Towards the end of the American Civil War, Confederate forces were defying a Union blockade by running ships from Mobile in Alabama to Havana and other Caribbean ports. In 1864 Rear Admiral David Farragut was assigned by the Union high command to deal with the situation.
Mobile Bay was defended by a small Confederate naval squadron, three forts and a minefield. Farragut commanded a superior force on the water and had ground troops in support. But it still represented a tough challenge.
At dawn Farragut signalled for the assault to begin. As his fleet advanced and his ships came under fire, the air filled with gun smoke. He demanded that he be lashed to the mast of his flagship, Hartford, in order to get a decent view of events.
Things did not start well. His lead ironclad warship sailed into a minefield, struck a torpedo (the term at the time for a mine) and within two or three minutes it had sunk.
The Union ships hesitated. Should they proceed or withdraw?
According to legend, Farragut shouted: ‘Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead.’
Hartford led the Union squadron through the minefield. Remarkably they emerged unscathed. Farragut may have judged that most of the torpedoes had been submerged too long to be effective. In any case, his fleet proceeded to overpower the Confederate ships, and subsequently the forts guarding the mouth of the bay were taken too. The Battle of Mobile Bay was won.
Sometimes it’s appropriate to take a seemingly rash course of action. Some situations call for reckless bravery. Sometimes it’s worth the risk.
Many years ago we were pitching for the Milk Marketing Board. Despite having a credible nutrition story and years of admirable advertising, milk consumption in the UK was in decline.
We observed that consumers had become complacent about milk. They’d drunk it since childhood and knew that it was broadly healthy. But they didn’t see it as particularly relevant to the modern world.
Arresting the downturn would require radical action.
We speculated that if milk were a new product, consumers would probably find it hugely exciting: it contains high-quality protein, potassium, calcium, vitamin D, and more besides; it supports healthy teeth and bones; it has a distinctive pure white colour; and it’s completely natural.
The creative department asked: What if we actually launched milk as a new brand under a new name? What if we confronted people with their complacency? What if we called milk ‘Kiml’?
We developed a campaign for Kiml, the new wonder drink, and set up sampling stations in shopping centres across the country. Consumers in the test were hugely impressed. Kiml looked and tasted good; it had a great nutritional story; and it had a cool name. Fabulous!
We filmed the public’s appreciation of this new drink, and their shock on hearing that it was, in fact, plain, ordinary, everyday milk.
Surely such a provocation could prompt a re-evaluation?
There was considerable debate in the Agency as to whether we should really pitch this radical idea to what we assumed was a quite conservative Client. We suspected that we were not favourites to win; that we had only been put on the pitch list as leftfield candidates. Ultimately we concluded we had nothing to lose.
‘Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead.’
On the appointed day we proposed the idea of Kiml to the Milk Marketing Board. They greeted it with furrowed brows and quizzical expressions. They absolutely hated it. We lost the pitch.
You may imagine that this is a cautionary tale. But it’s not.
The truth is that the Milk Marketing Board was not the biggest account in the world. The Kiml pitch, though unsuccessful, precipitated a huge amount of engagement and pride within the Agency. It signalled to all concerned that we had a radical heart. We emerged from the Pitch as an Agency with a strong sense of self. And we went on a winning streak.
On reflection we often lost our best pitches. They’re imprinted on my memory: Dreamcast, ‘The greatest highs are the highs we share’; Baileys, ‘Love Plus One’; Levi’s US, when we redesigned the 501... At our best we were not afraid of failure. Failure could be a badge of pride. It set a standard. It stretched us. It demanded that we be different.
So, go on, give it a try. When the odds are stacked against you, just occasionally cry out the instruction: ‘Damn the torpedoes!’ Because, as Tom Petty memorably sang, ‘even the losers get lucky sometimes.’
‘Baby, even the losers get lucky sometimes.
Even the losers keep a little pride.
They get lucky sometimes.’
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, ‘Even the Losers’ (from the ‘Damn the Torpedoes’ album)
This piece was written in memory of Tom Petty who passed away this week. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 1979 album ‘Damn the Torpedoes’ illuminated my adolescence.