The underrated art of pragmatism in business…

As a naive 22 year old coming out of college, the world was at my feet. I had in-demand skills, an interesting job and plenty of opportunity to learn new things.

I was full of confidence, and above all, idealistic about how business worked.

But nothing you do in college prepares you for the real world. Enclosed in your nice cosy classroom with nothing to worry about except your next night out and passing a few end of year exams, you feel prepared for the realities of the business world described in  your textbooks.

Yet as the famous quote goes…

“The map is not the terrain”

The real world is much different, and one of the most important skills I’ve learned in my 20s is pragmatism.One of the things that they don’t teach you in college is that business is inherently messy. You’re fighting against bigger, better prepared rivals with more resources. You’re dealing with imperfect scenarios with no one right answer. You’re dealing with imperfect people that you may not see eye to eye with.

Thus, realism and navigational skills are incredibly important. It’s about ultimately finding a way to get things done no matter the obstacles.

In the real world, it’s not always the ‘A’ students who get on well. Grit and determination are far more important character traits in most businesses than academic knowledge.

In the real world, pragmatism wins.

An even break…

I’ve spoken before about judo strategy, and pragmatism is a related theme. Great business leaders don’t take no for an answer, they don’t get downbeat, they just find a way to win. Like great boxers, they dodge and weave, probing for weakness and eventually capitalising on it.

The great myth of life is that Goliath always beats David.

On an even playing field, 99 times out of 100 Goliath wins.

So it’s up to David to make the playing field uneven. To make his opponent uncomfortable. The phrase ‘never give a sucker an even break’ comes to mind, but that’s what the best small companies do. They grasp their even break.

The great myth of history is that most wars are an arm wrestle, head to head combat won by the most powerful, skilled and well supported army. It’s a dramatic, courageous and also plain wrong notion. In his book ‘The Obstacle is The Way’, Ryan Holiday tells of how, in a study of 280 major conflicts from ancient to modern history, a startling discovery was made.

Across all the campaigns, in only 6, or 2% did the decisive blow come as a result of a direct attack on an enemy’s main army. 

Most victories don’t come from long, drawn out, pitched battles, but from outflanking or outfoxing your opponents. Often, victory comes via lateral thinking.

We can all learn from that.

Pragmatism in praxis

In the past few months, two brilliant, inspiring examples of pragmatism prevailing have made headline sports news.

In February, mighty Chelsea, marching towards the Premier League title and with billions in the bank, went north to face lowly Burnley. Burnley, an unfashionable side from a Lancashire mining town, were expected to roll over for the Londoners, as most of the other teams in the league have done for Chelsea this year.

On paper, there was no competition.

In the end, Chelsea were delighted with a draw.

Burnley manager Sean Dyche is a fascinating thinker on this topic. His interview after the game epitomises the power of pragmatism.

“We are underdogs but we don’t do blind faith. We try everything we can to see what works. They are a good side and they have some good individuals. There is always a ‘but’ though. Why do underdogs beat favourites? Because ways are found for that to happen. Our job is to find a way even against teams where pundits are telling me that they don’t have a weakness. We have to find a way.”

He continued…

“I want to play a brand of football that wins. I have to design the team so we can win games by playing a different way when we need to. If we went into the Premier League and did what everyone else does, we wouldn’t do it as well as them. So we do things that are awkward and different and strange. The brand of football I want to play is one that wins.”

No pretension. No rigidity. No fooling himself or his team. Just flexibility and smarts.

“Find a way to win”
“Try everything we can to see what works”
“Be awkward and different and strange”

Brilliant. Just like a scrappy startup that pivots into a new business model. Or a guerrilla army that chooses not to fight head on.

Last month, the Italian rugby team gave another great example.

Fresh from a huge defeat to Ireland, the Italians were beaten, humiliated and facing a daunting trip to London. New coach Conor O’Shea, less than 6 games into his tenure, was facing calls for Italy to be relegated out of the 6 Nations competition altogether.

If he sent his side out to go toe to toe with England, the defeat would likely have been by 60 points or more. So O’Shea and his team decided to make the fight a little fairer.

Italy came out with a tactic that most in the rugby world had never seen before. They decided to not compete at the ruck, and use a law loophole which meant they could stand offside at every breakdown. England were flabbergasted. Their leaders were reeling.

They had never seen anything likes this before.

Just like O’Shea dreamed it up.

For 60 minutes, Italy actually stood neck and neck with England, eventually going down to a late cavalry charge.

Like the Fosbury Flop, Italy’s tactics were ridiculed by the media, mainly because they made life inconvenient for the sport’s governing body and its biggest team.

But anyone with half a brain saw the genius in their chaos tactics.

Both Italy and Burnley chose to not lie down. They decided to use a pressure point strategy that probed for weakness and didn’t play into the hands of their illustrious opponents.

In life, in business, in war, in sport, pragmatism is a beautiful, underrated approach that can lead to some wonderfully bizarre, lateral and effective strategies.

It’s a brilliant lesson to learn.

