Michael Baer's Stratecution Stories

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

Tag Archives: management

The myth of “I prefer their early work”

I prefer their early workfact or mythearly work book

I was talking with someone I know about a band that I love. He’s into music, too – but, to be honest, he’s a bit of a musical know-it-all. He’s a “I saw the them before anyone knew them” type of guy. And after I mentioned said band, he told me the classic saw, “I prefer their early work”.

Now, I have to admit that I’ve said it myself. And I’ve probably repeated all the same, standard rationale – they put their whole lives up to that point into it their first work; they were raw-er; it was from the heart back then; it was before they were “in the business”, so it was for the art of it. Okay, I get all that. But upon further thought, it should rarely be true. Because, first of all, any good band, artist, writer, and basic human learns more as they go along. They learn about themselves, the world, their craft. Anyone worth his or her salt gets better. The more they play together, know each other better, play with and develop their sound more, they should almost certainly improve. They make mistakes, they learn from trying, they find what works best. And, over time, they come in contact with additional resources – other artists, producers, etc. – that drive further adaptation and evolution. If they don’t, then they’re probably not truly special. Right?

But the more I thought about it, I also started to think that saying “I prefer their early work” also says some not-so-nice-things about the person who is saying it. And, about the person he or she is saying it to.

It suggests “I know more than you”.  Because it usually is said in response to someone saying he or she likes something, it’s kinda like saying “I used to like them, too – but I learned additional stuff that caused me to stop liking them. I guess you haven’t learned it, yet.” Which is smug (and here’s what I feel about smugness).

It says “I’m more discerning”. This person is saying that he has made a distinction in their work – he can probe deeper and critically dissect the better (earlier) from the less good. If you like all of it, then I suppose you don’t have the faculties to make the distinction.

It suggests “I’m more of a leading edge person than you”. This person is consciously pushing beyond what’s popular or well known to find what they like (a good thing) – and is letting you know in a way to place you with the pack, the average, the non-explorers.

It says “you’re lazy for still liking them”. Similarly, this person is always looking for what’s new. And you? You’re still sticking to them, despite their clearly disappointing later work? You’re obviously are lazy.

So, after all this thought, I’ve decided that I’m not going to say “I prefer their earlier work” ever again. Perhaps what I’ll say if I really am disappointed with the path someone or something has taken after early promise is “I really like some of their work. I’m interested in seeing where they’re headed.” What do you think?

Expertise in Generalism – 6 reasons generalists are more important than specialists*

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More and more, the business world seems to be ruled by expertise. Subject matter experts. Vertical specialists. Domain authorities. Companies wage wars for sought-after technical mavens and so-called gurus. To advance in one’s career these days, one should naturally specialize. The days of the generalist are over, right?

Wrong. Because, as the world changes ever faster, and the challenge of connecting dozens of disparate pieces increases, it’s never been more important to be an amazing generalist. A connector, a hybrid, a cross-functional player.

So it’s time to sing the praises of the evolved generalist – the person who provides context, who facilitates and drives creativity, who raises everyone’s game, and is focused on the right outcomes.

A generalist understands CONTEXT, not just content
One way to think of a world of specialists, according to Vikram Mansharamani in an HBR post, is a world where everyone is studying bark. “Many have deeply studied its nooks, grooves, coloration, and texture. Few have developed the understanding that the bark is merely the outermost layer of a tree. Fewer still understand the tree is embedded in a forest”. All the specialist content in the world is meaningless without putting it in the proper context – and that context tends to be provided by generalists. A great generalist’s breadth of knowledge helps link new breakthroughs and technologies to existing ideas, providing a view of the forest for everyone.

Similarly, specialists tend to focus on what they’re domain does. But in a hyper-specialized world, you need people to pull it all together to make sense of things. The generalist sees the whole playing field – what the business context is, where you want to get to, and what all the relevant marketing levers are. Again, this helps a team see the totality of a program, how it all works together, and how to course-correct as it plays out.

Connections across subjects can be more important than subject-matter expertise
It’s generally understood that new ideas and innovation are the result of associative thinking – connecting two known but unlike ideas to create something new. Unfortunately, specialists tend to focus on their own subject areas and their own known approaches. They also tend to spend less time collaborating with people who aren’t like themselves – and may actively avoid this “clashing” or combining of ideas. But for great generalists, associative thinking is table-stakes.

Breadth vs. depth leads to more creativity
There’s no doubt that business, in general, and advertising, specifically, needs innovation and creativity – to differentiate brands, to engage with hard-to-reach consumers, to drive saliency, and to achieve virality, among other things. And it’s well accepted that innovation and creativity are driven by diversity of thought and experience. A wide variety of knowledge leads to new ways of looking at problems. Specialists often stay within their narrow band and apply formulaic solutions.

Generalists raise everyone’s game
While the specialist spends his time focusing on how his vertical area can help solve a problem, the generalist is helping everyone else leverage their individual knowledge and experience for the greater good. His or her basic knowledge about each expert’s area can help them question assumptions, iterate and build, and make the work better. In a sense, the generalist is a great conductor – not playing his own instrument, but getting the ensemble to play beautiful music together.

