What marketers need to learn about the art of sacrifice

That’s it. Game of Thrones is over. A couple of monumental spectacles, matched only by a deep sense of dissatisfaction. Now, over a million people have signed a petition to remake the final season.

Unfortunately, even a remake couldn’t save the show, as the damage was done long before the writers got going on season eight. Why? Because it lost something it was once the master of: the art of the sacrifice.

Imagine if Game of Thrones had forgone the inevitable victory of the White Walkers. A plot line that could and should have been dealt with in season seven. The budget saved on the (stunning) episode, The Long Night, might have been invested in four additional episodes that did what the show used to do best – shining a light on the frailty of the human condition and the political machinations of power. Suddenly the writers would have had time to delve into the real heart of season eight, the relationship between the Mother of Dragons and Jon Snow. They could have even given Cersei the death she deserved.

So what lessons can our industry draw from all this?

Sacrifice equals effectiveness

Just as Game of Thrones had overextended itself by the start of season eight, resulting in a confused and unengaged audience, so too has our industry tried to be everything to everyone.

Trying to do too much has been holding us back since the word ‘integration’ was first uttered. Barely a week goes by without a story about our industry’s broken model. The truth is there isn’t a new model to be found – we just need to be more efficient.

I saw a great chart on LinkedIn recently detailing what client briefs asked for over the last 20 years, what agencies have pitched, and what clients have bought. What was requested and bought remained the same in volume. However, what agencies have been pitching had multiplied several times: TV, OOH, print, event, stunt, app, content, partnership. The list goes on.

How much time and how many resources are wasted developing ideas and assets compared to the number actually bought? Of those bought, do you actually make any money? Do you have the expertise?

Sacrificing the desire to offer the full suite of integration will make your agency more efficient and committed to what brings in the money. It’s not even that hard. Media targeting means we have more control over the mid-funnel than ever before, and can therefore focus each asset on the job it is intended to do, rather than trying to tell everyone everything, all at once.

Sacrifice keeps the energy alive.

Sorry Line of Duty fans, but it’s Game of Thrones that championed killing off the biggest stars (Sean Bean as Ned Stark in season one) and shock deaths of popular characters (take your pick from the unforgettable Red Wedding). In the show, this trope created space for new characters and brought new narrative energy. However, by the time we hit season eight virtually no one of importance in contention for the Iron Throne had been sacrificed and this led to some pretty underwhelming conclusions.

Don’t get me wrong, I get it. It’s scary to sacrifice something that is potentially interesting, valuable, or unique, especially if it has worked for you in the past. But by sacrificing something in the brand, it forces you to double down on something else. And it’s always better to have your audience understand 100% about one thing than 50% of lots of things.

Crucially, you shouldn’t just think about sacrifice as part of the initial planning phase. So many ads today are played into submission and it’s no longer good enough to create on an annual basis. The life of an execution is getting shorter and shorter, so even when you’re winning, ask what needs to be sacrificed next to open up new opportunities and energy that will keep your audience hooked.

Sacrifice can put your brand at the cutting edge.

Sacrifice can even be a creative strategy all on its own, serving marketers as they communicate what their brand does and doesn’t stand for in a world where consumers are looking for a North Star to provide direction and leadership. Look at the work done by REI sacrificing the Black Friday traffic spike; Patagonia forgoing short-term sales by asking us not to buy their jacket or Tesla waiving possible patent lawsuits against anyone copying its tech in good faith. In each of these cases, an understanding of the power of sacrifice was the justification for marketing communications that contradicted immediate business objectives, but at the same time contributed to long-term sales uplift and company health.

Admittedly, commitment to a very tight brand message won’t work for every situation or product category. However, what is clear is that sometimes a well-honed brand meaning, and clear communication of brand values is the most essential component of a competitive advantage and marketing success. Deploying sacrifice as a strategy to sharpen your brand meaning will lift you above functionality and into the realms of deep emotional connection. That’s where competitors will find it impossible to emulate your brand.

It’s hard to find a good idea, so if you find one, don’t keep adding things to it. Think like Game of Thrones in the early days: sacrifice anything unnecessary. You’ll find yourself sitting on the metaphorical Iron Throne of your sector in no time.

This article was originally posted in The Drum.