The hamster wheel of doom


Start applying creativity instead of activity.

If there’s one thing that seems to unite all marketers right now it’s how busy they are. Everyone. Busy, busy, busy. Late for meetings. Lunch at the desk. Can’t make drinks after work. Miss the offsite event. No time to think. A real busy bunch. With all that energy, effort and expertise expended, we must be having the time of our lives?

But what’s everyone so busy doing? Solving world problems and exploiting great opportunities? Or doing more of the same – just to tighter deadlines and with smaller budgets? Are we winning the rat race or just taking part?

A race that just goes round and round isn’t a race at all. It’s the hamster wheel of doom. Hamsters like it. But you're not a hamster… Are you?

To quote Van Morrison, “Mama told me there’d be days like this.” But basing a whole career around this mentality? Sure, if you thrive on adrenaline, quit reading right now. 

Otherwise,  ask yourself these three simple questions:

  • Is the work I’m doing meeting my objectives?

  • Am I fulfilled?

  • Is this why I got into marketing?

Stepping off the wheel feels counterintuitive. No one else seems to be doing it. But that’s the reason we absolutely should. Get off. Stop for a moment and think. What am I, my team, my business, trying to achieve here?

Stress levels are clearly bursting through the roof. Research released by The Drum Network recently showed that 92% of people in agencies have struggled with mental well-being in the last 12 months. This compares with 62% of the wider population. I doubt anyone got into marketing for that.

And being busy isn’t producing work that’s a hit with the public; in fact, according to the Kantar Dimensions report 2019, they’re feeling increasingly bombarded and oversaturated. It’s smart to take a moment and reflect. Can busyness be replaced by enjoyment or even effectiveness?

I was in a meeting with an experienced marketing team. I could see what direction the discussion was going. They came up with a plan to embark on a huge versioning project. This wouldn’t have solved the issue we intended. So, I got off the wheel. Then I got everyone off the wheel. We went back to the issue. We looked through the evidence. We reimagined alternative solutions. We had a good time creating new and interesting ideas. Then we agreed to create a simple but significant digital innovation for the brand and hey presto! 24hrs later, we came up with a prototype that was shared. We were busy, sure, but the project only required two of us, not a whole studio for weeks on end. They could crack on with other things instead. Because our solution was more innovative for the brand, the process was much more energizing for all those involved.

I’d wager that people are mainly busy with meaningless activities. It takes just one person to ask ‘why?’ If we act smart, we too can get off the hamster wheel and think carefully about the problem to start applying creativity to the task at hand, rather than rush in with activity.

How much of all this effort goes into the marketing landfill? The project may go out but it’s unlikely to turn a dial and a lot of money may have been wasted. Burger King’s CMO, Fernando Machado, (borrowing from Zuckerberg), said: “The biggest risk is not taking a risk. We're always afraid”. It may be uncomfortable getting off the wheel but you know what they say about doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results. Of course, this doesn’t mean marketers need to risk everything right from the get go, but they should start with something.

Creativity fuels competitive advantage. After all, you can literally create something that others can’t or don't have.

So let’s apply a little logic and allow for magic to come through. What problem are you trying to solve? What opportunity are you trying to seek out? Your treasure trove of knowledge should  always act as your sounding board.

Allow your teams and partners to challenge what’s been done before. It’s got you to where you are now. Get a fresh perspective, perhaps someone from outside of your business or sector could help. Approach the issue through the eyes of your customers; your competitors; another brand who have rejected the barriers of another category. Break rules. What is everyone else doing that you don’t have to?

You may find the results useful, liberating, even. True creativity is hard work. But it's curiously uplifting and it makes tomorrow look an awful lot better than today.

The hamster wheel will keep spinning; it always does. But the time you’ve taken away from it will only help it to spin a little slower - with more purpose and more enjoyment.

You may find that you don’t have to get back on it because now you’re on a journey. Not a wheel.

Ian Bates