Knowing what you don’t know is important, too
In addition, a generalist is comfortable knowing what they don’t know – and this helps in a number of ways. It leads them to ask for help and points them towards the right resources or expertise, as needed. It means they aren’t subject to dogma or industry beliefs, so are open to question things. And it also means that a generalist is more comfortable with ambiguity and contradiction. Research has shown that generalists are better at predicting future outcomes, because they are less ideologically reliant on a single perspective.

Generalists are focused on the right goalposts
A generalist will be focused on overall business goals vs. any vertical or personal agenda. And they won’t care what tools, what technologies or what resources are used most or get the most credit – he or she simply wants overall success.

Today’s complex marketing and business world needs experts who know more and more about emerging technologies and the evolving landscape. At the same time, the complexity and silo-fication of the world is raising the bar for a new generation of great generalists. As the author Carter Phipps said, “it’s becoming increasingly valuable to know ‘a little bit about a lot’”. What do you think?

This article originally ran in MediaPost’s Marketing Daily 2/20/14

You Can’t Polish a Turd – so just stop trying.

turd polishnew & improvedit's still a turd

As a student of human nature, I’m always amazed at the obsessive way we, the human race, go out of our way to fake ourselves, and our brethren, out. To avoid the hard realities and make the false, true. We rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, make molehills out of mountains, we call a heart a spade. Which is why I have always loved the idiomatic phrase, “you can’t polish a turd”. Because it points directly at our desire to try to tidy up disaster, to keep up a good face, and to avoid reality, telling ourselves everything is fine. However, let’s be honest. Everyone poops, as the children’s book tells us – and it seems that everyone then tries to turn it into something else.

And no other arena has made turd-polishing more of an art form than marketing. From “new and improved”, to “nothing works better, to “delicious AND nutritious”, marketing and advertising has consistently polished turds in order to make the lame sound good, make the weak feel strong, and make the lazy feel dynamic. Hurrah!

Well, it’s high time we stopped deluding ourselves, trumping ourselves up in the eyes of others, and taking shortcuts in order to keep us from doing the real work.

Stop deluding ourselves to make ourselves feel better
When confronted with a marketing situation that is less than positive, turd-polishing and spin doctoring begins to take place at a high level. Years ago, when I worked on Wisk Detergent, the marketing department decided to reduce the amount of cleaning enzymes in the product as a way to reduce costs. That’s right, they decided to make the product perform worse. But they convinced themselves they were giving the consumer the right level of cleaning – instead of that “over-formulated” product they’d produced for all these years.

Similarly, I worked on AT&T many years ago, and they were looking for ways to increase the revenue they made from long-distance calling (as I said, it was many years ago). They knew that most residential calling was happening after 8PM, when the rates went down – so they decided to raise the night-time calling rate. They also lowered the day rate, in order to create a single rate for the entire day. Because most calling happened at night, it was effectively a price hike for nearly everyone. But AT&T spun it as a “simpler” and more consumer-friendly plan. There, that turd is polished!

So what can you do? Ask yourself – is this really what the consumer wants? Is this based on a true human insight? Would I want this? What makes this a good thing? Consumers, more than ever, demand honesty and transparency. Anything less will be exposed, ignored and ridiculed. New and improved, my arse.

Stop trumping ourselves up with veneer and shallowness
One thing the industry has no shortage of is buzz. As in buzzwords, the “latest big thing” and the new. But so often people use this buzz to cover up a lack of substance, knowledge or honesty. How many times have you heard someone rattle on and on, using the latest terminology –  DMPs, RTB, “brand as publisher” and “native advertising”, anyone? – and, afterwards, you aren’t really sure they said anything at all? The turd that’s being polished here could be ignorance and insecurity, or, worse, a lack of ideas being masked with shiny words. So, instead of buzzwords and generalities, speak in plain English. That’s the only way to see if you’re really saying anything.

Stop taking shortcuts
When it comes to the real work we do, so many people seem to prefer to do as little as possible – and cover up the lack of effort and quality with a shiny wrapper and a nice bow on top. They’ll take below-average work and cover it with gilt – production values, technology, fancy talk. I’m here to tell you that no “content amplification system” can make crappy content successful. No amount of algorithmic optimization will make a bad campaign more successful. Calling your product “new and improved” doesn’t make it so. No fancy talk, over-jacked production quality or celebrities can make a dumb idea or poor product successful. If you’ve got a turd on your hands, the likely best thing to do is flush it down and start the work of producing something good. No amount of polish will change it.

