The day I was in a Swarm

I like being invited to things, so imagine my delight when a friend invited me to Swarm – a group of creative people who get together to try and solve a problem. The idea of Swarm excited and intrigued me, so obviously I went. This is what happened next.

I didn’t fully understand what Swarm was until I turned up on the day. I woke up early for my train full of optimism and uncertainty, which is never a bad mix, and arrived in Nottingham feeling a little anxious about what exactly it was I was going to be doing.

The event was hosted in a place called Medicity, also known as the headquarters of Boots. As my taxi pulled up I realised just how vast a place this was. All I could see was this sprawling mass of manufacturing. Everywhere I turned I saw drills, diggers, lorries and, most strikingly of all, a huge gathering of brutalist architecture. It was pretty impressive, but did little to reassure me that I was in the right place.

The last time I’d seen Matt – the friend who’d invited me – we’d been in a very hipster London pub discussing very hipster things. This didn’t seem like his scene.

After only getting a tiny bit lost I found him and the rest of the Swarm and things kicked off. 9 hours and a lot of fun later, I totally understood that not only was this very much Matt’s scene, but also completely what Swarm was about.

Swarm, ultimately, is the anti-agency. These next few paragraphs should hopefully explain why that is, and why in this case it was pretty fantastic.

Let’s get buzzing

Things started with an introduction, which was handy. The Swarm team had met with Boots previously and discussed four areas of their business that they felt they could help with. We split ourselves into groups to focus on one of these areas.

As it turned out, I was the only copywriter in the building. This automatically made me the best copywriter in the building, so I aligned myself with the team that I thought my skills could be of most use to. We were looking at Boots at the grassroots level, seeing what things could be done in store to help promote a greater sense of community amongst their younger customers. As a young Boots customer who knows about getting ideas done, this was right up my street.

Or so I thought.

What Swarm does differently to ad agencies is it gets everyone in the same room, and thus the first problem with the Swarm approach emerged:

In traditional agency work you might never meet the client, you may not know any of your target audience, and you’ll definitely never have both of them, and the creatives, together in the same room together.

Swarm tore those walls down, and there I was sitting next to the client, Boots, and its audience, the Boots staff. At first this proved difficult, as senior members of staff often had a starkly different opinion to some of their store-level colleagues.

“This doesn’t work,” one would say.
“Well that’s up to you to fix,” the other would reply.

Little got done, conversations got heated, and we spent quite a bit of time stuck going round and round in circles.

But then, suddenly, the Swarm began moving in the same direction.
After people had got their individual grievances out of the way, they all realised they were working towards the same result. When that clicked, everything else clicked with it.

Working right next to the client and the people it was trying to get on board began to make complete sense. Why wasn’t everything done like this? Ideas were flying, thoughts were being put down on paper, and concepts were being turned into realities right there in front of my eyes. Ooft, it was exciting.

After just 6 hours of intense collaboration, we’d created something. It was there, I could see it, and people who had power over that sort of thing were giving it the green light. It was actually going to happen.

Right then the benefits of working with such a mixture of people became obvious: On one side of me was the head of Boots’ PR team. Next to him was a senior member of the marketing department. On my other side were people who worked in the stores selling the products. They were all nodding their heads, they were all contributing, and most importantly of all, the people that had control were saying yes.

There were no client pitches. There were no rounds of feedback. There was no sending the ideas off to someone who’d never seen them before and hoping they’d just get it based on a PDF. Everyone who had to judge the ideas had played a part in making them happen, and it was wonderful.

We put all of our work together and did some presentations to the rest of the groups, and not a single sad face could be seen. No-one said, “Hmm, I’m not sure,” and no-one suggested that they knew the target audience better than they knew themselves.

Swarm had worked.
Swarm had amazed me.
Swarm had kicked arse.

So, is this the end of the advertising agency? Well I hope not, else I’ll be looking for work. But it certainly offers a viable, and very exciting, alternative.

Buzz on, Swarm.

Buzz on.