What can marketers learn from dumb luck?

November 14th, 2007     by ddeal    

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About 30 years ago, an unknown movie director named Steven Spielberg was in the throes of despair.

He had been entrusted with filming a best-selling novel about a shark that terrorizes a town in Martha’s Vineyard, and everything was going wrong.

The movie was over budget. The on-location shoot was a hassle. And the mechanical shark built expressly for the movie, and crucial to many scenes, kept breaking.

Faced with the prospect of shutting down production, Spielberg decided to improvise.

Instead of relying on the presence of the shark to provide shock value, he created tension by suggesting the possibility of the shark’s appearance in many scenes.

You know the rest of the story: his project, Jaws, was one of the most commercially succesful and influential movies of its time. Critics agree now that Jaws was scarier because it only hinted at the shark in most scenes, leaving it up the viewer’s imagination to construct more terrifying images.

Jaws became a better movie because of a happy accident. But can we as marketers learn anything from these moments of serendepity, or is it just a matter of accepting dumb luck?

This blog posts examines the question through the experiences of an acting legend, a singer, and baseball player.

When bad things happen to good people

Sometimes a little conflict can produce brilliant results. Cary Grant learned this lesson when filming the seminal screwball comedy The Awful Truth in 1937.

At the time, his career was in a rut. He was mired in one-dimensional roles that demanded little of his talents and gave him little acclaim. On top of that, filming The Awful Truth was a nightmare because Grant clashed with director Leo McCarey.

Grant wanted to work from a finished script. McCarey used an improvisational style. Grant wanted to portray his character with sensitivity and subtlety. McCarey demanded a more physical type of acting appropriate for a screwball comedy. Eventually, Grant tried to quit the film.

The studio told him to stop whining and get back to work. The result? In the words of Grant biographer Marc Eliot, “The performance McCarey got from Grant was nothing short of astonishing.”

Somehow, Grant meshed his understated style with McCarey’s physical approach to create a leading man who possessed both physical grace and emotional depth. The Awful Truth, a critical and financial smash, galvanized Grant’s career. As Eliot points out, the tension and conflict Grant experienced while making the movie contributed to his portrayal of a more fully realized leading man.

This is not to suggest that marketers should encourage dissension and conflict when you’re creating an advertising campaign or collaborating on a marketing microsite. But don’t run from turmoil if it arises. Make it work for you. Disagreements can actually be good.

I’ve learned this lesson as I’ve helped executives over the years develop presentations for events. Invariably the most inspiring presentations have challenged us to reach beyond our comfort zones and push ourselves. Although challenging each other can lead to a successful outcome, the journey is not always fun. Why? Because pushing our boundaries creates tension.

Take it to the limit

Johnny Cash taught us that a limitation can set you free.

In 1955, Cash was an appliance salesman recording music in his spare time with guitarist Luther Perkins and bass player Marshall Grant. Together, they recorded a song, “Hey Porter,” which combined a jangling lead guitar, forceful bass, and heart-felt vocal that launched one of the most storied careers in modern music.

And yet, the song almost died in the studio.

As Grant relates in Johnny Cash: The Biography, all three musicians tried to add polish and sophistication to the basic track. But they lacked the skills to do so — fortunately for Cash, because the enduring power of “Hey Porter” remains its spare guitar sound and power of Cash’s voice, which complicated overdubs would have destroyed.

As Grant says to author Michael Streissguth, “We couldn’t change it. And I’m just damn lucky and thankful that we couldn’t. We weren’t musicians. We were just two mechanics and an appliance salesman.”

Great marketers and creatives use limitations to their advantage, as my Avenue A | Razorfish colleague Joe Crump knows very well. Joe, an executive creative director, tells me about the time when his team was working under a tight deadline to launch a marketing website and online advertising campaign for a consumer products company. With the deadline looming, the client was falling behind in production of television spots and photos of models required for the online imagery.

