It's a Chungle Out There

Retire These All-American Business Phrases

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Bill Imada Bill Imada
After six months, I have already logged more than 100,000 miles on one airline. Criss-crossing the country on planes with no internet or cellphone access has been a blessing. I read. I relax. I skip bad airplane food. I write my blog for Ad Age. And I have a chance to meet some of the most interesting people on the planet. Well, not always.

Occasionally I meet interesting international travelers. On one very long flight to L.A., I sat next to a businesswoman from Germany who told me that she was amazed by the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple. As she talked about the craziness of New York, she used a very common American saying with a heavy accent: "It's a chungle out there." Chungle? I'm sure she meant "jungle."

She then told me that people in Germany are like many Americans, Canadians and other Westerners working for companies (and agencies) where people don't always take responsibility for their actions and simply "Pass the bucket." Bucket? I know she meant "buck." But then I wondered: Does she really understand the meaning behind these sayings, or is she just using these phrases because she wants to demonstrate to me that she knows something about the way Americans talk?

So where am I going with all of this? I'd like to talk a bit about how caught up we are in our jargon and our outdated sayings. And agency people, including me, often resort to using these sayings whenever we are trying to make a point during a new-business pitch, speaking with clients, or talking with a reporter. Let me review some of these sayings that often mean nothing to many of our international friends, but also have a tendency to reinforce mediocrity and the status quo at our companies. (And please don't tell me that you haven't heard these sayings uttered during pitches.)
  1. "We've got to think outside of the box." We say this because we believe that the best ideas are often found outside of the confines of our insular offices and agency teams. But I have learned from international visitors and from smart companies such as MetLife that we, as agency people, should always review our infrastructure internally first before we start living and thinking outside of the parameters of our offices. Trying to find answers outside requires that you engage in meaningful dialogue with people inside first. If things need to be adjusted or fixed internally, do that first before you attempt to think outside of the walls of your firm. MetLife does this by actively engaging its employees and its agents about marketing initiatives first, rather than relying solely on what they believe the customers want.

  2. "Let's not reinvent the wheel." My Japanese colleagues often wonder why Americans say this so often. I explain that Americans believe that the wheel is a perfect invention that doesn't need to be re-engineered. But my Japanese counterparts tell me that if someone can create an even better wheel, why not? Why not indeed? It's certainly possible that the perfect wheel hasn't been created yet.

  3. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." My cousin in Brazil asked me what this means. I said Americans believe that we shouldn't waste valuable time trying to reassess and retool things that run efficiently, such as a successful marketing campaign, a great sales initiative, or a fantastic creative team that works smoothly, efficiently and effectively. But where would McDonald's be if it had remained complacent? Even though it is the world's leading quick-service restaurant, the company's execs didn't sit around basking in their success. They continue to work diligently to find ways to improve service, develop quality products and build brand trust. Using a feng shui master to help them rethink their restaurant design, creating new, quality products that give customers a choice, and finding innovative ways to touch consumers with their messages speak to their continuing success.

  4. "The playing field isn't level." When has it ever been level, folks? The smartest marketers and agency leaders recognize this. And if agency folks truly are smart, they'll invest in ways to navigate that playing field. My Eastern European friends just love this saying. They believe that an uneven playing field has its advantages, even if it is uphill. I couldn't agree more.

  5. "Walk the walk, talk the talk." Now this is a tired saying. More than 90% of the world can communicate and understand a variety of communication styles, including body language. Aside from an extended middle finger, most Americans have difficulty interpreting what people mean unless they verbalize it. For those of you who really want to understand diverse consumers -- especially immigrants from other lands -- do what they suggest: "Taste the street." You can walk and talk as much as you'd like. But if you can truly immerse yourself and capture the flavor of a community, a neighborhood or the way a client company operates, you'll find the success you are searching for.
It really is a chungle out there.
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