What Marketers Can Learn From Bill Belichick

The Super Bowl-Winning Head Coach Has Three Qualities Essential to C-Suite Success. Take Note for Your Best Season

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Win or lose on Sunday, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is inarguably the most successful coach in the modern era, and it's not a fluke that he will be in Phoenix for the Super Bowl.
He may have the personal flair of a lint brush, but what has made him so successful as a coach also would make him an excellent marketer. He has the three key qualities essential to excelling at the business of marketing: discipline, imagination and respect.

1. Discipline

The difference in this regard between the Patriots and other teams around the league is that for New England, discipline is a habit of mind, not just a bunch of processes that players and coaches follow. For example, prior to the AFC championship game, Coach Belichick had his team convinced that the San Diego Chargers were the best team in the National Football League, a team that the Pats -- with their perfect record -- should be deeply concerned about. This is a message that players repeated to the media with conviction. In an era of brash, loud-mouth "me" athletes, that simple little thing -- everyone staying on message -- is evidence of true discipline. That kind of discipline enables a team to weather the inevitable distractions that arise in the course of a season, such as players getting hurt or in trouble off the field.

Most marketers would undoubtedly consider themselves disciplined. Unfortunately, most of them think process is an adequate substitute for true discipline. Focus groups, link tests, tracking studies, brand audits and whatever labels companies and agencies have for coming up with ideas are simply processes. Devoid of discipline, they become money-sucking distractions that lead to delays and bad ideas. True discipline is deciding upon what it is we want to say in our marketing and then sticking to it.

2. Imagination

Coach Belichick defies conventional wisdom by going for it on fourth down more often and in more situations than most other coaches. He constantly rethinks the standard role of each position and asks players to do something other than what their position would normally require. That is imagination.

Most marketers always punt the ball away on the fourth down -- even in the face of analysis that says going for it makes more sense.

I work in branded entertainment and a critical part of my job is to demonstrate to clients that this exciting (and for most of them new) discipline can be a potent part of their marketing mix. To my great astonishment, I've had two potential clients say to me privately some version of: "We know what we're doing year to year is diminishing in effectiveness. But we know what to expect when we do it. So we keep doing it." In other words, the comfort of the expected exceeds the benefits of something new that may be incredibly more effective. How successful can this thinking ultimately make anyone?

Similarly, the structure of roles and responsibilities on both the client and agency side has ossified to the detriment of everyone. We need a page out of the Belichick book that has a wide receiver running reverses or a linebacker playing nose tackle or catching a pass as a tight end. Call it organizational imagination. Success in marketing requires practitioners with competence in a number of areas. Creativity is not the sole provenance of the creative department. Basic economics or how a product or deal will make money cannot just be left to finance. Marketing is by definition the coming together of a lot of elements into a cohesive whole. With only myopic specialists doing the job, it's a lot more difficult to succeed.

3. Respect

In today's era of competitive parity, the NFL is full of so-called trap games. These are games in which a seemingly superior opponent coming of a string of victories falls prey to a seemingly lesser opponent simply because they failed to respect the threat that team represented. Coach Belichick respects every opponent. He never looks past a game. He publicly trumpets the strengths of upcoming opponents and prepares meticulously for each of them (even the lowly Dolphins, winners of one game all season). He doesn't get caught up in the hoopla before the game. He respects the reality of his opponent and focuses on the game itself.

Most marketers actually respect their competitors. Marketers spend a lot of time analyzing their rivals' latest moves and speculating on their next ones. But they fall short in respecting the people to whom they are trying to sell. Even calling them "consumers" conjures up the image of an undifferentiated mass of pigs at a trough ready to consume what gets thrown at them. This lack of respect means marketers miss the actual "game." They get caught up in the hoopla of Web 3.95 or whatever and forget they are selling to human beings with intelligence, genuine needs and a desire to be entertained and informed rather than pummeled with marketing messages. Recognizing this need to respect the audience will lead to more thoughtful marketing and communications strategies and tactics.

As a New York Jets fan, I can't say that I like the success of Bill Belichick. But as a marketer, I know I can learn a lot from him.
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