Aussie Spikes Asia attendees (and media category nominees) Clem Sydney’s Vince Usher (left in photo) and M&C Saatchi’s Max Learmont (right) provide B&T with their rollicking diary of a week’s fun (and work) from steamy Singapore…
Wow, all I can say is… What a bloody great ride that was.
When B&T announced that Max Learmont and I would represent Australia at Spikes Asia, I don’t think either of us had any real idea what we were in for.
Sure, we’d gone through a similar 24 hour Young Lions competition which felt like being a live lobster dramatically cast into a boiling pot of water and asked to solve a Rubik’s cube.
But, it wasn’t until we were on the other side of the world smelling each-others farts within a two by four metre square room, and trying to solve issues for the United Nations that we knew… just, how, hard, this strategy thing could get.
So below is our experience. Where we did well, where we went wrong, and where we – like Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now – lost our minds writhing around in the sticky heat of Singapore.
To give you a proper overview, let’s start at the months before you even get there:
I have to say this is probably the coolest time to be alive. Everyone you meet is stoked, and you’re tooting your horn to anyone that’ll listen. It’s a good feeling; in the strategy world, you rarely get any props for well, anything you do…
The problem is though, all of the hype starts to bring with it a lot of pressure, and if you don’t keep on top of it, you can let it crush you. I don’t know how many people would tell both Max and me to bring back the gold.
Your parents, your girlfriend’s parents, your work parents, everyone is confident you can do well and succeed. Of course, being the narcissistic little prick I can sometimes be, I was convinced that we would.
In the back of your mind, however, there always sits a little seething bead of doubt. It permeates your every waking thought with ideations of failing in the face of your competition.
This is the real battle you face. Getting through the dissonance in your own head is as much of a fight as the actual competition.
Day one – The Flight
Come to the actual day of the flight and I can say, you’re nothing but bloody excited.
For me personally – this might just have been the half case of VB I’d polished off before I left for the airport – there was a nervous buzz around that would make my hands shake and my teeth grit as I tried to put a lid on my excitement. I couldn’t help but think how bloody happy I was that both Max and I were about to head across the world to do one of the things we loved most of all, and on company time!
At the airport itself, both Max and I wanted to get ahead of the challenge, as we were convinced we would be getting a brief for Tiger Beer the festivals’ main sponsor. We sat down and ran through the potential creative angles we might use if we were to get that brief.
Ideas spanned everything from barcodes like tiger stripes as a new media solution, right through to connecting people’s tiger tattoos with a real animal in the wild. Each were simplified via our taking the P.I.S.S format of problem, insight, strategy and solution, and were crafted into some rough one pagers.
The flight itself was about eight hours long and filled with a lot of crazy people who had zero sense of personal space. Max became sick as a dog during, exposed to a plague ridden passenger who spewed fetid fungal fluids across the back of his neck, while I was treated as an alternative neck pillow by a sweaty man who snored like a second hand chainsaw and smelled like he was taking part in the truck stop trough lolly diet.
But all said and done, neither of us really cared. Shoot us out of a canon over the Java Sea and we’d be happy. Competing on the other side of the world is exciting. The best.
The day of registration:
The morning we landed in Singapore, we’d met the other teams representing Australia and headed to Spikes.
When you arrive, you can’t help but scope everyone and everything out as if they were your mortal enemy. Walking through the halls you get the feeling your dad probably had when picking you up from school, thinking to yourself, are they my competitor? Where are they from? Could I beat them in a fight? But at the end of the day, you realise you have no idea, and all you have to do is stay chill and be calm.
Spikes was well put together. Heaps of rooms for keynotes, unique campaign papers littered the walls, and a breakout space was provided for Young Lions Competitors with a Printer and some bean bags to chill out on. Beer was also free, so we had to stay well away from it. Everyone knows the deal with Aussies and free beer as they get close to the equator.
That night all Team Australia competitors were shouted dinner by John at the Misfits in a tiny hawker spot near to the hotel. It helped to buoy our spirits for the massive week ahead.
The day of the competition:
The way the competition worked in Sydney was different from how it worked in Singapore. Instead of receiving your brief at the crack of dawn with everyone else, competitor briefings are staggered so that Digital, Integrated and Media categories receive their briefs at different times.
The last cab off the rank at 3pm, we entered the room with the client.
The briefing is the first time you get a look at your competitors. Looking across the room, there’s a weird feeling. Everyone’s unsure whether or not they should talk to each other.
We decided to keep our distance until afterwards.
The teams themselves were an ecclectic mix of people. There were Japanese dudes wearing farming outfits matched with box-fresh Jordan sneakers, right through to your run of the mill Oxbridge educated whiteys.
But the briefing itself, I’m not going to lie – was one of the least inspiring I’ve been to.
It was run by a lady from the United Nations Development Programme who tasked us with getting Ag-Tech Startups to come to the U.N’s development programme in Singapore.
On face value, this seems an exciting challenge, but the way it was delivered left a little to be desired.
A big part of these competitions is wading through the rivers of misinformation the client gives you as they naturally try to solve the brief in the process of delivering it. With this one, it felt like red herrings were raining from the sky en masse.
Knowing what we were getting was a bit of a minefield, I decided to record the briefing on my phone so that we could sort through it later.
Singled out by the U.N. spokesperson, I was told that it was uncomfortable for us to have her confidential campaign information on the video.