Despite what I’ve said, people really do seem to think they can polish a turd. In fact, I’ve found that even the phrase this article is based on has been made “new and improved”. I found the edited phrase to be “You can’t polish a turd. But you can roll it in glitter”. Well, I guess that is kinda polished…

Don’t Vote For Yourself – A case for kindness

20140120-Napoleon-Dynamite-Heck-Yes-Id-Vote-for-Yoube kind blackboard vote for someone else

Mike Figliuolo and his Thoughtleaders has been one of my favorite bloggers for a long time – he’s practically one of my heroes. Today, he’s featuring a guest post from ME on his blog… and I’m pretty psyched. Please check it out (also in its entirety below) – it’s about the fact that leadership demands kindness. Would love to hear your thoughts, comments and rants below. And please share!


“If everyone were clothed with integrity, if every heart were just, frank, kindly, the other virtues would be well-nigh useless.” – Moliere

In 6th Grade, I ran for class president. President of my class, my home room, mind you, not my entire grade. In any event, the election results were tight. And when they were read out to the class, I found I had lost by one vote. “At least the person I voted for won,” I told my friend and campaign manager, Tommy Markham. “You didn’t vote for yourself?” he asked. He couldn’t believe it. “If you had, you would have won”. The funny thing was, voting for myself hadn’t even occurred to me. The only question I had was which other candidate I would vote for. And, as it happened, I voted for the winner.

What is relevant about this story? On the face of it, probably not much. The idea of not taking actions to help yourself seems at odds with all our learnings and beliefs. But as a leader, the concept of “voting for someone other than yourself” should not be so crazy. And, in fact, good leaders need to see themselves as working for their direct reports, and, in a way, being more invested in their success than their own.

Here are some key ways to apply the “vote for someone else” ethic in your role as leader:

Give Away What You Have

“Man hoards himself when he has nothing to give away.” – Edward Dahlberg 

There’s a concept called “Abundance” that is a critical character trait for successful leadership. Abundance, as you might expect, is having presence, confidence and energy – so much so that you can be confident in giving to others your time, your ideas, and your help. You don’t need to take from others in order to be successful.

Having abundance helps attack one of the core cultural problems of many large corporations – the tacit zero-sum game of success – where employees seem to be pitted against each other for attention and rewards. This naturally has an inhibiting effect on sharing, helping and giving among co-workers. However, when you’re abundant, you know you are always re-filling your own kitty – so you’re comfortable giving to others. You are happy to share your thoughts and ideas. You’re happy to take the time to help others solve their problems. And you’re generous with praise and attention. It will all come back to you – in trust, respect, and ever more abundance.

Don’t Worry About Credit

“It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” – Harry S. Truman

Because leadership so often is intangible, people can feel they need to claim their successes. And the pressures to deliver “big wins” can cause leaders to trump up their achievements at the cost of their teammates. But this type of politicking and power-hoarding breeds fear and insecurity – and doesn’t have to be the case. In the words of Arnold H. Glasow, “A good leader takes a little more than his share of the blame, and a little less than his share of the credit.” So, praise your team members and lavish credit on them. Everyone will know that you helped steer that ship. Simply let the credit accrue to you due to your team’s successes.

Cheer the Successes of Others

“A person places themselves on the level with the ones they praise.” – Goethe

In these “zero-sum” cultures, individuals tend to feel jealous of peers who achieve success. This negative energy creates competition and in-fighting. But it isn’t really true that others’ successes somehow limit our own opportunities. Confident and abundant leaders know that they will experience their own successes on their own terms. Instead of feeling that mix of envy and Schadenfreude towards your co-workers, practice the Buddhist concept called Mudita – “the pleasure that comes from delighting in other people’s well-being rather than begrudging it.”  This breeds stronger, more productive relationships, better long-term connections, and general good karma.

Lead with Integrity

“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionable integrity. Without it, no real success is possible.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

Sure, everyone knows it’s important to be honest, to understand morality and ethics, and to act accordingly. But it’s easy to say it’s important; it’s another thing entirely to walk-the-talk. As Oprah Winfrey said, “real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not.”

Unfortunately, it’s too easy for people to find loopholes or play fast and loose with their ethical code. People at all levels in business become overly focused on themselves, and end up bending with the tide, selfishly chasing their own gain. However, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “the person of integrity lives in a fragile balance” between the all-too-human traits and pressures surrounding them.  Always stay balanced and true to yourself and your code.

Be kind

“Kindness is the language the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain

Today, business is not for the faint of heart. It’s never been more competitive, more urgent, and more pressure-packed. Sales and market-share are fought for, competitors are battled with, and consumers are stolen. It’s an all-out-war. It would seem that kindness and being nice are out of synch with this battle.

But, in the end, it’s people who lead to any company’s success. And people, well, tend to like kindness. They respond positively to being treated well. And a happy team and a happy culture correlate more highly with success than an every-man-for-himself, Machiavellian one. So be nice. Be careful how you speak to someone. Treat folks with respect – and never expect anyone to do anything you wouldn’t do. And appreciate people’s efforts and always say thank you. You’ll be surprised how well kindness can be your competitive advantage. And, as Aesop said, “no act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”

Who knows what I’d have done differently if I’d won that election. Would my life have taken a very different course? It’s impossible to know. But the lessons I learned from my vote that day – give to others, don’t worry about who gets credit, cheer the success of others, demonstrate integrity, and be kind – are well worth the lesson.

