Michael Baer's Stratecution Stories

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

Tag Archives: Marketing and Advertising

Let’s Hear It For Scrappiness

Everywhere you look you hear about the great “race for talent”. How the future will be won by who wins the “talent war”. Expertise, brilliance, dream candidates, the best and the brightest have all been written about.

Well it’s time to sing the praises of a greatly undervalued trait – scrappiness. Scrappiness is as responsible for success as any other characteristic. And yet no HR guru, no leadership maven or management expert seems to notice it, identify it, or search for these folks. Those who are gritty, persistent, resourceful. It’s an un-sung breed.

One thing scrappy has is desire. There’s nothing laid-back or “phoning it in” in scrappy. Scrappy wants to set the world on fire.

And there’s some magical kick-ass-ness that makes the scrappy truly heroes.

1) Scrappy gets sh*t done. The scrappy team makes things happen. It doesn’t wait for all the resources, all the debate, all the bureaucracy, all the knowledge. They simply achieve.  The scrappy team rolls up their sleeves and steps into any gap in team expertise or knowledge and fills it.

And on the scrappy team, everyone is a do-er. No one sits and waits for someone to tell them what to do. They’ve already got a 10-point list of next steps before anyone even speaks. At my last agency, my relatively small Porsche team produced more output than the rest of the agency combined. Everyone at the agency assumed we had dozens of account and creative people. Nope.

2) Scrappy punches above its weight. When you’ve got scrappy players, you can accomplish a lot more, with less. Two or three scrappy folks can go into a conference room and come out an hour or so later with a plan that would have taken a committee a month to develop.

And when you come in contact with the scrappy, it’s hard to know what level these folks are. They operate at the “whatever it takes” level, not the AE, AS, or AD level, for example.

3) Scrappy is fast. The world is moving so fast. But the old way of working – big teams, lots of levels and hierarchy, etc. – doesn’t facilitate fast solutions. But scrappy adapts to the need for fast.

And scrappy is tuned in, in real-time. Staying up to date, reading analytics, prepared with solutions, day-in and day-out. But that doesn’t mean that scrappy is working 24/7. Scrappy knows how to be efficient – and can go and be scrappy in their outside lives, as well.

4) Scrappy is self-reliant. Every day there’s another newly minted “expert” created to do some emergent, specialized task. Social media experts, earned media specialists, “listening czars”. But scrappy people don’t wait around until one of these experts is brought in to do something. They learn it and do it themselves. The scrappy team, together, becomes their own type of expert.

5) Scrappy is always in beta. The scrappy know it’s important to try things. To get real-world examples out to learn from. To test, trial and experiment. Perfection is the enemy of scrappy. And, as we know, there’s no such thing as perfection, anyway.

In sports, we always hear that the smaller, slower, less physically gifted (and usually white) athlete who performs above expectations is scrappy. That’s how scrappy gets a bad name. As if a person has to be scrappy because their talent level is low. But that’s simply not true. Anyone can be scrappy – Michael Jordan was scrappy, in fact. So go and find your scrappy heroes, and build a new dream team around them.

I Love a Good Flip-Flopper

When I was about 6 or 7 years old, I had a friend at my house. My older brother did something nasty to the kid, as he commonly did back then, leaving my friend nearly frozen with rage. He pointed at my brother, apoplectic, shouting, “you, you, you,…”, putting great thought into what to call him that was bad enough to equal my brother’s actions. Finally, he said, “you… DOCTOR!”, summoning up the worst possible name he could think of.

Nowadays, the worst name you can call someone is “Flip-Flopper”. The term isn’t new (apparently Ford called Carter one, and Mike Dukakis called Dick Gephard one), but it seems to have really picked up steam. Mitt Romney is the current politician with a “flip-flop” problem.  John Kerry had an epic flip-flop problem – it probably cost him the election in 2004. But why is it so bad? Being a “flip-flopper” suggests you lack conviction – and making you appear weak, effete, untrustworthy.  Americans have become maniacal about demanding 100% steadfast, unwavering devotion to any idea. It’s a singular American image – standing up for what you believe is right, even against great adversity, like John Wayne, the men at Iwo Jima, Charlie Sheen. Others may go with the flow, take the easy route, bend to opposition. But not those devoted, steadfast few, the non-Flip-floppers.

But the truth is that flip-flopping can be a good thing. It can demonstrate a number of extremely positive attributes and behaviors. Are you willing to flip-flop?

1)      It shows you’re willing to say the magic words “I don’t know”
Like I’ve said before, certainty and surety are fine in a black-and-white world, but what world is black-and-white? If you allow yourself to be uncertain, then you can question freely – yourself, your assumptions and the way you’ve always done things. And you can’t imagine how empowering it is to a team for a leader to allow for the fact that he doesn’t know everything.

2)      You are able to admit you were wrong
I don’t care how smart you are, you can’t always right. It’s important to be open to being wrong, to making mistakes, to changing your mind. In fact, you can learn more from your mistakes and failures than your successes.

3)      It demonstrates thinking
Most issues are complicated and complex. No matter how well you’ve thought through the topic, there’s likely more you don’t know or haven’t seen. So changing your mind could be driven by learning – by hearing additional information, and then deciding differently. There are many who don’t seem to believe it (or at least don’t demonstrate that they’re in favor of it), but thinking is good. If thinking causes one to reach a different conclusion than he reached before, it’s a good thing in my book.

4)      You recognize the importance of context
Context plays an important part of our decision-making. There are times a decision one way may makes sense, and other times it won’t. Romney’s support of a woman’s right to choose while Governor of Massachusetts made sense – his electorate supported it. His flip-flop against it now is due to a change in his context and his following his own, personal beliefs. The same can be true in business – as contexts change, a decision may need to, also.

