Why every marketer needs to ‘be more pirate’ with their creativity

Sam Conniff / September 2019

How far should you be prepared to push boundaries in the name of creativity? Until someone objects… and then until you nearly get fired, suggests Sam Conniff, author, entrepreneur and co-founder of agencies Livity and Don’t Panic.

Though pirates like Blackbeard and Anne Bonny are rightly infamous as lawbreakers, it’s also important to consider their status as agents of change. Facing a self-interested establishment, a broken system and certain uncertainty, they didn’t just break the rules, they rewrote them. They didn’t just reject society, they reinvented it. Their innovation, social leadership, and rule-breaking ways were a powerful way to enact change and challenge the status quo.

That’s why, I’d argue, every decision-maker can learn from them. But how far should creatives go – and how can a healthy disregard for convention provoke smarter thinking? Here’s a template for better rule-breaking.

Why creatives need to ‘be more pirate’

The collective confidence of creatives has diminished, which means the agency's classic setup of being a creative and bold strategic recommender, in partnership with its clients, has more moved towards a service model. That’s not good for either party. We have to be able to stand up for the integrity of our ideas, and decide where the line is at which we ask, are we going to enact some kind of rebellion? Even if the client says no, how can we help them make the right decision and step back up? Only by being prepared to push boundaries in this way can we come up with the best solutions for everyone.

How to encourage a more ‘pirate’ attitude in a creative workspace

In my agency Livity, we recognised that the intersection of naivety and wisdom is a really good place. Naivety on its own means you end up making lots of cat videos, and wisdom on its own ends up with purely data-based decisions – good creativity comes from both, together. You enable that with a spirit of collaboration, bringing the junior members of your team onboard and encouraging them to challenge things. To do that, you have to respect the ideas that they present.

Take note – the potential stumbling blocks

For big companies, encouraging the pirate mindset can be really difficult. If you’re a big company telling your team to ‘think like an entrepreneur’, that’s misguided and all it realistically does is mislead your teams. Unless you've only got three months’ money in the bank, and you really don't know what you're doing, then you simply can’t think like an entrepreneur. The real key is that permission-based change, which we're all wedded to, just doesn’t work – as most creatives know, the best ideas in the world go to their death in email threads. You have to be willing to let people break rules and make decisions on their own – and still support them.

The key to success: Rule-breaking with purpose

It’s about accountability. The first step is to decide on the rule that you would most – and this part is important – love to break. But the next step is, you also have to decide on the rule you’re going to replace it with, and you're now accountable to the success of your new metric. That’s what counters the chaotic element of the whole enterprise. It’s something I have begun calling ‘professional rule breaking’, a method that emerged out of ‘Be More Pirate’. Professional rule breakers are the modern equivalent of those historical buccaneers. But they don’t operate alone: recruiting a crew of others who hold each other to the account on the success of their mutiny is what makes it work.

In a nutshell, here are the 4 steps ‘to be more pirate’:

1. Break a rule

Crucially, this should be a rule that shouldn’t exist in the first place – one that’s been executed with minimal thought and still somehow exists. See what happens... probably not much.

2. Start a mutiny

You need to put something in place of the rule you’ve just broken – and when you do this, recruit other people to follow you. Run your idea up the flagpole and start your own mutiny.

3. Be agile

Pirates weren’t successful because they relied on systems that slowed them down – they made their decisions quickly based on values and principles, making them dynamic and responsive.

4. Redistribute your own power

Pirates devolved power to the rest of the ship – the captain could be voted out at any moment. Make sure your decisions can be challenged by the juniors on your team, who might have creative ideas of their own.

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