Walk in stupid every day

One of the challenges of approaching marketing in an academic setting is that students often ignore the constraints and limitations that will set the context in their professional lives.  In 1999 (the middle of the stock market, dot com boom) I was a teaching assistant in a marketing management course designed for upper level undergraduates.  The professor organized the class and provided the lectures to the big group on Mondays and Wednesdays, and I met the class broken up in smaller sections on Fridays to work through marketing problems and case studies.  It didn’t matter what the problem was (bringing a distinctive small ice tea brand to a larger market, introducing new diaper technology to the consumer market, trying to expand the greeting card market by reaching out to men) a significant number of students would propose that the company “go public” (sell shares on the stock market to raise money) and use the money raised to hire Michael Jordan as a spokesman/endorser.

When I’d point out that the solution overlooked the deeper nuances of the problem and wasn’t necessarily realistic, students often stated that their plan would surely work, so it had to be solid.  The problem was they were ignoring constraints.  In 1999, aligning your product with Michael Jordan would likely work, but there is only one Michael Jordan and both his brand and value is stronger if he aligns himself with a limited number of companies.  His price tag was also very high.

In many student marketing plans I see today, promotional plans as presented would often cost far more than the company could ever hope to gain in gross sales (an example of why research and external support for ideas in an academic and professional setting is so crucial).

A Beautiful Constraint, A book by Adam Morgan and Mark Barden from the company eatbigfish came out in January and among its examples are the interaction between Nike and its main advertising company Wieden + Kennedy of Portland that grew into the iconic companies we know today.

The theme of the book is that constraints imposed on a situation can lead to transformative results.  In a nutshell, if I have everything I need and feel like I know what I’m doing, my outcome will be the same-old, same-old that I know how to do.  However, limitations in time, resources, talent, objectives etc. cause one to consider new solutions and often lead to ground breaking, transformative results.

Before moving on to Nike and Wieden + Kennedy, I want to point out Wieden + Kennedy’s approach and mindset.  Two of their credos are “walk in stupid every day” and “fail harder”.  I think that’s a great mindset.  Thinking you have things figured out leaves you vulnerable, especially in today’s rapidly changing world.  This also reinforces the importance of being plugged in to your industry and constantly seeking external information.

The “fail harder” element resonates with me in a sport context.  My athletic career was spent in wrestling.  While I did not have great success in any one stage of my career, I ended up being competitive at a high level.  Part of this was because I always sought out tougher competition and bigger challenges, which involved failure and losing and my having to work like crazy to get up to speed at each successive level.  To me, if I already knew in my head and heart that I could dominate at a level, it seemed like drudgery to actually have to go and carry it out, I’d rather direct my hard work and efforts toward more difficult challenges.  The point is that you can get stuck where you are if you fear failure and many of the most enduring and valuable lessons come from failure.

According to the book, Dan Wieden (the company founder) described it as a gift that his fledgling advertising company located away from the mainstream in Portland, Oregon would be the recipient of the Nike (not the iconic Nike of today, but the little known early 1980s version) account and its constraints.  Nike founder Phil Knight personally briefed the advertisers; he didn’t want anything that resembled ‘advertising’, they were not to run the same ad twice, and they definitely weren’t allowed to use models in their advertising.  Among Wieden’s internal constraints were that top advertising people lived in New York and if any were amenable to moving to Portland, they couldn’t afford to hire them anyway.

From the book: “Wieden’s band of misfits seized the opportunity to blend Nike’s authentic connection to athletes with Knight’s own irreverence and a sense that sport deserved to be center stage in culture.  They were soon stirring up controversy using the Beatles’ ‘Revolution’ as the soundtrack to the new fitness boom, pairing up-and-coming filmmaker Spike Lee with emerging megastar Michael Jordan and showing a bare-chested, toothless octogenarian running seventeen miles every morning.  The world had never seen advertising like this before.”

This is a great example for students who want to become leaders and game-changers in what they do.  Rather than repeating what has been done, knocking out whatever is asked of you, staying comfortable, and sticking with what you think you know, wake up stupid every day and look for innovative and transformative solutions to your challenges.  That skill and mindset is extremely valuable and will only become more valuable in the future.

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