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Why You Must Ruthlessly Fire Your “Devil’s Advocates”

Long, long ago – when I used to work for free – I helped a local theatre sell tickets to a pantomime show, “Dick Turpin.”

In case you’re unfamiliar with pantomime, it’s a British tradition which happens around Christmas. The stage show is usually based on a popular story or fairy tale. Cross-dressing is a big part of pantomime. Audience involvement is too.

For example, you might have a character hiding behind some scenery on-stage. A giant bearded man, wearing a dress and blusher calls out: “Where is he?!”

And the audience replies: “He’s behind you.”

“Oh no he isn’t!”

“Oh yes he is!”

But I digress.

The point of this article is as follows: They were putting on one of these shows, and I was helping to sell it.

A big part of the Dick Turpin story is that it’s a tale of 2 personalities. Some see an 18th Century heroic outlaw dandy. Others see a scoundrel highwayman, a shameless thief and a rogue.

We didn’t have much of a marketing budget for this. But the local print firm agreed to sponsor the show by producing several-thousand beer mats. And the local brewer agreed to put these beer mats all over town in its pubs.

So far so good…but what should be on the beer mats?

I was in this very meeting, helping the top brass decide. You should know that I’m a bit of an introvert. I fear making a fool of myself more than just about anything. In meetings, I’m inclined to say nothing. But I had an idea which, I felt, was worth the risk.

“Why not use the beer mat to show the two sides of Dick Turpin,” I said. “Print the hero on one side and the scoundrel on the other.”

More than a decade later, I still think this was a terrific idea.

As I say over and over:

Your job in marketing is to demonstrate or dramatise your offer to the customer. If you can exploit the strengths of your medium to do this, all the better.

Well, the idea went down a treat.

For 2 or 3 minutes, I was the office hero. And this idea started a spitball session of other ideas we could try. Nothing was outright rejected. Everyone felt relaxed. It was a glorious 3 minutes of stimulating, creative discussion.

That is until someone interjected with those unbearable words: “Can I just play Devil’s Advocate?”

Before I go on, let me just make my opinion on this sort of tomfoolery crystal clear.

“Devil’s Advocate” is a game for losers.

Nobody with any talent or flare ever plays Devil’s Advocate.

It’s a law of the universe in the same way that gravity’s strength is relative to an object’s mass.

If you see anyone playing devil’s advocate, nip this behaviour in the bud. Tell them off. Fire them. Shame them. Cut them off. Do anything you can to stop this happening again.

This behaviour is so insidious…

…Because it’s not difficult to have an opinion on a subject you know nothing about.

The late Gary Halbert, certainly one of the top 5 copywriters of all time, explained it best in one of his newsletters:

You know what that guy is really secretly saying? It’s this: “I’m scared to death. I’m way out of my comfort zone. These people are talking like madmen. I’ve got to get things back down to my personal level of mediocrity.” That guy does not belong in your brainstorming room; he’ll kill all your babies aborning.

  • The Gary Halbert Letter (September, 1987)

What was wrong with my Dick Turpin idea?

According to this creative messiah, some of the pub tables may only have the beer mats facing one way up. There was a concern that patrons would never take it upon themselves to flip the beer mats over, or see any other beer mats showing the other side.

“Fair comment,” the people reluctantly agreed.

The idea was scrapped and we span back down the plughole of collaborative mediocrity. But that’s office environments for you.

I don’t know what happened with that pantomime in the end. I left in the summer – many months before it launched. Hopefully it did well. I know they were always desperate for money.