Lessons from the Beer Cart

PHOTO CREDIT: Technorati

We have a beer cart in our Ogilvy Washington office every Thursday. As David Ogilvy said, “Many people – and I think I am one of them – are more productive when they’ve had a little to drink.” He was a brilliant man.

My friends get really excited when they hear about the beer cart, but honestly, it’s not that special. In fact, compared to the start-ups of New York and San Francisco who have fully stocked bars and pool tables and dartboards and slides that go from floor to floor, it actually pales in comparison. It’s just a small, plastic, red cart that we roll around on Thursday afternoons with a selection of beers. We take turns being in charge of the beer cart, the sign up sheet for which is pinned to the outside of one of our cubes. We buy the beer ourselves. Mostly we drink Bud Light.

The beer cart idea was derived from a Dragon’s Den, an internal “pitch” session held quarterly where ideas for ways to improve our team and our business are presented to the group. The pitch went something like this: “We should have a beer cart. It will add a bit of fun to Thursday afternoons, and it’ll be good for the team. We’ll pay for it ourselves.” And the approval was just as simple, “Sounds good!”

But now, every Thursday afternoon, there’s a buzz around the office. Whispers of “who is doing the beer cart this week?” float along corridors. Themes have emerged. Pairs of people will huddle in corners before or after work planning their beer cart extravaganza. Drink specials are thought out and prepared in advance. The cart is decorated, once, even, bustling around covered in Mardi Gras beads – laissez les bons temps rouller!

The beer cart is firmly rooted in our office culture. Other offices ask about it. Visitors want to see it. We’re excited by it. Still, at its core it remains, modestly, a little red cart that is wheeled around once a week holding a few luke warm brews.

Perhaps the most important part of the beer cart is that it reminds us of two very fundamental truths.

1. Keep it simple.

Like most great ideas, the beer cart was a very, very simple concept when it was pitched. And when it was launched it remained still a very, very simple idea. Sure, now we have themes, and costumes, and planning – but those things grew organically after the foundation was established. The core, fundamental concept remains a little red cart, carrying beer.

So often we like to say, “I love the idea! And just think, wouldn’t it be cool if…”

Sometimes – and I mean really occasionally – “wouldn’t it be cool if…” helps the idea along. In fact, peer review or brainstorms can help refine an original idea. But most often “wouldn’t it be cool if” doesn’t help. It dilutes the message, complicates the campaign, or clutters the concept. Not to mention the fact that typically, in a meeting long before the meeting, before the meeting, before the meeting that resulted in the deck you’re reviewing, “wouldn’t it be cool if…” had already been pitched, reviewed, evaluated, analyzed, and decided against because the core idea is better without it.

We follow the advice laid down by David Ogilvy years before “social” was a thing. He preached, “Much of the messy advertising you see on television today is the product of committees.” While it may be that we’re helping you build a website or develop a social strategy, instead of an advertising campaign, adding every “what if” doesn’t always result a better output.

Stick with simple. Simple works.

2. Give your audience a drink.

It all centers on the value exchange. We have to remember to answer the question – what is your audience getting out of the experience?

As the beer cart has evolved, so have the themes. Someone literally transformed the simple little red cart into a space ship once, adding wings and fuel tanks, we had one team recreate The Bachelorette—roses et al.

We – the beer cart’s audience – strain to see the reveal of the new theme each week. We try and get our coworkers to divulge their secret planning sessions ahead of time. We guess what it could be, and make bets about costumes and decorations. But ultimately, we’re happy when that little red cart walks around delivering that luke warm beer after a long Thursday at the office.

Don’t get distracted by flashy gimmicks or snazzy decorations just because you think they’re cool, or unique, or totally ‘on-brand’. Don’t develop gimmicks or decorations for the sake of gimmicks or decorations.

As David Ogilvy said, and here I paraphrase, unless you are trying to conceal from the audience what you’re promoting, don’t use abstract paintings.

Just make sure you’re giving your audience a drink, and make that your priority.