On the off chance that you had found yourself wandering the streets of Paris in the late summer of 2015 at approximately 3am, you might have witnessed a strange scene. For scuttering about in the night, lugging around a holographic 3D projection camera, was the O2 social media team. They were there on a covert mission to project the O2 England Rugby team shirts onto statues of French historical icons ahead of the Rugby World Cup warm-up between England and France at the Stade de France. Obviously, all of this was being done completely off the books. Every advertiser worth their while knows the golden rule of guerrilla marketing is not to ask permission but to beg forgiveness.

To say that this would cause considerable mirth among English fans would be an understatement. We knew they would absolutely love it. Several months earlier, ahead of the Six Nations, we had done the same covert projections on landmark statues up and down England. One for every town a member of England’s Senior Player squad came from, and then of course the Churchill, Nelson, and Eros statues in London. It was met with great PR fanfare, and widely lauded by fans.

This time around, it was bound to be more controversial. And indeed, the pictures that came back to us were spectacular. Outlandish, even. For there were none other than Napoleon and Jeanne d’Arc, rocking England shirts with our logo on it. The headlines would write themselves. It wasn’t enough that we Rosbifs had exiled one and burned the other at the stake. No, the final indignity was that we also forced them to bring our #WearTheRose campaign to life! Half the fun was envisioning the commensurately apoplectic reaction from the French. Ribbing our millennium-old rival never gets old.

Needless to say, those photos never saw the light of day. As soon as our legal team caught a whiff of what we’d been up to, namely, a bunch of marketing cowboys running riot around France in the middle of the night, they hastily intervened. And you know what? They were right to do so. Not least because they almost certainly prevented a minor diplomatic incident. But also, because they were simply doing their job properly. And thank goodness for it.

Admittedly we might have taken it too far on that occasion. But I recount this anecdote because it’s a neat microcosm example of the underlying tension between marketing departments and our colleagues in legal. On every brand I’ve worked on, across every sector, the relationship follows the same principle. It is our job as advertisers to reach consumers. And because of the competition we face, it’s necessary for us to elbow in and push the boundaries. Whereas it is legal’s job to protect the brand and ensure that marketers aren’t pushing said boundaries too far. Therein lies the intrinsic tension between the two sides.

This relationship is handled differently everywhere. In some brands, the legal team reigns supreme, with almost total power over creative. In others, anything legal is a complete afterthought (Pepsi, Where’s My Jet? comes to mind). The relationship can be fraught, or it can be gentle, but it is undeniably a tug of war.

Pepsi infamously promoted a Harrier jet with zero terms & conditions

No one really speaks about the importance of legal in marketing. I can only assume this is because there is little denying it’s the least sexy part of our job. If you had told me when I was entering the industry the extent to which advertisers are involved with legalities on a day-to-day basis, and the degree to which legal teams shape advertising, I would have been astonished. If you had told me how much time I’d spend dealing with Clearcast, the ASA, the CAP, Ofcom, the RACC, I might have considered a different career entirely. 

I spent much of the early part of my career resenting Legal Marketing’s hold on creativity. I suspect this is still a widely held view, particularly agency side, where dealing with legal stakeholders is often done indirectly. Yet the fact is that this relationship is completely within our gift as marketers to manage. Legal teams merely react to what we show them. The best relationships I’ve seen are symbiotic, where the legal team is brought in early and has a vested interest in the success of the work. There will always be some tension, but that should push us to be even more creative. The onus is, entirely, on us.

Johnny will be writing a column for MAD//Insight throughout the year.