Lucky Generals founding partner Andy Nairn reflects on the role luck has to play in shaping our lives and how we can make predictions for the future despite this seemingly random force
If you’re looking for a way to think about the year ahead without inducing a panic attack, one of the founders of Lucky Generals, Andy Nairn, has launched his first book. And it might provide a helpful way to think about 2021.
In the book, Andy, an agency strategist in his day job, argues that luck is a four-letter-word in business circles. He suggests that organisations spend too much time trying to reduce the role of chance and not enough encouraging serendipity. He then draws on everything from architecture to zoology, as well as almost 30 years working with some of the most successful companies on the planet, to provide “40 ways to stack the odds in your brand’s favour.”
For a bit of extra karma, he is also donating all his royalties to Commercial Break (an organisation that helps working class kids get a lucky break into the media industry).
Looking forward to an uncertain new year, LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Andy to see if he has any insights for how we can get lucky in 2021.
LBB> 2020 definitely felt like an unlucky year. Did the massive stroke of bad luck of a pandemic affect your thinking as you were writing the book?
Andy> Yeah. It was born out of all the crap, so it is connected with last year and what we hope this year might be like. It's incredible. Looking back, we started the year with Australia on fire and then it got worse.
Like a lot of people I was sitting at home, feeling a bit miserable and unlucky. The pandemic largely felt like this has just been thrust upon us, the whole world is having a catastrophic event of bad luck. But then I started feeling, “don't feel too sorry for yourself, mate”. Because I'm quite lucky. We have been quite healthy here. And we are affluent. And I'm the classic, old white dude. I'm insulated from a lot of the shit that's going on, even though it makes me annoyed. So rather than feeling sorry for my lack of luck, I reflected on how lucky I am. And then you can see if you may be able to use some of that luck to help other people.
I thought, what have I got that can help anyone? I'm probably not going to run a marathon. I'm barely walking to the fridge and back these days! So I thought maybe there's a way of sharing some knowledge that I've clocked up over the years. And then maybe using the royalties, which are going to a cause called Commercial Break
, which helps working-class kids get a lucky break in the industry. So that's how the idea was hatched. And then I had to think about what that book might be about.
LBB> Lucky Generals being the name of your agency, I'm guessing luck's been a preoccupation for longer than the time it took to write this book. When did you start thinking so much about luck?
Andy> The absolutely honest answer is we haven't really. Lucky Generals was quite a lucky name in every sense. It wasn't even our name until a couple of days before we launched. We had another name. Days before we launched, we found out for various reasons that it would be a bad idea to use it. We had to find a new name. It was a name of a band that Danny [Brooke-Taylor], my creative partner, had an idea for. It comes from a Napoleon quote. Somebody asked him what would it take to win a war and he said, "Bring your lucky generals." It's turned out to be quite lucky for us because of its appeal to people. Captains of industry quite like it because there's a historical backstory. But also a young designer feels like it could be a band, so it seems to appeal to all demographics. But not that much thought went into it.
It occurred to me that it's really odd that we're called Lucky Generals and we have never talked about luck. And then I realised, nobody talks about luck. I bet nobody begins an interview by saying, "I just got lucky." We know why that is. We say it's our hard work and our cleverness, and of course they are very important factors. But the more I thought about it, the more I spoke to other people in more confidential conversations, everyone started admitting, "we were really lucky with this" or "we had really bad luck on this occasion". Luck plays a part, but we just don't talk about it.
The book came about from realising that this was a taboo that everybody admits in private, and nobody talks about in public. Luck is literally a four letter word and that led into the idea of Go Luck Yourself as a fun way to get us talking about this thing that none of us want to talk about.
LBB> What sort of research did you do into the subject? And how did that shape the way the book came together?
Andy> The more digging I did, the more I found out that it is quite a Western taboo. Large chunks of the world don't find it a difficult thing to talk about at all. It's a perfectly reasonable thing to talk about. Certainly in Asian cultures, a big part of business life is talking about luck and factoring in luck.
I found out that it was the Victorians that had a big thing against luck, because they felt in particular that all you have to do in life is work hard and you'll get whatever you want. That was their strong belief. If you were rich and successful, that meant that you'd worked hard. And if you were poor, you just hadn't tried hard enough. Still, to this day, people feel uncomfortable talking about luck because it suggests that you haven't worked hard. Whereas I feel that hard work is incredibly important, but also being mindful of your luck and your privileges can be a really helpful way to get more out of a situation.
Then the more I discovered about it, the more I read in other fields like science or sport, or other walks of life where luck plays a role, the more I realised that it could apply to brands and our world.