Want What You Have – and not what you think you want

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“It is better to want what you have than to have what you want” Philemon

When I was a youngster, people would always mention my wavy, curly hair. “I love your curls”. “I wish I had your hair”. “So jealous”. But I hated it. I wanted straight hair, not the wavy, “naturally curly hair” that everyone with straight hair seemed to want. (Now, of course, I’m just happy to have hair at all.)

This seems to be human nature. Short people want to be tall, brunettes want to be blonde, intellectuals want to be athletes. And I get it, when it comes to people. But with brands? Why do brands (and Brand Managers) seem to think it’s critical that they develop in all the areas that research tells them they don’t own, and match the attributes and characteristics of their competitors, instead of focusing on the areas they are already strong? In general, it just doesn’t work – and it’s suicide. Instead of striving to be what you’re not, be what you are instead.

  • Don’t dilute what you are in order to be all things to all people
    It’s like clock-work. A new Brand Manager takes over a brand and looks at equity research. He sees the “outages” the brand has on various category attributes and vows to put the brand’s resources to bear on correcting them. I’ve seen it a million times. For example, I once worked on Wish-Bone salad dressing. The brand was known as a bold, zesty italian-style brand – and owned those dimensions in the category. But it was weaker on attributes of “creaminess” and “all-family appeal”. So the company put emphasis on building its Ranch/creamy attributes, and did it’s best to tone-down the brand’s robustness. Ignoring that this is what made Wish-bone what it was – and was the only reason it existed in the world. The brand may have gained a few users, but lost it’s way.
  • It’s good to be clear about what you’re not
    Being happy with what you are also allows you to celebrate what you aren’t. In the Wish-Bone example, it would be ok to allow Hidden Valley Ranch and Kraft to own the “blander”, “creamier” stuff. It doesn’t mean that Wish-Bone shouldn’t offer those flavors – it’s just that they should deliver them in a Wish-Bone way. Pepper-corn Ranch, Chipotle Ranch, Zesty Ranch. Those make sense, coming from Wish-Bone.

    And brands can also make a statement by saying what they aren’t, or who they aren’t meant for. There’s the famous example of Yorkie chocolate bar – they didn’t just position themselves as a manly candy meant for men, instead they actively marketed themselves as “not for girls”. That’s a strong statement of “wanting what you have”. And this type of clarity and purpose is especially attractive to the type of people who are already interested in you.

  • Don’t think that merely claiming to be something you aren’t will suffice
    When you don’t have what you want, you may simply try to grab it or claim it. And, sure, it worked for Marlboro 60 years ago (Marlboro was a female-targeted product that simply proclaimed boldly that it was a manly product). But we all know that doesn’t work today. If you’re not authentically true to yourself, it’s easy for all to see. So, sorry, Tony the Tiger, but Frosted Flakes are NOT a healthy breakfast, try as you might. And Cheetos “Natural”? Nah.

Never forget how hard it is to be known for anything. So when you have something, celebrate it, don’t soften it. Don’t run from it. Instead, find a way to infuse what you are into everything you do. Demonstrate what you are and have everywhere. Because it’s dangerous to have what you want. Because it will end up being nothing.

Smart is Over-Rated

don't get smart with meeinstein tonguekeep calm

A number of years ago, I worked with a client that had a Marketing Director who was very difficult. My team felt that nothing could satisfy him. Meetings were contentious. My people felt victimized and blamed. The work was started and then killed. And we were stuck – we didn’t end up doing anything. I mentioned this to the senior client, the VP of Marketing, and I still remember what his response was – “He (the Marketing Director) is incredibly smart”. As if that excused it all. I remember thinking “smart” is not the be-all-and-end-all. That, in almost every business that has people working together to accomplish things, smart is but one piece of the puzzle. And, perhaps, a small one, at that.

Since nearly every business is a team sport, there are a number of other attributes, traits and behaviors that are more important than smart. Smart is a great starting point – but it needs to be coupled with the following.

Listen more than talk: One negative aspect of smart can be a propensity to want show how much it knows. But listening is just as important – and is as often undervalued. Listening shows you are interested in the other person, it expresses and builds enthusiasm, and it demonstrates respect. And you know what? You may end up learning something your smart self didn’t know.

Happy to be wrong, vs. need to be right: I’ve said this before, but it needs to be said again (and again and again) – it’s more important to be willing to be wrong than to desire to be right. “Smart” people often feel they need to be right – and resist doing, hearing or thinking things they already believe aren’t. But it’s way smarter to be open to new ideas, new thoughts and new possibilities – even if (or especially if) they end up being incorrect. Again, the learning you’ll get from being wrong will make you even smarter.

