What Pirates Teach Us About Digital Advertising

By: Brian Flynn    December 3, 2021     Branding & Marketing

Pirate Ship Bay Beach Cave

Jim Collins used pirates to teach us about digital advertising.

In his book, Great by Choice, Collins talks about how to use resources effectively. Using small commitments and small investments to measure what works before you go all in.

We want to take some time to revisit his brilliant analogy, and how it inspires and informs what we do at Kokopelli.

Picture yourself on a pirate ship. If anyone asks, just tell them you're meditating.

Through the spyglass, you see an enemy ship come over the horizon. You have a limited amount of gunpowder left on board, and they’re bearing down on you. There are two different strategies you could take.

One the one hand, you have a cannon. And bigger is always better, right?

You load the last of your gunpowder into it, toss in a cantaloupe-size cannonball, aim, fire, and…miss by forty degrees. You’re out of gunpowder and the enemy ship is getting closer. You’re sunk.

Pirates cannon

Consider the second option. You have the cannon, yes, but say you take a little bit of that gunpowder, load it into your fancy flintlock pistol your first mate gave you for your birthday, and fire a bullet first.

You still miss by forty degrees, but you have enough gunpowder left to fire another shot. This time you miss by only fifteen degrees. One more shot and you hear the distinctive ping of your bullet ricocheting off the enemy’s hull. You’re locked in.

You scrape together the last of your gunpowder, load the cannon, take aim and sink the enemy beneath the waves.

Collins used this metaphor (well, he just said ships, we add in the pirates for flavor) to describe the methods used by businesses and individuals, like Steve Jobs, who seem to have a single moment of inspiration that drives all their success.

In reality, that success is the result of a long process. Closely studying the results of smaller efforts and fine-tuning processes before investing finite resources in a major effort.

Pirates Treasure Chest

This holds true for our approach to digital advertising here at Kokopelli. Before launching a new campaign, we test every aspect of it first: designs, slogans, outlets—anything that can be made better, we try to make it the best we can.

This starts with in-depth learning about our clients. Who they are, what they do, and what makes them unique. Before we can tell your customers about you, we have to know you, we have to operate as a natural extension of your organization.

This is a longer, more complicated process than just firing the cannon. Firing the cannon brings immediate gratification. The cannonball hitting the water makes a big splash.

Firing bullets first is harder. It doesn’t reflect how we often talk about success. When we see successful campaigns, we only see the tip of the iceberg, the final product. We miss out on all the work and fine-tuning that went into it.

In fact, it’s arguable that overnight success may do more harm than good. One stellar campaign does not make for a sustaining business model. While innovation is great, reinventing the wheel over and over can prove distracting and costly. You need to be able to take your models and apply them to new clients and new challenges.

With fluke successes, you miss out on the invaluable grind. The learning that comes from honing and sharpening your approach. Those are the insights that prepare you for your next project and greater results.

The discipline it takes to focus on small experiments (firing bullets) pays off for our clients.

By focusing on making, tracking, and studying small changes, we take adaptable ideas into future projects, delivering tested results for clients with limited marketing budgets.

As a company and as marketers, we should be constantly focused on delivering sustainable, supportable, repeatable, and, most of all, meaningful results. Big experiments may pay off, but how often do we go into those from a client-focused perspective?

When we feel the urge to do the big flashy thing without undertaking the myriad small tests needed to prove it would work, we must stop and ask ourselves, “is this about the client? Or is this about me?”

These priorities aren’t just about our methods, they also reflect the culture we try to cultivate among our team.

Each experiment we make as professionals, and as people, transforms us even if only imperceptibly. By creating an environment in the office (or home office) that fosters experimentation for our team, we make better results for our clients.

This method asks us to constantly evaluate our work and push ourselves to be a little bit better with every project. In the end, though, it means the difference between wasting a cannonball and actually hitting your target.

About the Author

Brian Flynn is the resident copywriter at Kokopelli. He's also a podcaster, writer, baker, changer of diapers, and Mario Kart consultant.

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