LBB> Looking forward to 2021 it feels like, given the huge unlucky broadsides that can come along and change everything, making predictions for the year ahead is tricky. How can you make predictions knowing this?
Andy> That's difficult. There's a brilliant quote by Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist. He said: "It is very difficult to predict - especially the future", which I thought was brilliant witticism.
There are certainly things that we can predict. I feel the next year is going to be tough still, and a lot of the things that we were concerned about last year are going to remain the same. There are still going to be massive health concerns. We will not be going back to normal. There are going to be huge recessionary effects. And those racial seismic shocks are not going to go away, and we've got to do something to address those, not just talk about it. Then we'll come back to climate change and realise that that's not going to go away either. All that stuff is still going to be very much at the forefront of this year.
But what I feel the best companies often do is not obsess too much about the predictions of what is going to change, but really anchor themselves in what doesn't change. There's that lovely quote from Bill Bernbach: “It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man.” We always obsess about change in our industry, but what we should really obsess about is what doesn't change are the deepest of human motivations, what drives us what motivates us. He was saying that in the '60s.
Amazon's one of our biggest clients. Jeff Bezos always gets asked every year what's going to change, because of course he's at the forefront of change and technology. And he always turns it back to what is not going to change. It's about those basic human motivators like the desire for convenience.
Also I think the brands who have done best over the current crisis are the ones that already had quite a clear sense of who they were and what they were about. And therefore it just became a natural way to respond to this crisis. For the brands that were trying to figure out who they were and then behave in a different way, it didn't come across as confident or consistent to consumers.
LBB> Supermarket clients spring to mind as those that reacted to the pandemic well in that respect. Like your client, the Co-op.
Andy> That's true. That's a really great example because there was such a clear sense of what they stand for anyway, when the crisis came the natural response was, "OK we're the Co-op. We cooperate, we bring people together and communities so what can we do?" And they don't have to figure that out. So the minute it hit, they pulled their Easter campaign selling Easter eggs and encouraging consumption, and they switched it into supporting Fair Share, which is a food bank charity. And then they partnered with [England footballer and campaigner against child hunger] Marcus Rashford. That becomes a really natural part of the conversation. And Marcus Rushford was attracted to the Co-op for precisely that reason - because he realised that it wasn't them just doing this in 2020 because it was the thing to do. He realised that they'd been doing this for years. It was true to them and authentic.
If we did want to make a prediction, one prediction, I feel is: what has been proven is what the Co-op has been saying for 175 years is going to have greater relevance than ever - this idea that the biggest problems in the world will be solved by us coming together. Burger King is encouraging people to buy McDonald's. We probably didn't predict that at the beginning of 2020. I wrote about cooperation at the beginning of last year, because I think there's a greater appreciation that all these big things can't be done on your own, like climate change, race... We've got to join things up. And that means working with some people that are perhaps our enemies.
LBB> It’s definitely relevant. In 2020 we saw a huge amount of cooperation between scientists and pharma companies to make sure vaccines for Covid-19 got developed!
Andy> That's an extreme example and it's for a public good. But for a lot of brands there's been a great move towards open innovation, for instance, was a kind of term for companies giving away the IP for what they have created, because they know that if they give away the IP, developers will work on it and the whole ecosystem will get bigger. And so it's not just for these worthy causes. Obviously, creating a vaccine to save the world is an extreme example of something where you would hope people would corporate, but even in quite hard-nosed commercial cases now, people are realising that we need to muck in with other people.
One of the points I make in the book is that people treat luck like gold that you have to hoard yourself. But luck is like butter; it tastes better when you spread it around. Having a smaller share, but of a much bigger thing is worthwhile, rather than just keeping it to yourself, and then the ecosystem remains small and isolated.
LBB> It's hard getting someone to summarise a whole book, but maybe we can pull out some interesting highlights. What have you learned about making your own luck?
Andy> There's loads of evidence now that people can improve their chances, and luck, and it's all done through individuals, so it's about self help for people. What I've done is taken a lot of that, and just thought that works for organisations, brands and campaigns. So, drawing on all that sort of stuff from psychology and sports science and other fields.
I've got four big themes, which I realised apply to lots of our work and lots of other work that I admire from other people.
