to practice his agency’s pitch. I said yes because I like Dave, he promised me beer(s) and I’m curious about Fight’s strategy-is-all business model.
Allen says he, and his partners, are frustrated by traditional advertising, and undue reliance on the big idea. “Fight is a right idea company,” he says. Allen adds that the big idea is a Hail Mary, every time.
Fight’s response to the rise of the Internet and the profound impact it has had on not only marketing, but culture, is something called “iterative marketing.” Iterative means “steps.” Thus, an iterative marketing strategy is built on many little steps, versus one big idea.
“We don’t like it when people say ROI can’t be measured,” Allen declares. “Business likes risk, but what business doesn’t like is reckless risk.” Fight’s iterative marketing approach reduces a client’s risk because when a campaign is introduced it’s immediately tested and analyzed, tweaks are made as necessary, then the work is reintroduced and the process repeats, and repeats again.
Allen describes Fight’s approach to iterative marketing as “a cupcake strategy” (something they picked up from Brandon Schauer of Adaptive Path). He compares the big idea to an elaborate wedding cake and says this is how traditional campaigns are launched, on a wing and a prayer. Allen says clients invest heavily in rolling out their big ideas, but many soon learn that their party doesn’t like cake at all, but prefers pie. Oops, too late. The budget’s been blown on a showy cake no one wants.
Allen uses a local example to illustrate the points he makes. He says Wieden + Kennedy’s famous “Fail Harder” pushpin installation (and company mantra) is wrong because it treats failure as inevitable. “To win big, you must fail big,” is the thinking. Allen says maybe this was the right idea before the rise of the Internet, but it’s outdated now. It’s outdated because today we exist within a cloud of personal data that paints a pretty good picture of who we are, where we are and what we’re doing.
Allen says you can’t wait to the end of a campaign to evaluate. “Ad agencies may use Radian6 and other tracking tools, but I wonder if they have any one who can actually read and fully evaluate the data,” he says.
“We don’t rule out big ideas, as long as they’re the right big ideas,” Allen says. When Fight’s on the job, providing strategic direction well ahead of any executional considerations, testing continuously and making adjustments on the fly–the way it’s done in digital environments–identifying the right idea, big or not, is more a science than an art. In other words, it’s just what clients, from John Wanamaker on down, have been asking for.

About David Burn

Co-founder and editor of AdPulp. I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. I worked for seven agencies in five states before launching my own practice in 2009. Today, I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.


  1. I like this idea of iterative marketing, and the cupcake vs wedding cake analogy is a great one. In a speech last October British planner Mark Earls took aim at the time honored notion of a strategy’s “big idea” as the central organizing principle around which a brand or campaign is built. Earls suggests that this “all or nothing” practice may reap high rewards, but is not particularly prudent, especially when the future success of a strategy is so hard to predict.
    This is what Earls said at last October’s 4As event: “It’s useful for agencies to produce and deliver against them – but frankly, in a world where social influence reigns, it’s less and less relevant… Do more stuff, place more bets, light more fires, give yourself more chances that at least one of your ideas takes off.”
    The problem with a static brand proposition is that brands are anything but static. Brands, like people, are evolving entities that live and die by the success of their actions. So this new idea of trying a ton of things and seeing what sticks may not be such a bad idea after all. As they say, success is a poor teacher, if a brand is going to fail; it makes sense for it to “fail forward, fail fast.” But the cupcake analogy allows brands not to bet the farm on a Hail Mary.

  2. @Charlie – “Light more fires.” I like that. Pyros of the ad world unite!

  3. I’ve been saying for a long time that Ogilvy’s “big idea” concept of advertising will largely be replaced by a thousand small ideas – many of which will happen on the fly.
    As much as Dave Allen and I hang out in the same places (real and virtual), I’ve never heard him say essentially the same thing before. But I think it only makes sense that those of us who do a lot of thinking about where marketing is headed will be coming to the same conclusions.
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