Clear over clever: Because smart people often want to show they’re smart, they can over-complicate ideas with cleverness. But it’s always more important to be clear, to get the point across, to ensure everyone understands and is aligned – than it is to score points with creative word plays.

Long marches, not bold strokes: At the end of the day, the secret of genius tends to be doggedness rather than god-given intellect. And, similarly, almost everything a leader does will be a process of steps and stages, implementation, and steady progress. Success or failure will be determined by the coordinated management of people and process. So, while smart people may want to issue dictums and proclamations, real leadership manages for the long haul.

Help others to understand, vs. demonstrating knowledge: Smart can sometimes be found pontificating or showing off its knowledge (a speedy string of acronyms and insider terms is a dead give-away). However, if indeed you are a smart person, then your real role when working on teams is to help your teammates understand things better to help them (and the team) achieve goals. Period.

Grit and resilience: Anyone who knows me knows that I place the trait of scrappiness in high regard. Similarly, I believe grittiness is second to godliness. Grit and resilience are the ability to recover from stumbles and bounce back, the ability to persevere through adversity, and the ability to stick around longer (“A hero is one who knows how to hang on one minute longer” Novalis). Unfortunately, grit is not always correlated highly with smart. Because smart often believes it “knows”, so will either chart a safe course that doesn’t challenge much. Or it simply proclaims and then delegates. But, as Seth Godin said, while smart folks may desire accuracy, it’s grit and resilience that are the “best strategy for those realistic enough to admit that they can’t predict the future with more accuracy than others”.

Stories over facts: Facts are important to everyone, but especially to the smart. Data, information, numbers and research are their currency. But while these are critical foundations for business, creating stories around them is even more important. What does the data mean – and, even more importantly, where can it take us? What possibilities does it open up? What other ideas can we come up with? These stories will help a smart person drive success better than the cold, hard facts, any day.

Emotional, instead of rational, intelligence: The overly intellectual can be, well, too intellectual and rational. But to achieve anything, you need to influence and inspire others. So understanding people, and what they need or care about, is critical. That’s why “emotional intelligence” is as important as smart. Because success is as much about people as brains.

To a Perfectly Imperfect 2014 – Why aiming for perfect is a terrible idea

embrace imperfectionrubiks' cubekeep calm - imperfectionimperfection heart

Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend” Ann Lamott

Back in my school days, I used to call myself “B+ Guy”. That’s because I believed that doing very well was important (FYI, my college GPA was 3.35 – a dead-on B+) – but that the amount of additional time and effort it took to move a B+ to an A was not a worthwhile investment. Better to understand the topic, dig into it and do very well, and then spend whatever time was left over on other things – other classes that needed the attention, other interests, or whatever.

Well, I’m pretty sure I was on to something, because I still basically believe it now. And in today’s new normal, this concept has never been more timely. Now, to be clear, this isn’t an acceptance of shoddy, half-thought-out work full of errors and laziness. And, yes, you’ve got to put in the requisite heaps of work and effort. But when it comes to new ideas, new work, innovation and launching things, a B+ is darn good. In fact, “good enough” is often a good enough place to start – or, as Facebook puts it (and plasters it all over there offices and press), “done is better than perfect”. It’s better to get off and running with something good… and begin learning and improving it, live.

Which is why I’m starting the year with a diatribe against perfection. It’s time to toss the idea of striving for perfection onto the scrap-heap, and move into a more nimble, iterative approach to building things. The problem is that the idea of being a “perfectionist” has a positive connotation to it – overachievers who are obsessed with quality and demanding of positive results. And organizations LOVE perfectionists. They work incredibly long and hard, they demand great results, they reduce errors and failures, and they drive others to do the same. What’s not to like, right? However, there’s a helluva difference between a healthy pursuit of excellence and a neurotic perfectionism. And I’m here to tell you that perfectionism is a negative, and actually gets in the way of productivity and happiness.

The benefits of killing your perfectionism are manifold:

You will do more:  As David Foster Wallace admonished, “If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.” Waiting for things to be perfect is a perfect recipe to stop moving forward, stop creating, stop doing things. Plus, no amount of perfectionism upfront can possibly prepare you for all the potential complexities and curves thrown at you in the real world – so better to get out there and address them live, as prepared as you can be. You’ll get much more benefit from launching than waiting – as General Patton said “a good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”

You won’t miss opportunities or lose momentum: In the words of the software entrepreneur Roni Einav “I tell people that if they are looking for the perfect idea, for the perfect gap in technology, they will never get there.” In fact, even if you finally achieve what you consider “perfection”, it might be so late that you’ve lost your momentum and your competitive advantage. A perfect example is AT&T and cellular technology. Even though Bell Labs invented and received patents for cellular telephone technology as early as 1946, its demand for “perfection” in quality before making it commercially available led them to cede the industry to other players for years.

You will be willing to make mistakes (thus will learn and succeed more quickly): Perfectionism may protect you from making some mistakes – but those mistakes can also lead you to learnings that cause even greater breakthroughs. It’s more important to be willing to be wrong than to desire to right or perfect. And let’s remember, there are no “right” answers, anyway – especially in areas that demand creativity and innovation.

