Michael Baer's Stratecution Stories

"Strategy is overrated. We have a strategic plan. It's called doing things". – Herb Kelleher

Monthly Archives: October 2011

The “Good” and the “Great” are NOT Enemies

Everyone knows the saying “the good is the enemy of the great”. And everyone knows the type of person who says it – an international-type marketeer, a planner with a British Colonial accent, an intellectual who believes he or she knows more than you do. It’s usually said with a bit of a “tut-tut” and a sneer, as if, “how could you try to sneak a ‘good’ idea past us? You know we all demand greatness, don’t we?” I used to hear it all the time a number of years ago when I ran the Unilever account. And it struck me as wrong then. But it’s now that the idiom’s wrongheadedness has really proven itself. It’s time to put that saying aside forever.

1) It’s always been used as a crutch, as a defense to not do anything.

The easiest thing to do is to criticize other ideas – and not take a stand yourself. Taking a stand requires conviction and risk. The risk that one could be wrong. Fearful and controlling people take this approach. But, as Lou Gerstner said, “Watch the turtle. He only moves forward by sticking his neck out.” The same goes for people. And brands.

I worked on Ragu many years ago. We had been struggling to develop a new campaign to re-launch the brand after many years of decline. The clients were “demanding”. The work had been so-so. And then we came up with a great idea, borne around a promotion. The clients really liked it, but said “it’s a good promotional idea. We need a great brand idea.” We said that we could evolve it into one over time – just let us take this big first step.  They said “let’s wait for something great”. Ragu is still waiting. The brand never got that big idea. It’s a dusty, 1970’s brand that will never really re-charge itself. I feel like it missed its chance by waiting for “greatness”.

2) I defy anyone to REALLY KNOW what is great.

Sorry, but any arbiter of greatness, from the best creative director to Millward-Brown to the CMO, is only guessing. It may look great, it may smell great, it may feel great, but until it’s been fleshed out, developed cross-channels, and built into a consumer-focused program that can be executed, it’s impossible to know just how good or great it is. Period.

3) It’s only great if it works.

Here’s another fact. If it doesn’t work, then it ain’t great. Yes, there are tons of things beyond the control of the communications program – and many campaigns fail due to in-market dynamics that a) couldn’t be predicted, and b) are way beyond its purview. Nevertheless, calling campaigns that don’t achieve their goals “great” is just an apology.

4) And, most importantly, most of the time “great” takes some to nurture and develop.

Most things in life start good, and develop over time. Either by gaining momentum, by learning from experience, or simply by growing the storyline and growing the depth and breadth of the message. So, as General Patton said, “a good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”

One campaign that I feel has begun to grow over time is the Allstate “Mayhem” campaign. I initially was unsure about it – but it seems to be growing, getting better, more interesting, more compelling. There’s a concept behind it that they can continue to develop and nurture for the brand. And there’s definitely more they can do with it – it’s not even present on their website. I’m interested in where it’s headed. But had they said “it’s good, but not great”, they might have chosen not to move forward with it.

So the next time someone tells you “the good is the enemy of the great”, tell them they’re wrong. That the good and the great are actual good friends. It’s just that the good is more punctual. And the great usually follows him later.

Mastering the Art of Transforming Nothing into Something

In a terrific article about learning the skills of “entrepreneurship”, Scott Adams (of “Dilbert” fame) describes his education in this way – “I had mastered the strange art of transforming nothing into something”. While that description is no doubt apt for many jobs, I think it’s a perfect description of what most of us need to do each day in advertising and marketing. We start with blank pages, empty marketing plans, bare flowcharts. And then must make concepts, ideas, and activity where there isn’t any, while the risks of failure are great.

So the answer is to “be entrepreneurial”. And while you hear this notion fairly often, what does it really mean? Well, here are few things, in my opinion.

Be comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty.
There are no rule books on what to do, no certain program or killer app, no right vs. wrong. Even doing it the way you did it before is fraught with risk, as things always change and no two situations are exactly the same.  But don’t be fooled by the fact that others may appear more confident and secure than you – they just appear that way. No one has it all figured out. Knowing this helps.

The difference between nothing and something may start out very small.
Don’t be put off by small changes at the outset. Your job is to keep it growing and moving in the right direction.

Have ideas and do stuff.
Action is the antidote to uncertainty and fear. So the only way to make the transformation is to try things. And you have to have the expectation that some, or much, of what you try may not succeed. That’s ok – learn from what works, as well as what doesn’t.

Leverage failure.
As mentioned above, much of what we do won’t perform up to expectations or goals. That’s fine, as long as you are constantly assessing why, and using it to figure out how to succeed next time.

Hate the void.
Be passionate, refuse to be passive, be inspired by possibility.

Measure the “something”.
Make sure you know what you want to achieve, and measure it relentlessly. Keep your activity driven on how to grow it.

With these traits and activities, we can all face our fear of the “nothing” and make something great. What do you think?

Remaining “stupid”

“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge”. Stephen Hawking

“Nobody knows nothing”. William Goldman

One of my central tenets of Stratecution is to “remain stupid”. When I wrote this, lots of people asked if I really meant it – should people really strive to be “stupid?” Didn’t I mean “remain curious”, or “be open-minded?” Well, I wasn’t just being cheeky – there’s a reason I said it this way. It focuses on the fact that we have to recognize we don’t “know” very much. And it puts a bold emphasis on the need to be hungry for new information, for better ways. For learning.

