The results of the latest assignment from A[P]SOTW – or the Advertising [Planning] School On The Web – are in.

This excellent initiative is run by a team of senior planners from across the world. They post challenges for up-and-coming planners and marketers - or, in fact, anyone with an interest in smart ideas and communications – and have the entries judged by a heavyweight group of marketers and strategy experts. Warc teamed up with the School a few months ago to help promote the challenges.

The latest challenge was based on a fictional brief from H&M about the launch of a basketball shoe line. However, the brief was deliberately ambiguous and confusing, so entrants had to work out how best to respond. They were asked to give an idea of what they thought the brief meant, develop a strategy to respond, ask five questions of the client, and present it all in a 10- to 25-page PowerPoint presentation.

As a reminder, the brief is here (and can also be downloaded as a PDF):

Each of the entries is fully critiqued on the blog of Rob Campbell, Head of Planning at Wieden & Kennedy Shanghai, who set up the challenge.

And the winner is…

In fact, this time round there was no one winner. As Rob points out: "No one submission really ticked all the boxes. However, as it's nearly Christmas and we're feeling generous, we've decided to award a prize to the entries we felt best achieved one of the following: challenging the brief; articulating the strategy (even if we didn't completely agree with it); clarity of argument (even if we didn't completely agree with it)."

The three entries recognised came from Duncan Richards, Thomas Wagner and Niklas & Bjorn, and we're delighted to share the winning responses with Warc readers. Congratulations to all three.

Duncan Richards:

Thomas Wagner:

Niklas & Bjorn:

To explain the judges' thinking, it's worth highlighting some of the feedback. So the following text is from Rob's blog:

The brief was purposefully weird and it was done like that for two reasons:

  • Because sadly a lot of RFP's are like that.
  • It was a bit of a test of your character and balls.

You see I was hoping I would get some responses that would highlight how utterly ridiculous the request was.

I'm not saying you should have 'declined to pitch' based on the contradictory elements of the brief, but highlighting some of the commercial ambiguities and explaining the fundamental points you were going to base your strategy on [and the bits you were going to leave for debate at a later date] would have been nice to see.

A couple of you did it – and a big well done to you – but the majority didn't.

I appreciate that might sound like you're being cocky, but if done the right way, it would show utter professionalism.

Calling the client a stupid dick would obviously not be respectful or responsible, but if you highlighted – or at least enquired – where some of the information/facts in the brief came from, it would show you're serious about the task and are not someone who bases everything on the superficial or here-say.

Let's be honest, there were all sorts of issues that needed to be raised – or at the very least – considered.

From the mixed objectives [cool versus shoe sales] to their lack of credibility in the basketball category to the fact they expect a global campaign for 3 million US$ to the reality that 1 million shoes at US$50 each is hardly going to change the perception of their brand when in 2010, they sold US$20 billion of product.

And that's just for starters.

To be honest, this is why part of the task was to ask the 5 questions, but unfortunately, very few people actually challenged the validity of what was being requested, even though literally none of the "facts" made sense.

Those 5 questions were your chance to really show what you were made of … prove to H&M that you were the agency that wouldn't let them make stupid mistakes but overall, the questions were weak.

Only a few people asked 'why' basketball shoes.

No one requested to see the product.

No one.

That's not great because to me, they would be the absolute basic starting point … but maybe people felt that was the wrong thing to do because it was too 'obvious'.

Or thought that because this was a pretend brief, those questions didn't matter.

NEVER think something is too obvious.

NEVER assume someone has thought it all through.

I'm not saying clients are stupid, but sadly, too many briefs are written with too little time – so ambiguity, contradiction and superficiality can often exist within them.

So while only one person had the courage to actively challenge the validity of the RFP's objectives, a lot of you had the courage to believe you could design a better sneaker than H&M.

There were a lot of suggestions for new product – or should I say – new design.

Now while I'm fine with that, the 3 things that most of the judges responded with were:

  • Why are people assuming the H&M basketball shoe won't be good – especially given their long heritage of doing collaborative lines.
  • What credentials did the people have for thinking their design recommendation was going to be more successful than an international fashion brand.
  • Where in the RFP did it say this approach was agreeable?

Again, I'm not saying you shouldn't do that – but you better have a bloody good explanation why you think H&M's product won't be good enough [which will be hard given no one asked to see it] not to mention a fantastic – and quantifiable – rationale for why your design will be better.

The submissions that took this route all felt like the person had jumped to the execution and then tried to back-rationalise the strategy and while some were quite good, none were convincing enough to have got through to the next round of the 'pitch'.

Not only that, hardly anyone thought of using H&M's existing assets – whether that's the retail environment or their own apps – they felt it was better to reinvent the wheel which either indicates incredible confidence or that no one really bothered to look at what they already had.

There's a last couple of general comments.

First of all, never underestimate the importance of a good looking deck.

I know … I know … the quality should stand out but we all know that is not always the case. Besides, a great looking deck makes people pay even more attention and if you've put in all this effort, shouldn't you be doing all you can to make sure you hold their attention and imagination?

The other thing is – and I say this every time – start pitching your idea from the first page.

Come up with a title that puts the audience's heads into the space you want from the moment they read it.

This might seem a little thing, but it's important.

You don't get long to impress and you want to make sure everything is working for you from the moment you begin.

Finally, while many of you said that H&M required a different approach than the well-trodden ground of brands like NIKE and Adidas etc, they all still felt pretty 'traditional'.

If you're going to say that – which, for the record, was the right thing to do – then make sure it's actually different otherwise you'll be called out on it.

So while all the submissions had good points, there was no standout assignment … and the general lack of business appreciation was the most obvious – and alarming – shortfall.

Sure, some of the judges were classic business people, so they may have looked at the submissions with more of a pure commercial eye … however while advertising is a fantastic, exciting and influential discipline, we're here to make clients more successful … so if we don't explore and challenge the fundamental objectives that we've been asked to help achieve, then we're setting everyone up to fail at some level.

Two things I was taught that I still hold dear are:

  • Creativity and commerciality are never mutually exclusive.
  • Popularity is vanity. Profit is sanity.

That obviously doesn't mean I'm advocating rational and uninspiring advertising, I'm simply saying you have to be aware of what the real business objectives are, especially as in my experience, once you know that, it actually liberates creativity rather than restricts it.