As Joe says, “We had a big, fat lemon, and we had to make lemonade.”

The solution: create the website and campaign using striking silhouettes of the models, which formed the basis of a viral campaign that actually worked better than the flat images.

The result: the most successful product launch in the client’s history.

I think the lesson here is to improvise. If a setback occurs, don’t mope about it. Apply your imagination. Moreover, if you are managing a team, remember that how you mesh their individual talents to produce an outcome is more important than how skilled they are individually. You don’t need a team of superstars with limitless talent; you do need the good judgment to produce chemistry. Just look at Johnny Cash.

A massive screw-up

October 12, 1971: the Pittsburgh Pirates were battling the Baltimore Orioles in the bottom of the 7th inning of pivotal World Series Game 3. These were two superb teams stocked with future Hall of Famers like Roberto Clemente.

Pirate first baseman Bob Robertson was at the plate against Oriole ace Mike Cuellar with two men on base and the Pirates clinging to a 2-1 lead. Third base coach Frank Oceak signaled for Robertson to bunt. But Robertson misunderstood the sign.

Instead, he swung away at the next Cuellar pitch — for a three-run home run that won the game.

The miscommunication between Oceak and Robertson was a massive screw-up in the midst of a do-or-die situation — and were the Pirates ever glad. Aided by Robertson’s home run, the Pirates went on to win the World Series.

But was it simply dumb luck that Robertson’s mistake turned into a home run? No.

Talented teams, whether in sports or business, turn screw-ups into success routinely. More often than not, their mistakes are just the flip side of smart risk taking with the guidance of a progressive coach.

Companies like 3M encourage risk taking and accept mistakes. Somtimes those mistakes turn into incredible innovations, the most famous being the creation of the Post-It Note, which resulted from a botched glue job.

At Avenue A | Razorfish, we are learning how to make mistakes that yield good surprises. For instance, we have developed Idea Labs where we test different ways that consumers interact with emerging media based on client work.

As Avenue A | Razorfish executive Andy Pimentel will tell you, those client experiences don’t always turn how how you’d expect.

Andy tells me about the time when he was reviewing alternative web page designs for a new online social media web site with a test group of the targeted end users, in this case, teen girls.

“We were reviewing rough layouts that contained simulated content and banner ads,” Andy remembers. “All we wanted to know was whether the design was attractive. One girl thought the placeholder ads were unattractive. I pointed out they were dummy ads that really had no meaning because we wanted her to focus on the layout and content. I casually asked her what kind of ads she would have chosen, meaning which type of ads she’d prefer. Well, she perked up.

“‘You mean I get to choose my own advertising on this site?’ she asked, astonished. A signficant portion of the focus group after that was spent exploring how the idea of choosing your own ad might work and what it would mean. We could tell from the animated discussion that we had an idea with legs.”

As it turned out, the client was observing the miscommunication the entire time. And the client loved the idea of consumers choosing their own ads. It was an idea that had been discussed but not implemented, in fact. But seeing the excitement of the respondents first-hand put the idea back on the table. Today the media site indeed allows girls to select ads that appear on their personal pages. All because of one miscommunication.

The next time you are in New York, check out the Avenue A | Razorfish Living Lab, where we’re learning how to test ideas like how the digital living room is evolving. We are about to conduct a TV-deprivation study in the Living Lab to see how people might act in a living room equipped with only the internet for stimulus.

We hope to make some amazing mistakes — the kind that will spark ideas. Some of those ideas will lead to inspired client work. And hopefully we’ll experience a little dumb luck.


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  1. One Response to “What can marketers learn from dumb luck?”

  2. By Johnny Cash Fan on Feb 24, 2012 | Reply

    “Hey Porter” was the song that created that “boom-chicka-boom” sound that become the signature sound of Johnny Cash. It is a sound that continues to resonate over 50 years later as new generations of fans discover and fall in love with his music. Quite impressive!

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