The first one is appreciating what you've got. Which is why I did the book in the first place and I think that really applies to brands. There's a lot of evidence for individuals that if you appreciate what you've got, and realise how lucky you are, even if you don't have very much in life, there's a lovely Roald Dahl quote: “We are all a great deal luckier that we realise, we usually get what we want - or near enough,” from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I think that's often the case with brands. Often people who run brands don't realise all these amazing things they've got under their noses, like the place that they come from, or their name, or the data they have, or their owned media, not just the media that they can buy. They might have a logo or a character. Because these things are so familiar to them, they don't realise how valuable they are, and they need someone else, possibly from an external party to say, "you could make much more of that".
We worked on [British bread brand] Hovis a long time ago. They have got this amazing history and we were told never to go near Hovis' history and that was the problem. Everyone remembers the boy and the bike, the '70s Ridley Scott ad. We were told the brand is now seen as being very old fashioned, that ad is a nightmare. Every person in the country hums that song and remembers it. They wanted to modernise it. Cutting a long story short, we realised that actually they were sitting on a gold mine of amazing history. They needed to appreciate how lucky they were. We weren't going to do something old fashioned, but there was a way of bringing what they did in those days right up to date and turning that into something that's really relevant today. So the line that we used was "as good today as it's always been", which is a small tweak on the Ridley Scott line. We had a boy running through history, and it was voted the ad of the decade. It's an example of how organisations often think that their history is boring and backwards looking. You can often get the clues to what you should stand for in the future from where you've been in the past.
Think about Spotify and data. How many companies sit on all this data and don't do anything with it? And then Spotify makes this amazing creative, Spotify Unwrapped and it's a phenomenon. All that is doing using their own data that most companies have got these days, but they've done something creative with it.
Then the second theme is looking out for opportunities everywhere. Science finds this completely normal. You're searching for a cure for arthritis and you discover that actually it cures Covid or something like that. Famously Viagra, they were looking for a heart treatment and then they realised that it had very funny side effects. They took that and transplanted it. And that's not seen as cheating or a fluke, because they still appreciate that you've got to have a clever, prepared mind. You still have to spot the opportunity. What happens in organisations a lot of time is we have our heads down so much and we're just working away at the ads and doing our thing that we miss out on all this other stuff around us where we could take from in other parts of culture, science, storytelling, psychology, etc. It's about taking ideas from interesting places
An example - one of ours - would be the Alexa Loses her Voice ad
, which was inspired by the story of The Little Mermaid. Our COO was talking to Danny, our creative director, about The Little Mermaid. So you can take a fairy story from well over 100 years ago and apply it to the most technologically advanced company on the planet.
And lots of the best campaigns are discoveries. Guinness Surfer was inspired by a painting, [Walter Crane's 1893 painting 'Neptune's Horses']. Often, rather than just slogging away at your day job and thinking about ads all the time, being out and about in nature, or in an art gallery, or reading a science book - making sure that you've got all sorts of other influences - is going to make your work better. Because it's such a nightmare at the moment people are more inclined to just get the heads down and view those things as being irrelevant. But actually, your day job will be improved by surrounding yourself with that sort of stimuli.
Then the third one's all about turning misfortune into good fortune. There's a lot of research on how the strongest individuals could take something that feels really bad at the time and turn it into the best thing. Throughout history, some of the best ad campaigns have taken something that feels like a weakness and turned it into the best thing. I mean, Guinness again - "good things come to those who wait". They've taken waiting at a bar, which is a terrible thing, and then turned that into a brilliant thing.
Bill Bernbach - a lot of his work was about being number two in car rentals [Avis] and then saying why it's a good thing. Or about how small Volkswagens were, but how if you "think small" it's actually really helpful. It's reframing things that feel bad into things that are good. And there are lots of stories about that that I think are amazing. Acknowledging problems feels like a really interesting strategy for brief brands over the next year.
The last section is about practising being lucky. It sounds like a contradiction in terms, but I feel like creating space in your organisation where lucky things will happen is a real skill. The best companies have set up so that they have gaps and so that they're trying to encourage luck, rather than eliminate it. A lot of companies are built to remove luck from the process. Luck is a bad thing because it's a taboo. People will say, "Let's leave nothing to chance." Actually, you should be trying to create little spaces for luck to bubble up because that's where the best stuff happens - happy accidents. There are lots of stories about how you can allow that to happen.
LBB> So bearing all that in mind, how do you make sure you have a lucky 2021?
Andy> You can create your own luck rather than just wait for bad things to happen. If you do those things, I think you set yourself up for success a lot more. And psychologically prepare yourself. Even in the depths of darkness, there are things that we should appreciate that we've got that are good, and we can keep our eyes open for these other opportunities. And I think that's what that's what we all need to do - not give up. There's luck out there. Somebody's gonna be lucky this year.