Can we all be “ruthlessly fearless” marketers?

I just spent a week in Tokyo, attending the first Asian Advertising Week conference. Best part of the week was the keynotes, featuring speakers like the chairman of Shiseido Group,  head of Asia for Google, LinkedIn and Facebook, and many more luminaries. Most inspiring was two presenters: Bonin Bough, Chief Media and eCommerce Officer at Mondelēz International, and Jimmy Smith, Chairman and CEO of Amusement Park Entertainment, a brand storytelling agency based in LA.

What struck me most was one thing Bonin said, that marketers need to be “ruthlessly fearless”, so as to achieve results, change minds, move the needle. As an example he cited the Honey Maid “This is wholesome” campaign featuring diverse families such as gay dads and mixed races, and the tongue-in-cheek rebuttal ad to the haters. Or the Walmart rebuttal to a New York Times article where they redlined all the factual inaccuracies in the article. That takes guts, taking on the NYT when under fire. Did it stop Walmart’s labor practices from being further attacked? Probably not, but I bet it made all the critics fact-check more carefully.

Forgive me for being a cynic, but I just cannot imagine a brand in Asia that would dare to go out on a limb like that.

During breaks my colleague and I also discussed the phenomenon of scam ads, campaigns created specifically to win marketing awards. We all know it’s a common practice for agencies to design a campaign from the ground up based on what wins awards, then find a client to sign up for it, and place a few media buys before award entry deadline. That practice is vilified by many in the industry, but then I wonder, if clients challenged agencies to do great, fearless work, and gave them the air cover to fail, perhaps even spectacularly, would scam ads even exist?

Of course us agencies are at fault too, for giving up. I’ve had the honor of working with a client for many years, a brand consistently among the top 10 in the global brand value league, yet we rarely did work for them that pushed the envelope. Brainstorms with the client inevitably resulted in great ideas that were watered down in successive rounds of discussions because their bosses “won’t understand it” or “it’s not on-brand.” After a few years, a challenge from any client in that company (usually a marketing manager fresh off the boat) to think outside the box would lead to silent despair, because we knew whatever brilliant but unusual idea we came up with would never see the light of day. Perhaps we should have persevered though.

Are us Asians just too timid? Are we too afraid to rock the boat and therefore turned it into an immovable barge?