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Six Steps to Making History

by Joel Machak

A few years ago, I had a singular experience. A PSA campaign I co-created with my friend Jim Ferguson was inducted into the permanent collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

I didn’t fully grasp the meaning of the event until I asked Roger White, one of the museum curators, how the campaign was chosen for the honor. He said to be selected, any item has to have had some historic impact on the nation. He said the campaign, the “Crash Test Dummies” for the U.S. Department of Transportation, changed America’s attitudes and behaviors regarding automotive safety.

After I got up off the floor, my reaction was to ask myself two questions. One, how did that happen? And two, how can I do it again? After much reflection, here are six steps I call “How to Make History.”

  1. Define success. And not with the usual, modest goals. This time, define success like you intend to make history. Our client, Rick Smith, did just that. He said, “I will define the success of this campaign by how many awards it wins.” In its first year, it won 41.
  2. Define failure. This is where most come up short. Chances are, someone somewhere has already tried to do what your campaign is trying to do, but failed to make history. Study them. Do not do anything resembling what they’ve done. We watched safety belt spots from around the world. Then we broke new ground.
  3. Be bold, but own it. News flash: greatness doesn’t really happen on a cocktail napkin. It takes work and refinements. And then refining the refinements. Don’t just like your work; understand how your work works. And work it.
  4. Be ready for the critics. If you’ve done the first three steps, the critics will be gunning for you. What you’ve done will frighten them. A high-ranking agency exec told us the Crash Test Dummies campaign would be “an embarrassment to the agency.” So be ready. Your local critics may be very difficult to debate.
  5. Get the best. No joke. Get the best people you can find to bring your vision to life. If you’ve made it this far, it’ll be easier than you think. The best people seek the best work. They can only say no. They said yes to be part of bringing the dummies, Vince and Larry, to life.
  6. When it works, don’t change it. Oddly, this seems the most difficult. There is always a desire to improve on success. And this almost always fails. If your campaign is going strong, stick with it. If you want to make history, you’ll need to ride it out. The dummies ran for 12 years.

The campaign is credited with saving 85,000 lives and with helping increase seat belt usage from 14% to 79%. It changed how people think about automotive safety. But I should caution you: making history takes time. It took us more than 20 years to get to The Smithsonian. And I’m itching to go again.

Joel Machak

EVP, Executive Creative Director

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