How Ice Hockey Parallels the Ad Industry

One NHL Team Is Defying the Naysayers and Winning -- Just Like in the Ad Biz

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Marc Brownstein
Marc Brownstein
I'm living a dream. My hockey team, the Philadelphia Flyers, is in the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in 13 years. They haven't won the Cup since 1975, when I was a kid. And I've been a loyal season-ticket holder, attending games with my son, waiting for the Flyers to earn the greatest championship trophy in all of professional sports.

So what does this have to do with running an ad agency?

If you followed how they got to the finals, you'd know. Since most of you likely did not, here's what happened and why it's relevant:

Mid-way into the season, the head coach was fired. And dissension in the locker room followed. They started losing more than winning, and it looked like they were headed for an early exit to the season. I've lived through this in the agency business. A key player on an account is fired or leaves, and morale tanks. The client gets pissed, and threatens to put the account into review. But the agency rallies internally first under the new leader, then with the client, and stabilizes the business. Morale improves. Lesson: Don't panic under a new leader; give him/her a chance to lead, and ultimately delight your clients.

The hockey team barely squeaked into the playoffs. In fact, it took an overtime shoot-out to qualify. How many times has your agency lobbied to be included in a pitch, and finally admitted? It's happened to me a handful of times. Lesson: Never, ever give up on an opportunity that you think you should be included in.

The Flyers have endured more injuries in one season than one team should have to. They've had seven different changes in goalie, and eight key players out for a variety of injuries, at pivotal times. In the ad agency business, sometimes you just have to play with the team that's available. Some team members may be traveling; some are at full capacity and not available; some are out on maternity leave or sabbatical; or some just call in sick. You can't worry about it -- you have clients to serve! So you just bring up some younger talent and give them a chance to create a campaign or work on a pitch. Lesson: In my experience, being forced to use up-and-coming talent in critical roles has created more opportunity than harm. It gives younger people who would not normally have visibility to upper management at the agency, or with the client, the chance to shine.

In the second round of the playoffs, the Flyers were losing to the Boston Bruins, down zero to three games in a best-of-seven series. In other words, one more loss, and it was an early summer for the team. Only three teams in professional sports had ever come back from a 0-3 deficit to win. Well, the Flyers won. And in the clinching game, they were even down 0-3 in goals, and roared back to win 4-3. Simply unprecedented. OK, OK. I don't want to bore you with my hockey talk. So the insight here is this: In a new-business pitch, no matter what the odds are against you, if you believe you can win, then maybe you just can. I've been blown away with some phone calls after a pitch, thinking we hadn't won, knowing we gave it everything we had, and then getting the glorious -- and improbable -- news that we won. Lesson: This is a business where the odds often seem stacked against small agencies. Be smart, have a good pitch strategy, and shoot for the stars -- you just may land some.

If you've read this far, you've learned a little more about hockey than perhaps you cared to. But hopefully also found some inspiration from a team that has defied all odds to date. I really believe our ad industry parallels this story. (A quick shout-out to my friend and fellow blogger, Phil Johnson, who is from Boston. Didn't mean to remind you of the historic turn-around against the Bruins!)

Go Flyers! Go Small Agencies!

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