Years back, there came a point in football when referees thought the game was all about them – they’d stop play for any infringement, however slight.
Referees decided that scrupulously observing the rules was the most important part of the match.
The football authorities liked it this way, too: the rules came first no matter what.
But the punters, people who paid money to watch the game, didn’t like it.
The people who make the rules had forgotten all about the people who paid their wages.
People who were paying for excitement, who wanted entertainment and enjoyment.
Not some stop-start exhibition of rigidly enforced discipline.
When this became obvious, the football authorities and the referees had to do something.
Obviously the game still needed rules, but not at the cost of excitement.
How could they enforce the rules and still keep the game fast-flowing?
The answer was what the answer always is: common sense.
They established the “advantage rule” whereby a referee was expected to overlook an infringement if the team that had been fouled retained the advantage.
That’s why it was called “playing the advantage”.
For instance, if an attacker was about to score and a defender fouled him, the referee would previously have stopped the game to give the attacker a free kick.
This actually allowed all the defenders to rush back and get into position.
So it gave rise to the “professional foul”, whereby a defender would be willing to give away a free kick if it helped his team.
But with the advantage rule, when an attacker was fouled the referee would wait to see what happened next before stopping play.
Maybe the attacker would go on to score, in which case the foul was unsuccessful so the goal was given and the game kept its fast free-flowing nature.
The whole point was “playing the advantage” – if the innocent party had the advantage, it was better to let play go on.
So the rules were implemented in favour of keeping the game exciting.
The spirit of the law was more important than the letter of the law.
Because the referee’s focus was changed from just enforcing the rules to remembering who the game was being played for, the public.
Which is something advertising could do with learning.
Currently the brief is a set of rules, and it’s become marketing’s job to enforce the brief.
Just like the crowds of spectators in football, the consumers have been left out.
The rules of data, the rules of strategy, the rules of focus groups, the rules of category norms, the rules of media, the rules all take precedence.
And just like the referees we’re focusing on the wrong thing, just like the referees we need to learn the advantage rule.
When there’s a better idea than what was on the brief, we need to play the advantage.
When common sense tells us there’s a better solution that doesn’t obey the rules, we need to remember what the over-riding priority is.
We need to remember who we’re doing this for and what they want.
Just like the people watching football, consumers want fun and excitement.
Blind obedience to the rules is no good if it makes what they’re watching more boring.
There’s no point in sticking to the brief if it makes the ads dull and invisible.
If the ads don’t get seen and remembered, there’s no point doing them.
Just like the referees we need to learn to be creative, to play the advantage.
Making advertising fun and exciting should come before the rules.
Dave Trott is the author of Crossover Creativity, The Power of Ignorance, Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three