The Agony and the Ecstasy - a reflection on Brand Challenge.

Collaboration. Co-creation. Strategic integrity.

by Michele O’Hara


the situation of being faced with something that needs great mental effort in order to be done successfully and therefore tests a person's ability
Cambridge University Press. (2008). Cambridge online dictionary, Cambridge Dictionary online.
[Accessed 1 May 2019]

The annual Vega Brand Challenge has had a positive lifetime impact on the thousands of students who embraced this priceless experience over the past 21 years.

Amongst numerous intangible benefits, many students have been hand picked by potential employers following their Brand Challenge presentations and based on their exposure, experience and expertise. The exercise has contributed to the reputation of the Vega brand for graduating smart individuals who are not afraid to hit the ground running when they enter the workplace. Other academic institutions laud and applaud the process, and their students opt for postgraduate studies at Vega specifically to partake in this career enhancing project.

The Vega Brand Challenge Code 2019 states that “The annual Brand Challenge is (the students’) opportunity to work in a transdisciplinary team with a real-life client on a real-world brief to develop and execute an innovative and meaningful solution to a challenge facing the brand. You will engage with the stimulating process of design thinking to re-frame the brand problem, ideate and collaborate with colleagues and stakeholders, and deliver a strategically sound and creatively exciting solution.”

Straightforward, yes? Well, maybe not quite.

The experience of a client briefing is, in itself, daunting for many ‘first timers’. There are clients. And then there are clients. As in the ‘real world’. The client who arrived on a skateboard and briefed whilst sashaying to and fro across the room. The client who deviated into a world of fairies and goblins. Never to return. The corporate, stern, unforgiving client. The cool client. The client who misspelt the name of his own brand. The NPO manager whose heart and soul is in community, but is far removed from brand and business speak or practice. The client who isn’t sure what a client actually is. The client who will generously allow us to play with, manipulate and deconstruct the brand in the interests of innovative and purposeful solutions to wicked problems.

For a student, a client brief is a mysterious bundle of unrealistic demands which is almost impossible to unravel and unpack. The challenge of unearthing and untangling divergent business objectives, brand objectives, marketing objectives, communication objectives, advertising objectives and then ensuring they converge to deliver a cohesive and consistent strategic platform and creative execution is tantamount to eating spaghetti with a toothpick. The strands end up in an unfathomable knot before they slip and slide miraculously and suddenly into digestible possibilities. There is now a framework and the exploration begins.

Research is not only valuable to a client, but to the researchers themselves. Many students have been shifted out of their comfort zones and experienced engaging with “others” for the first time. The pride found in accomplishing this shift and the exhilaration of gaining some understanding of what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes. The humility felt when discovering the reason why children in impoverished areas want to learn to swim has nothing to do with their own safety or fun – but their overwhelming desire to “save my friend when she is drowning”. The realisation that not all students are the same. That they do not all come from affluent homes, but that some sleep in the veld beside their campuses and buy food “three or four days a week” with money made selling sweets at the side of the road while their classmates nonchalantly drive by. That they do not all have access to the basics of soap and shampoo – let alone a bath or shower. The development of compassion that will permeate a few for the rest of their lives.

Then there is “the panel”. There is a somewhat intriguing similarity between Brand Challenge panels and those constituted for reality challenges such as the X-Factor and Idols. There is always a Simon Cowell or Randal Abrahams. The bad guy who, in reality, is simply trying to point out the realities and facts as they pertain to pragmatic workplace practice. The Gareth Cliff who swings between loving and hating the executions in response to how the contestants have assimilated his feedback from previous performances. The Unathi ‘love everything you do babe’ type, who weeps with emotion at the progress each contestant has made. And the quiet but solid Dave Thompson with years and years of experience who just knows what will and won’t work out there in the real world.

Understanding and integrating feedback from a variety of ‘judges’ who comment from different perspectives and standpoints; who have differing expectations based on their knowledge of what has and what hasn’t been covered in class sessions; and who may ‘contradict’ each other as a consequence, is another formidable aspect of the process. The dithering in the dark until someone hesitantly suggests it may be an idea to consult a theoretical model or two. The need to assess differing feedback and commit to one direction is a risk many students are reluctant to take. But those who do, defend their choices with the tenacity (and giggle) of Desmond Tutu, and triumph in the end.

The real world beckons. The team performs. Family and friends cheer loudly. The panel says “maybe not”. The panel “sucks”. The team defends. The concept bombs. The fighters pick themselves up, embrace the realities and become overnight stars. The runners-up leave the room shaking heads or fists (sometimes on Twitter) only to make a phenomenal and mature comeback a week or two later. And so the dynamic continues.

The time spent going round in strategic circles is reminiscent of the most robust merry-go-round... sometimes without the merry. The spinning relentlessly in search of mind-blowing complexity in the blue skies above - only to find that earth-shattering simplicity is the better option. As the merry-go-round slows down, the brilliant ideas emerge ... solidly finding their feet on the ground. A new place to build from. A sandpit with exciting parameters for creative play.

Group dynamics are a source of fascination, frustration and fragility. The realisation that there are peers who know more (and less), and will vehemently oppose the precious ideas of colleagues, is a revelation in itself. Conflict is inevitable, and valuable. Lessons learned are lessons for life. Translatable to the workplace, to the sanctity of family, to the management of complex intimate relationships. Tenacity, empathy and integrity come naturally to some... it takes time (and tears) to develop in others.

A project undertaken for a humble group of rural farmers started a lifelong friendship between an arrogant youngster who refused to drive his BMW on dirt roads to do research and a humble cabbage farmer. Many bright young eyes have been opened wide to the plight and hardships of disadvantaged majorities or compromised minorities as hundreds of students have stepped into worlds hitherto unexplored and unknown. The unnecessary cruelty of xenophobia, the hidden horror of male sexual abuse, the inability of a child to smile.

Those born for the stage have the opportunity to take to the boardroom podium and enthral with enthusiastically enacted consumer insights. Donning the obligatory black turtle neck or pencil skirt for presentations to corporate clients feeds egos or injects confidence. The promise of business success, climbing the ladder to the CEO sanctum and granting interviews to the media take on a reachable tangibility. Receiving positive responses to ideas freshly hatched from deep within creative minds and souls infuses those minds to create more. To push beyond. To move higher.

During my 20 years’ of brand challenges I (a mixture of Simon Cowell and Randall Abrahams) have engaged in more than 1500 review sessions and client presentations. An incredible learning curve. An opportunity to work with phenomenal students and colleagues. The highlight of the teaching year. And I’m looking forward to the learnings I am privileged to gain from the Class of 2019.

To ‘borrow’ from Simon Cowell... “My proudest achievement has been the success of the (campaigns and students) I have been involved with, because they were made (at Vega).”

7/15/2019 12:00 AM