5)      You believe in empirical evidence (even when it’s contrary to your in-going assumptions and beliefs)
Blind faith may work in religion, but it doesn’t work in politics or business. Belief is fine, as well – but belief is essentially an untested hypothesis. Learning, experience and data should help mold your beliefs – and if it causes a change in your views, then good for you. It’s like turning the steering wheel if you’re driving towards a cliff – if the evidence indicates the direction you are going is wrong, I suggest turning.

6)      You recognize that things change
One thing that will never change is the fact that things always change. And with the accelerating pace of technology, things are changing faster than ever. A decision made today could be affected by tomorrow’s new normal. Remember it’s not weak to address change with new, and changed approaches. In fact, it takes even more strength.

7)      It shows a respect for nimbleness
Due to the increasing pace of change, there’s a demand for greater flexibility and nimbleness. People, organizations, even entire industries are being forced to adapt, evolve and make wholesale changes to address the new realities. Staying steadfast to an out-moded model isn’t showing conviction, it’s showing ignorance.

So from now on, investigate further what’s making a flip-flopper flip-flop. It might be something you respect.

Give a Damn!

As I’ve stated before, people are the most important part of any successful advertising and marketing group. No matter how great that team’s process, technology, history or pedigree, it comes down to the people doing the work that makes the difference. I’ve talked before about the responsibility of management to empower and make others better  – and, additionally, there have been some great articles recently about the dangers of micromanaging, and the idea of leaders acting as the “customer” or “client” to direct reports. But what about the direct reports? What is their responsibility?

I’ve said this before, as well – their job is to give a damn. To go beyond the “get it done’ mentality, to go beyond simply “phoning it in”. So what are the key components of this and how can someone push themselves to avoid being a Rhett Butler, you ask?

1) Ask questions
The right questions are as, if not important more, important than the right answers. Naturally, everything we do should be answering or solving for something. So being a good questioner is critical to problem-solving and developing solutions. But asking questions does more than help figure out what problem you’re trying to solve. It demonstrates engagement – you are involved, committed and driving for clarity and success.

Asking questions takes you beyond assumptions and givens. Just because something is stated, doesn’t mean it’s so. Even a brief that’s handed down to you demands to be questioned – are there aspects of it that haven’t been thought through, is there something that doesn’t make sense, should an additional consideration be added? Questioning means thinking.

2) Be an “action” hero
Fight inertia – “an object in motion tends to stay in motion, an object at rest…” You know the rest. So keep active. Be constantly curious, be an engine for ideas, keep making connections.  Keep reading, forwarding and sharing interesting material. Just being “present” and active in the world is a big step.

It’s also been proven that an active mind and body keeps your brain young. Active thinking and doing improves brain function – so why wouldn’t you?

3) Aim for the stars
Have high expectations – for yourself and your team’s work. If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well – if you’re point of view is “get it done and move on”, then you should be doing something else. Get out of the “checklist” mind-frame.

Sure, there will be projects and tasks that won’t reach the stars, that simply are “give it your best hour” projects. But don’t mistake these for a reason to settle or be laissez-faire. You should be as passionate and driven to deliver executional excellence and top quality, no matter the context (see my previous post).

4) Have fun
It’s a fact that advertising and marketing are getting more and more complex, business is more pressurized, Clients seem to be getting more demanding, the business more competitive. But there has never been a better time for our business – the opportunity, the excitement, the innovation and the new. Have some fun, dammit! Remember, it’s not brain surgery.

These are some key ways to continue to show you give a damn. What are some ways your team demonstrates it?

You Are the Weakest Link

I had an experience earlier this year that re-inforced how important executional excellence is – and how easy it is for the weakest link in your chain to break… and leave you looking bad.

I was at the New York Auto Show for my Porsche client when a Client Product Manager asked for my help. He told me he was holding a breakfast the following morning at the show for Porsche Club members and asked if I could put together a presentation to take them through our latest campaign, called “Engineered for Magic, Everyday”. He said it would be very casual – he was serving basic coffee and pastry only, he was presenting something very casual himself, and he said the audience was a low-impact group of friends of the brand. Because I had my lap-top with me, it was relatively easy for me to put together. And because I’m  a nice guy :), I said yes.  I got all the materials together by the end of that day and loaded them on his presentation lap top. I got up early, got to the show for the breakfast, and did my presentation.

Aside from a brief hiccup where the Quicktime didn’t play, which required about 90 seconds of intensive trouble-shooting, it all seemed to go very well. I felt like my presentation was engaging and informative. The guests seemed interested. A number of people came up to me afterwards to tell me how much they enjoyed it, and to ask more questions. And I got a lot out of it, as well, as I was able to ask and gain insights about their experiences with the brand, while also encouraging them to contribute to the User Generated portion of the campaign. And the Client was happy, as well. Mission accomplished, right?

Not so fast. About a week later, I was forwarded a copy of an email that had been sent to the COO by a disgruntled guest of the breakfast. He complained that the breakfast was not up to Porsche quality and wasted his time – the breakfast was poor, and the presentation included an un-professional quality flub. Wow. Not only did I feel like I under-delivered, but the COO probably felt so, too.

What could I have done differently? I could have gotten up earlier and done a run-through. Clicked through it and made sure it all looked perfect, ran well, went smoothly. Just because it was a “casual” presentation didn’t mean it was one where professionalism and quality don’t matter. My bad. Or in the words of Rick Perry, “oops”.

This just goes to show you that, despite having the best intentions, taking the time to help out, developing something smart, and delivering your work with passion, you will always be undone by uninspired execution. By failing to go the extra lengths to deliver excellence. By a good idea, poorly executed. By the weakest link.

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?

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