Singapore by bus: what backpackers can teach Planners about effective trade-offs

If this time of year usually sees you logging off to fly and flop in sunnier climes, it might be a particularly long winter. Luckily, there’s a growing catalogue of ever more extreme travel shows to fill the gap, offering escape via a cup of tea rather than a frozen margarita. And if you’re going to holiday vicariously, you may as well maximise mileage and discovery, crisscrossing borders with none of the hassle of real world logistics.

Take BBC’s Race Across the World, in which pairs have the cost of an economy air ticket to get from A to B – the first series started in London and ended in Singapore – via a series of checkpoints with no flying, no phones, and £20k prize money up for grabs. There’s spectacular scenery in cities so off the tourist trail you haven’t even heard of them (neither, in many cases, have the unfortunate internet-less contestants), bickering over hostel beds, and an impressive number of sprints through labyrinthine bus stations. However, for us Planners, what makes Race both compelling and infuriating to watch is the differing strategies deployed.

Some contestants focus solely on the next checkpoint, overspending on fast trains and tourist activities, while the pairs who plan towards the end destination budget time and money more effectively. They also race smarter as they near the finish, asking locals for help, taking more circuitous but ultimately speedier routes, hitchhiking to bus stops, and putting rivalries (temporarily) aside to share taxis with competitors.

So yes, even if watching other people enjoy an all-expenses paid holiday doesn’t sound like fun, Race is as much behavioural science in action as it is travelogue, investigating the trade-offs required in pressurised situations with decreasing resources. The ability to make a series of hard choices that add up to a strategy – or ‘choicefulness’ – forms part of Mark Ritson’s ‘perfect marketing skills set’ and Race tangibly demonstrates its importance to avoiding wasted spend and effort, whether you’re racing to Ushuaia or selling chocolate bars.

It seems particularly important in the current climate for agencies and clients to make choices together (including what not to do) and align on the destination objective – the real business problem to solve. Briefs asking for more awareness or higher engagement without joining the dots to the business outcome encourage an over focus on secondary KPIs, depleting investment and energy for the priority task at hand. Meanwhile, destination objectives’ larger scope demands more choicefulness and with that, greater opportunities for creative problem-solving, and additive learning.

Google’s recent study of Fortune 1000 board members highlights an appetite for CMOs to take more risks, showing their “restless hunger to win and to succeed and to break things and put them back together in a better way”. Clients may not be in a thrill-seeking mood but by understanding how each choice tweaks the route to the destination objective – through multi-touch attribution, for example – we can equip them to make choices grounded in local knowledge rather than tourist guesswork.

A starting point could be sharing more of our decision-making rather than presenting the finished media plan or polished creative concepts. People often talk about taking the client on a journey in order for them to better understand the recommendation and maybe that journey is due a shakeup. It could be the ideal time for agencies to ditch the champagne-fuelled flight in favour of a bumpy bus ride – now it’s just a question of who’s ready to buckle up.