You’ll know when to let go: Since you’ll know that there is no such thing as perfect, you’ll understand that there will be a point where the work is good – and that more time controlling and perfecting it won’t make it better. You’ll know that no amount of pre-work can predict all possible real-world outcomes – so you’ll do the work that you can do, and be prepared to iterate and improvise afterwards. As the wife of jazz musician Carl Stormer said, “control is for beginners”.

You will recognize that the good and the great are NOT enemies: I’ve worked before with people who turn their nose up at “good” work, saying they demand greatness. But this is silly. Not only are the “good” and the “great” not enemies, but that they are good friends. The difference? “Good” just arrives on the scene earlier – and warms up the place for the “great”. It’s much easier to turn good into great in real life, than try to create great in a lab setting.

You will learn to trust and respect yourself and your partners: Like a jazz musician, you will rehearse what can be rehearsed – but know that you’re creating something new, which by definition has some spontaneity and improvisation to it. So you’ll need to respect the fact that you, and your teammates, all know what you’re doing – and trust each other as you go.

One interesting note: as Greg McKeown points out in his blog post “Today, just be average,” the word “perfect” has a Latin root, whose literal translation would be “made well”, “done thoroughly,” or “complete.” But today, we always use it to signify flawlessness. Let’s all make a new year’s resolution to take perfection back to it’s Latin roots – and eradicate modern perfectionism for the good of all.

“Creative” Is Not Just a Department – Creativity is everyone’s responsibility*

keep calm and be creativecreative department signI%22m not creative

“Everybody has creative potential, and from the moment you can express it, you can start changing the world” Paulo Coelho

When I tell people I work in advertising, they invariably ask, “are you a creative?” I have always struggled to answer this appropriately. On the one hand, no, I am not in the creative department. On the other, I have always felt responsible for the creativity of the thinking and work on the teams and accounts I have led. While I don’t normally come up with the creative ideas for ads, I help my team generate them, I foster them, I direct them, and help build them. I also help sell them in and help realize and activate them. So, yes, I am a creative. And I believe everyone in business needs to be one, too.

Because, contrary to popular belief, everyone is capable of creative thought and new ideas – it’s not just the bailiwick of a select group or type. And creativity can and should blossom everywhere across your company – not just in the “creative” areas. As a leader, you need to find ways to foster it with everyone, especially those who function further away from the typical creative arena. Here’s how.

Stop “ghetto-izing” creativity
“Any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right or better” John Updike

As I mentioned, most leaders don’t expect creativity from finance, operations, HR, project management. There’s this belief that “some people are creative, but most are not.” But it’s just not true – some of the most effective and productive creativity can come from those beyond those most directly generating the creative work. You must get everyone to view their jobs as critical to the delivery of great work, no matter what they do. In this way, they’ll always be thinking of ways to enable and facilitate it, in order to make it more and more successful.

For example, research/planning creativity, on Milk, helped them look at what life would be like without milk, vs. simply researching how people consumed the product. This led to a completely new way to showcase it – showing how lacking some of our favorite things (peanut butter, chocolate chip cookies, cake) would be without milk.

You can also be creativity with budgeting. On LEGO, we took a different approach to our client-given budgets – by grouping budgets by targets – enabling a more macro-/top-down approach that drove greater creativity and more big ideas.

Embrace uncertainty
“Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties” Erich Fromm

It’s been proven that people and organizations often fear creativity and innovation because they tend to increase uncertainty. But uncertainty is a given – as I’ve written before, most issues are so complex, multi-faceted and dynamic that the dialectic of “right vs. wrong” is inappropriate. Instead, you’ve got to get comfortable with ambiguity – and preach that shades of grey are expected. As Andre Gide said, “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”

This is one of the reasons I advocate holding interim “tissue sessions” when developing ideas. These sessions give permission to everyone to not have all the answers yet. And to begin with a bunch of hypotheses to build, or kill, along the way.

Provide clarity in objectives and purpose
“Give me the freedom of a tight brief” David Ogilvy

While there’s no avoiding ambiguity, you can help stimulate creativity with a clearly defined brief and with crystal-clear objectives. Define the problem as laser-sharp as you can. Provide the details, structure, realities, constraints, etc. – so folks can think inside the box.

For example, when I ran Porsche a few years ago, we found that 911 sales were off. We believed it was a combination of recession-related factors that made affluent people not want to show off in this atmosphere, as well as “green” sentiment suppressing demand. But rather than briefing against a broad set of issues, we did research that enabled us to hone in the reason – a negative “value” perception due to people not seeing the cars as daily-drivable. This tight brief led to the Effie winning “Everyday Magic campaign.

In addition, clarify your purpose so everyone can rally around it. It’s incredibly motivating when employees believe in their company’s mission and genuinely like what they do. If your teammates and employees have passion, just try to stop them from being creative!