We made a prompt joke about being the second coming of Edward Snowden and put the phone away.
Faces of the United Nations’ contempt below.
After the briefing, and as if we were Kipchoge running a marathon, Max and I hit the road in a blaze of glory.
The local library felt right to get some serviceable wifi and a reasonably quiet place to discuss the brief, but it turned out to be a big mistake.
As it happens Singaporeans take their silent library rule as gospel.
So much as utter a word or dare to work anywhere but the desks assigned and you’re gone!
We lasted fifteen minutes before we were kicked out and ended up in a hipster cafe plugging away at the more obvious ideas that made sense to us.
Infiltrate We-Work, Gardening Media, Apple Fruit Stickers, growing billboards, CRISPR for plants, banknote imagery, we thought of it all.
But, nothing really hit us as being novel.
For whatever reason, our usual selves didn’t seem switched on. Whether it was the change of environment, the pressure of the competition, or the crazy new stuff around us to look at, we had a tough time pushing ourselves outside the confines of the banal.
Frustrated, we left the cafe and decided to go for a walk. Roping in the CFO of the Misfits to lend an ear, we paced what seemed like 10km’s worth of pavement. This quickly turned into beers at a karaoke bar and an idea we thought we’ thought was serviceable – CROP CIRCLES.
It seemed lateral, and interesting enough, so the tactic was to get some sleep and spend the next day until 2pm putting together the submission.
The day of submission:
When you wake up on the day of the presentation, you’ve naturally just spent the last 6 hours pretending to be sleeping. But, at this point, it’s time to start throwing rigour at your idea and crafting a story to help it make as much sense as possible.
Haggard as ever we sat down at the dreaded Starbucks and had at it.
It’s safe to say that an hour in Max and I weren’t convinced…
This meant we were faced with a dilemma, where do you go from here? Do we spend another few of our precious hours working at getting another idea? Or do we just do the best with what we’ve got?
Crop Circle media, if we could sell that to the U.N, it’d either be the greatest story ever sold or, we’d be laughed out of the room like idiots. But we got going on some angles, and things started to make sense.
Source of volume: Flight paths x plane trips x passengers = 15m reach. check.
Insight: Ag-Tech company logo’s look like crop circles. The people who benefit most from Ag-Tech solutions are farmers. The startups themselves are driven by media exposure. Check.
Pitch theatre: Getting an Ag-Tech CEO to back up our idea. Check
Idea/ executional mockups: Cool images of crop circles. Check.
And there we were ready to submit at the stroke of 2pm.
We knew obviously that there were big holes in our response. The crop circle idea was big and weird, and perhaps too hairy for the U.N, so it required an open-minded set of judges to get it through.
But, rightly or wrongly, we still had hope.
Sometimes if you’re assy enough, you can get away with having an okayish idea, as long as you have conviction in your sell.
We spent hours trying to tighten things up in our speech that night. Both of us had started to crack around the edges and the atmosphere in the hotel room was grim. No one said much, and the tension was thick.
The day of the presentation:
Waking up that morning, both Max and I were livid with ourselves, but, it was time to get on with it.
We sucked up all the anger and disappointment we had and left it at the door. All that was left was to give our speech the best damn shot we could.
The actual situation in which you present to the judges was weird. You enter a large conference room cleared of its contents, and a panel of three judges sits in the middle.
Both Max and I had zero ideas who we’d be speaking to, or what their backgrounds were. But, in the lucky dip of life and whether or not they were just playing a role we don’t know. It felt as if we’d been given the most serious, grumpy, and cold faced crew of judges possible.
Standing up front made you feel like one of those objects the water jet cuts through on youtube, wholly sliced in half by the fury that emanated from behind their piercing eyes. But f*ck it, I wasn’t going to let them intimidate us out of having fun, so we cranked the XFiles theme and got to doing what we do best.
After the presentation was over, we couldn’t really tell what the judges had thought of it.
We were the second to present, and they just looked at us like we’d plopped a log on the floor and walked away from a stinking mess. But to be fair, the judges looked like that beforehand.
A few beers later and we’d convinced ourselves it was the worst thing anyone had ever written.
Not even the crack cocaine of a Tim-Ho-Wang fried dumpling could help alleviate our sadness.
There was nothing else we could do at this point, beer o clock was ringing, and that was the end of our attempt at a Spikes Asia Young Lions Experience.
Waiting for the Final Judging was grim, understanding we didn’t have a shot at the gold, the best we thought we could do was the pity bronze. The verdict was delivered, and a golden potato took out the top spot, no shit, a golden f*cking potato. Apple-apple came second, and a crop circle idea the third (not ours).
Leaving the theatre knowing we could have done so much more, was devastating. But ultimately nothing could’ve prepared us for the weird environment and stress we were under to get something over the line.
The advice is that, what you think might be weird, different and exciting, might actually be a pretty common thought. It’s better to get a solid idea quickly and spend most of your time making the presentation and story tight.
But hey, if you crack something absolutely crazy lateral off the bat, then that is awesome.
Wrapping up, I just want to say special thanks to The Misfits and B&T who have been significant supporters of both Max and I over the last two years, the entire Spikes Asia Festival team, the United Nations Development Fund, and the rest of Team Australia, Cindy, Shernese, Scott, Rosie and John the legend Hromin.