Review: Predatory Thinking by Dave Trott

Tom Albrighton

ABC Copywriting

Dave Trott is a legend among ad people. As a copywriter, his name is on some of the most memorable campaigns of the past few decades. He’s written lines so powerful that they’ve wormed their way into playground chants, pub chats and politicians’ speeches, becoming part of our culture.

Today, as a creative director, speaker and writer, he inspires generations of creatives – and still finds time to create the odd winning campaign. His latest book, Predatory Thinking, explains what creatives and communicators have to do if they want to ‘out-think the competition’.

In a recent post on my own blog, I asked whether the label ‘brand storytelling’ is being applied to too many activities that are nothing to do with telling a story. Many brands could learn a thing or two from the way Predatory Thinking does it.

Each section starts with a story. Some are taken from Dave’s own life, or his family’s. Some are about advertising; most aren’t. Many are about military leaders or campaigns. All are incisive and dramatic, with clear winners and losers and a powerful message.

Dave doesn’t go in for theory. His ideas are rooted in the way people actually think and act in the real world. It’s very clear that his stories aren’t illustrations for his points, but the origin of them. The story, the reality, comes first; the advice flows from there.

Dave writes the way he wants you to think: lean, linear and logical. Using his signature one-sentence-paragraph style, he unfolds his argument unambiguously, step by step, like an exemplary long-copy ad. And like a good ad should, the text leads you unavoidably to its conclusion, which is usually a principle for bringing more creativity into marketing – not just in content, but in approach too.

For Dave, success is not about crafting beautiful ads that win awards. It’s about true difference – finding the new approaches that will give a predatory advantage over the competition. That means questioning the brief before you even try to answer it – going ‘upstream’ to look at business problems before starting on advertising problems.

Being predatory also means being disruptive, in the deepest sense of that word. Not fleetingly, superficially or gratuitously different, but profoundly different; radically different. It means creating ads that slap the audience around the face, but caress their deepest desires and dreams at the same time. It means finding new ways to communicate in the simplest, most direct way possible.

The predatory approach is all about doing what works – not what you think should work, or what your peers approve of, or what seems ‘good’ by some external standard. The predatory marketer takes their cue from Confucius: ‘you turn the handle the way it goes, not the way it ought to go.’

In one sense, the book can be read as a critique of the shiny happy world of social media and ‘engagement’. In Dave’s world, consumers aren’t naïve children who can be won over with trick, bribes or shiny baubles. They’re busy, cynical, careworn grown-ups with no time for anything that doesn’t speak to what they think, believe or desire. Dave is very clear on the distinction between a publicity stunt and a genuine ad – that is, between grabbing attention and actually doing something with it.

Marketing is a zero-sum game, Dave argues. If you want people to do something, they have to stop doing something else. The revenue we can get from a market is limited, as is the attention we can get from an audience. To grab hold of either, we need to create a single, powerful message that people believe. And that’s more likely to be achieved by changing the game than by playing by the rules.

The great thing about the book is that although Dave is writing from the perspective of someone who’s worked on the biggest brands, his ideas work for everybody. Even if you’re writing a website for a one-person startup, you can still take the brief apart and think about other ways to cut through the noise before you launch yourself into the writing. In fact, it’s arguably far easier in that situation, with fewer people involved in taking the big decisions.

Criticisms? Well, some (possibly all?) of these pieces have appeared online at Dave’s blog, so if you’re a dedicated reader, you won’t find any new material here. However, there’s still huge value in having everything collected in one volume, and arranged by theme. And the re-read value of these pieces is high – personally, I’d much rather read an inspired article twice than a dull one once.

Also, because the book is a compilation rather than a single work, it may disappoint those looking for the predatory thinking concept to be explained and developed as it would be in a ‘proper’ business book. Instead, the idea emerges as an overarching theme that Dave examines from a number of angles. If you can accept that, you’ll get tons of enjoyment and hugely valuable insight from this brilliant book – and from seeing Dave speak at our 2013 conference.


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