For example, when I worked on Wisk Detergent, we reframed the business we were in, from simply selling products that cleaned clothes, to being a brand that promoted a lifestyle that embraced diving in to life. This purpose turbo-charged creativity across the entire team.

Fight against conformity
“Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way”Edward de Bono

When surfacing new and groundbreaking ideas, your team may end up challenging long-held company beliefs or ways of doing business. So you’ll need to attack insider thinking that restricts creativity – by benchmarking other companies and industries, by bringing in fresh thinkers, and by diplomatically saying, “we might be wrong”. And, you, too, have to be open to ideas that break rules or shatter your in-going preconceptions. This is often a lot harder than it sounds.

This is why it’s very important to instruct everyone involved to react viscerally and naturally to ideas first – thinking like a real person, a consumer, a non-insider. It’s too easy to kill things that feel “off” to your corporate eyes and ears – but make sure your consumer would find it off, as well.

Take responsibility
“Creativity is a highfalutin word for the work I have to do between now and Tuesday” Ray Kroc

Whether you are leading a project, a team or an organization, only you ultimately are responsible for the creative output. Regardless of the fact that you aren’t directly doing the “creative work”, you’ve got to do a tremendous amount of effort to enable it. This requires attitudinal work, interpersonal work and quite a bit of physical work.

First, you’ve got to aspire to produce great work. Give a damn. Have the ambition to set the world on fire, and make that fire contagious. Secondly, you’ve got to develop the types of relationships across your team that generate trust, instill courage, and deliver collaboration. This allows you to help build on ideas as they are developed, question them and iterate on them, unconditionally and without fear.  And finally, you’ve simply got to do the work. Remember that quote about “…99% perspiration”? It’s true. You’ve got to ask questions, make tons of connections and lateral leaps, and help distill initial ideas and re-build them. And get out and read, do, see, act – as Einstein said, “the legs are the wheels of creativity”, so keep ‘em moving.

Reduce fear
“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes” Scott Adams

As a leader, one of your key jobs is to reduce the fear of failure and mistakes. This is the natural enemy of creativity. As a leader, you should be encouraging failure. Let it be known that there won’t be blame or backlash. That failure means movement and learning. That it’s an important step along the way to success. If you’re not failing every now and then, you’re likely not trying, doing anything new or advancing much.

Give time and space
“Lying around doing nothing is an important, nay critical, part of the creative process” Tom Hodgkinson

It’s been said that time pressure creates great creativity. But it simply isn’t true – studies show that people are the least creative when fighting the clock.

In addition, people need time to work through the predictable to get to the unexpected. To make further and more lateral-leaps. To iterate. And, to put the work down, look away for a bit, and let things percolate. So make sure you have enough time for your creativity.

This is another reason an interim, “tissue session” during idea development is helpful. It allows those brainstorming ideas to spend their time thinking them up, not perfecting yet.

If you take these actions, you will no longer look to a “creative department” for all you ideas and creativity. You will seek creative thinking from Finance, Research, Data/analytics, operations. And you’ll find that, lo and behold, your entire, cross-functional team is filled with Don Drapers.

*This article ran previously in the Troyanos Group November Newsletter.

Insight, Schminsight – What you’ve been calling an “insight” isn’t one

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US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said he could not define pornography, but he “knew it when he saw it”. That’s the way most people seem to think about insights. The problem is, they don’t get to see them very often. That’s because what parade around as insights, in most cases, aren’t. And that’s a problem.

Insights are the catalyst for nearly all marketing activity. Nearly everything is based on them, from business ideas to marketing strategies to activation. Without insights, most ideas remain superficial, bland or generic. So it’s natural that everyone in the business talks about insights. Go ahead and Google “Marketing Insights” and you’ll get 139,000,000 results. Every strategic brief has a “Key Insight”. All processes are said to be grounded in consumer insights. And every strategist promises to be expert at digging them up.

But the problem is, as I mentioned, they’re very likely to be anything but true consumer insights – instead being facts, observations, truths, learnings or any other such observable or known piece of data. Though data and facts are important, they are by no means insights.

Insights are important. They are springboards for the new, unique, creative. But that is the heart of the issue – true insights, too, need to say something new. That’s why the perfect response from hearing an insight is “a-ha”.  And that’s why one definition of insight is “seeing what others don’t”.

Some key aspects of true insights:

An insight likely won’t be matter-of-fact — instead it should feel challenging. Often insights shed light on a tension between what is perceived and what is reality (“While people think x, in reality y is true” or “people think they care about x, but instead behave y“). These can be powerful, because they help brands speak in a way that is closer to the real way consumers feel, vs. some expected category/manufacturer-speak.

A gap
Many times, an insight comes from something desired by people that they don’t have. Again, there is the tension that comes from perception vs. reality, or what is wished for vs. actually experienced.

