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Surviving a Penalty Shoot-Out


Publicis•Poke strategy director Mike Waters' look at the psychology of penalty-taking is a timely reminder of best practice under pressure.

Surviving a Penalty Shoot-Out

On the pitch, the 2022 World Cup was awash with unbelievable moments. 

(Off the pitch, it was “awash” with some more controversial stuff… but let’s set that aside for now). 

Amongst the most unbelievable, though, has been the unbelievable drama of the penalty shootouts.

Spain, despite hitting 26,000 penalties in practice, didn’t score a single one in their last 16 shoot-out. Their Moroccan rivals, in contrast, clinched the shootout with a clutch panenka down the centre. 

Cue “scenes.”

And, of course, Sunday afternoon’s final came down to the same great test of nerve.

All of which begs the question – what’s the key to winning in high-pressure shoot-outs?

And can we apply any of that thinking to how we as marketers win in the current environment?

Now, as an Englishman, I can’t claim to be any kind of expert on winning at penalties. 

But luckily, some actual experts have already crunched the numbers on spot-kicks

And some of their findings provide a bit of broader insight into best practice under pressure. 

1. Fresh players score more. 

Let’s start with an obvious one: fresh legs perform better under pressure. (Hence the polarising trend for subbing on penalty-takers in extra time). Most people in adland know more than a thing or two about going deep into extra time. But that willingness to sacrifice sleep on the altar of creativity isn’t necessarily a positive. Really sharp creativity needs downtime. Try to find space for it.

2. Younger players out-score their elders.

Now, advertising may not need to get any younger. But it would benefit from fresh perspectives. We all know now that more diverse workforces deliver more commercial success. Diversity of age is a big part of that. But diversity of experience also matters. The naivety of someone new to the industry - whether young or old - might unlock a breakthrough where more experienced heads can only see barriers. (Or goalkeepers, to stretch the metaphor...) In fact, imagination thrives on naivete

3. Prepare properly. 

Players who take longer to compose themselves before the whistle goes are more likely to score. 

The temptation in high-pressure environments is to rush things. (We’ve all seen the window between brief and live date shrinking in passing years). But investing proper time in research, planning and creative development is what gets you to a really sharp finish. 

4. Act decisively.

Conversely, the longer you wait to shoot after the referee’s whistle, the higher your chance of missing. Dawdling allows the doubts to set in - and allows goalies to distract you. 

In the ad world, there’s always the temptation to press pause on a piece of work. To wait for a better launch moment. To re-test. To go back to the drawing board because your competitor has done just something similar. Resist it. It’s the marketing equivalent of the keeper dancing around on the goal-line. Better to take a shot than do nothing. 

5. A positive context is key.

Players taking a penalty that could win a shootout are 50% more likely to score than those with the opportunity to lose it. Trying not to lose is more likely to lead to poor outcomes than chasing a win. 

That’s a lesson brands can learn from. In times of pressure, the temptation is to think short-term, pull spend, batten down the hatches, and play it safe with our ads. Be more rational, more price-driven, more cautious. Avert losses. However, as Binet & Field continue to point out, this approach is likely to lead to long-term decline and less effective marketing. You’re much better off looking for new ways to win. Securing extra SOV. Investing in innovation. Embracing positivity. 

Not just because it’s generally more effective, but because it’s far more motivating for your team. 

6. Celebration breeds celebration. 

Roy Keane may take issue with over-celebrating, but the data will tell you that it’s a great way to ensure future success: 

“Expansively or intensely celebrating an individual goal increases the chance of the team ultimately winning.”

Moll, T., Jordet, G., and Pepping, G.J. 2010. Emotional contagion in soccer penalty shootouts.

Advertisers who were overly mournful during the pandemic fared poorly compared to those offered a little more entertainment – particularly during times when the public were looking for reasons to be cheerful. A little celebration might seem poor taste in a cost-of-living crisis, but it may be exactly what your team needs to rejuvenate them, or what the public wants to entertain them.

So, in times of pressure – keep your team fresh, prepare well, be decisive, be positive, and don’t be afraid to celebrate. That celebration might just help you secure the next big win. 


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Publicis•Poke, Tue, 20 Dec 2022 14:04:00 GMT