The idea of remaining “stupid” is related to the concept of being a “learner” vs. being a “knower”. If you remain stupid, then you can’t be a “knower”. Knowers (and knower cultures) seek certainty, and they base their self-esteem on being right. A learner understands that they can’t possibly know all they need to know and actively seeks new ideas and concepts contrary to their own to fill this learning gap. Because a knower has to be “right”, they never make mistakes – it’s always someone else’s fault – whereas a learner sees mistakes as a natural part of learning.

We had a great example of taking a learner’s approach during the development and execution of a Direct Mail program for Porsche. We developed a lead generation mailing utilizing an incentive offer to elicit leads. We modeled our efforts on a previously successful program, generated our projected lead total from that effort, and were fairly confident in our estimates. However, within a day or two of the first of three mailings reaching homes, we noticed something was wrong – the results were significantly worse than planned. Rather than finger-pointing or developing excuses, we dug in to figure out what was different this time. We  discovered that the offer was unintentionally down-played and the call-to-action not clear enough. By quickly optimizing them for mailings 2 and 3, we drove results back to our original projections.

Thus, while the knower’s fear of failure is a dead-end for innovation and creativity, the learner, and the person who “remains stupid”, admits he doesn’t know everything and is always open to approaches different or contrary to the way they’ve been done before. They’re focused on outcomes and accountability, not on whether they look uninformed, ignorant or “stupid”. In this way, mistakes and failures are simply inspiration to a learner, not labels to avoid.

I once worked at a “knower” culture. The organization would focus on what they “knew” wouldn’t work. They knocked down ideas with “we tried that”, “that can’t work” and “the lawyers would never allow that”. And the leadership never said three important words – “I don’t know”. So everyone was afraid to try things, to acknowledge ignorance, and to say “let’s figure it out”.

The thing is, in this time of great change and flux in marketing, knowledge gained in one situation won’t necessarily help you in another. You need to be open to be influenced by new information. That’s why knowers have difficulty adapting to change, while learners readily adapt – and become stronger. It’s their willingness to “remain stupid”.

The not-so-little things

We’ve all heard the old saw “It’s the little things that matter most”. The sprinkles on the cupcake, cutting the crust off the sandwiches, the ribbons on the package – these, we were told at a young age, were what would be most important, most memorable, make the difference. But who really believed it? To me, the little things may have taken you from an A to an A+, but who cared? The heavy lifting of the big things got you the A in the first place. And did anyone ever really say “this delicious chocolate cupcake is worthless because it has no sprinkles”? No, because it was delicious already. Truth be told, I always believed that the “big things” mattered most – the little things just played around in the margins.

Advertising always understood this. People talked about, waxed poetic about, and spent all their energy on the big things. The big salaries focused on them, too. The big new positioning; the breakthrough creative idea; the Super Bowl ad. In fact, timetables allocated nearly all the time upfront to developing the big idea. As if that was all you needed to get you where you needed to go. After that, a lot of less expensive arms and legs would do all the little things to push it out to consumers.  And maybe, just maybe, they’d do the little things well enough to go from an A to an A+. Put those sprinkles on.

Well, we’ve never been more wrong. And that old saw has never been more right. Because the “little things” do matter most. In fact, the little things aren’t so little. And they don’t just make the difference between an A and an A+. Without them, the big things can’t assure you anything more than failure.

These “little things” used to be called “execution”. Getting the idea out, trafficked, in front of eyeballs. And “flawless execution” just meant not dropping the ball. That’s not what it’s all about anymore.  Execution has joined with strategy – it’s a thinking AND doing exercise. Every step of the way. Anyone who knows me knows I call it “stratecution”. And it’s a 24/7 exercise.

In today’s schedules, getting to the idea should be nearer to the starting point than the end. Having the big idea, you still have to work through all the little things regarding who you want to reach (and it’s likely to be several different types or layers of your target at several different points and mindsets within their purchase process), how you’ll connect with them (there are millions of media-types, each with implications for content/message), what you want them to do, how you’ll elicit their engagement, and how you’ll measure it. And you’ll have to think about sequence of messaging, what are your follow up communications. What new ideas come up as you are developing it? What else has happened in-market since you started that leads to new ideas? And this is just scratching the surface.

So developing the TV ad is just a beginning. Where will it run? Should you create additional video to run on your website? Should you create “viral” versions? Should you develop additional content for online video units? Will you push people to a web property – and if so, where will they land? Might you do something more targeted that could connect with local outlets? You get the picture.

And the sexy, drop-dead DM piece you developed is worthless without lots of smart work on list development. Plus what’s the call-to-action, where will you drive people, and how will you measure it? Will you test and then roll it out? Or is there another way to optimize performance? Do you want to reward existing users, or incentivize outsiders? Is this part of a stream of communication, or just a one-off? What else might they be receiving that should impact your message? Are you looking for hand-raisers? If so, what are you offering in exchange for their data?

And digital communications is the most “little thing” reliant of all. Even having a great website idea is just a starting point. Again, who do you want to visit your site, how will you drive them there, what do you want them to do there, how will you measure your success, are all as important as the initial idea. And the iterative nature of digital means you’ll be continuing to develop the idea and how it should come to life all during the development of it. And then there’s the roles of mobile, Facebook, Twitter, and so on. Little things, one after another.

It seems your mom was right all along – it’s the little things that matter most. And those little things are bigger than ever.

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