A known thing seen in a new way
Sometimes an insight IS an observation or truth, but it’s flipped on its head. Or it’s connected to something else unexpected. For example, in the book “Seeing What Other’s Don’t“, Gary Klein describes a police officer on routine patrol who sees a driver in a new car flick his cigarette butt inside the car. Ordinarily, that might not be terribly noteworthy – but the combination of the cigarette flick and the fact that the car was a new BMW led the officer to arrest a car thief.

Or it could be something that is hidden “in plain sight”, in that it seems so patently obvious that it’s discarded or dismissed. In this case, the a-ha is something that makes you say “I can’t believe I didn’t notice that before”.

A creative thought
Insight means, literally, an “inward sight”. So, you’re not just observing externally, but looking inside your own mind for new ways to think about things. To do this right will likely require more than just researchers or strategists – it will require different folks with different skills and thought processes to dig into it.

And an insight takes work – you don’t just find one, as many think. You “craft” an insight. And they take time. So don’t expect to nail it in one short sitting.

It leads to something
This is a key part of an insight – an insight needs to lead somewhere. It should feel dynamic, electrically charged, and motivate action. It’s fresh-ness of spirit, it’s tension, and it’s creativity grounded in truth should make you want to do things with it. Create things. Build off of it.

And a true insight leads to change – it changes the way you understand things, see things, feel about them and how you understand. So a real insight changes you, too.

Ideas are a-dime-a-dozen. What are you going to DO with yours?

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As seen on TV, er, in TalentZoo, check out my newest article (also in its entirety below), on ideas – and what needs to happen AFTER you have a good one.  Without the hard work of distilling, developing, iterating, and “stratecuting” it, your idea doesn’t stand a chance of success. Would love to hear your examples, comments and rants below. And please share!


I think most people would agree that ideas make the world go around. Ideas can move mountains, ideas are the lifeblood of business, and they’re worth their weight in gold. But what if I told you that ideas are over-rated. That we spend too much time rhapsodizing over them, perfecting them, and paying homage to them? Because, while ideas can be sexy and exciting and even amazing, they’re really a-dime-a-dozen. Who hasn’t had a good idea? And how often has that brilliant idea led to great success?

Ideas are really just a starting point – they’re part of the means to the end, but most definitely not an end in themselves. The key is what you do after having one. How you distill it, communicate it, develop and iterate it, and then get-it-done.  Here are some keys to successful ideas:

Don’t have just one

Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one you have. Emile Chartier

People get attached to their ideas and stick to them like white on rice. They hold on tight and don’t let go. They refuse to question them, they defend them all costs, they resist input. They suffer from confirmation bias.  However, it’s critical that you be open to feedback, to evolution and iteration, and to conflict. Question your assumptions. Welcome tough questions. Invite opposing views. Not every idea is a home run, and not every one is great right out of the gate. But if you’ve only got one, you won’t allow yourself to think that way.

Ideas need to be shared

“You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can’t get them across, your ideas won’t get you anywhere.” Lee Iacocca

A good idea needs to be communicated – so simplification and conviction are key. Distill it down to its essence, make sure you can convey it, and demonstrate your passion.

And dispense with all the confidentiality, privacy, keeping others out. Ideas need transparency and input. Share early and often.

Ideas need followers

“A mediocre idea that generates enthusiasm will go further than a great idea that inspires no one.” Mary Kay Ash

I don’t care how unique or novel your idea is, if it doesn’t gather momentum and get people excited, it’s likely not going to work. It needs to spark something in others for it to be helpful. It needs to create acolytes, advocates, believers and dreamers.

Ideas require hard work

“Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration” Thomas A. Edison

Having an idea is just the beginning of your work – what happens next is much more important. That is, the “stratecution” – the strategic and creative activation and execution of the idea. Without it, an idea is simply a theory or hypothesis. So an idea needs to begin to work through the who, what, how, when of the idea. The what-it-might-look-like, how it might begin, where it might be going.  What does success look like, how will we measure our performance, what results are we looking for? This process requires both dreamers and doers – those to figure out what the idea could be, and those who can make it a reality.

It’s been said that a great idea that is poorly executed fails, but a mediocre idea well executed succeeds at some level. This is true. For years, this was the hallmark of Proctor & Gamble‘s marketing. Average ideas, blasted out across every channel, connecting from top to bottom of the funnel, and driving across everything the brand did. Nothing anyone ever went “aha!” or “wow!” over; but always successfully making the cash register ring.  A brilliant idea has, no doubt, a multiplier effect on great execution – but it does not nor cannot substitute for it.

The most important part – Get ‘er done

“Ideas won’t keep. Something must be done about them.” Alfred North Whitehead

The final key to ideas is making them happen, with speed and iteration. Stop perfecting them and get them started. The devil is indeed in the details, so start developing them – and be open to adapting as you learn. You’re always better off starting and learning in the real world than waiting and trying to perfect what, in essence, is a hypothesis.

Ideas aren’t magic. Ideas aren’t silver bullets. And ideas can’t be walk-off homers. They’re a starting point for the real, hard work that it takes to be successful. So, what do you think of my idea?

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