 

The smartest ideas can often be incredibly simple…

Sometimes, us advertisers overcomplicate things. We search to solve problems that don’t exist. We pump budget into half baked ideas. We forget about the fundamentals of our job – to grow sales and build businesses.

One of the smartest, most effective pieces of marketing that I’ve seen over the last year is not very sophisticated at all.

It hasn’t won any awards.

It’s not a new digital innovation or a huge TV advert.

It probably didn’t cost the brand much.

It’s the type of thing that a child could come up with.

In fact, it’s a piece of branded plastic containing a commodity product that we spit out after 10 minutes.

It’s the Wrigley’s Extra in-car chewing gum holder.

Crazy right? But sometimes the best ideas can be the most simple ones, and this is objectively a brilliant idea.

We know that brands grow by…

  • driving mental and physical availability (remaining top of mind and easy to buy/consume)
  • owning distribution channels
  • being present for and owning usage occasions (think Dominos Pizza on a Saturday night or Snickers when you’re hungry)

By creating something boring and utilitarian, Extra has managed to carve itself a permanent niche inside a person’s car, where we spend hours every week. It has managed to position itself the default brand choice in a commodity market through a simple piece of ‘ambient’ marketing.

Gum is the second most consumed product in cars after drinks, and Extra has also found a way to increase product consumption, by keeping themselves close to hand.

The best thing about it is that, in this world of low attention span and intrusive, annoying marketing, it’s a tangible branded product that people actually want to have in their vicinity. It’s offline ‘pull marketing’.

Plus, it’s also created a free in car media channel for the brand. Imagine how many people get into a taxi every year. Now imagine that every time they get in, they get reminded of Extra.

Often, we think of simple, basic ideas in a pejorative sense. Dave Trott talks about how marketing sometimes suffers from an over-intellectualism. But using an ‘Occam’s razor’ approach and simplifying to first principles would provide better results.

This idea wouldn’t have got through most brainstorm meetings. It’s the type of thing that many brands would leave on the cutting room floor, or at best bolt onto another campaign. Yet Wrigley saw the opportunity and has instead made the holder the star of TV and outdoor campaigns.

Genius doesn’t always have to be a complex, new idea.

Sometimes, simple, tried & tested is the best route to take.

 

Costa Coffee Snapchat Spectacles campaign – This is why we can’t have nice things!

Imagine how cool it would be to get handed a shiny new toy that everyone is talking about and told ‘you’re the first to get it, now do something cool’?

There’s a definite first mover advantage for brands. The PR story of being the ‘first company to…’ do something can draw attention, and there’s also a little ego boost for the agency and brand manager. Everyone wants to be an early adopter, an innovator.

Costa Coffee in the UK got that opportunity last week. We’ve been waiting for Snapchat Spectacles to come to this side of the Atlantic for months, and Costa was the first brand in the UK to get their hands on a pair.

Now just imagine the creative possibilities at the brief stage? You get handed an opportunity to do something nobody has done before, to use a product that shoots video with distinctive look and to come up with a really cool, novel idea that’s guaranteed to get some interest.

Plus, there’s no pressure, the bar is automatically low since nobody has done much with the tool before. It’s literally an open goal for a digital creative. 

Meh

Unless you forget to come up with a creative idea that is.

Unfortunately, Costa fell into this trap. They created a campaign that’s the definition of ‘meh’.

Their idea was

“to give fans a unique insight into the world of Costa, specifically through the eyes of its baristas”.

Basically, they gave the specs to a barista, who made a coffee, and they recorded that. That’s the ‘campaign’.

According to a spokesperson,

“for our customers and followers, we know…they’ll be intrigued to watch their favourite coffee being made from the perspective of a Costa barista”.

Will they aye? Does anyone really want to spend a minute and a half watching a Costa barista pouring coffee? Is that interesting?

To me, this is a wasted opportunity. It’s a channel thought without any creative idea.

It’s relying on a shiny new thing to do the work, and lazily not thinking up of a way to bring it to life.

I know this is a first use in the market, and there’s no Spectacles campaigns to get creative ideas from.

But surely Costa could’ve looked to campaigns like this from Eighty Twenty and this from Old Spice for inspiration.

Both were built on top of an immature platform, but had a strong creative idea at the core. Both won awards too.

I’m not picking on Costa here, this is something that we’re all guilty of. We forget that channels and platforms are the equivalent of creative canvases that we paint on. But they’re  benign without a strong creative idea.  It’s up to us as marketers to get creative, build cool things on top of them, to understand them, test them and sometimes break them.

But just using a new channel can’t be ‘the big idea’ on its own.

In Ireland meanwhile, Aer Lingus were the first brand to be given a go. They decided to hand the specs to Conor Murray to give an insight into a ‘day in the life’.


Again, this isn’t exactly a revolutionary creative idea, but it’s a smart way to use their sponsorship assets and give fans a look behind the scenes that they wouldn’t normally get.

The resulting short social video got plenty of traction.

Who wouldn’t want to see the world from Conor Murray’s eyes?
(Don’t answer that one!)

A simple idea, but an idea at least.