Commentary by Jonah Bloom

U.S. Marketers Crippled By Their Own Caution

Assessing the Risky Business of Not Taking Risks

By Published on .

One of many stories about Oxford University's entrance exam centers on a would-be Politics, Philosophy and Economics major who was running out of time to pen a third essay and came across
Jonah Bloom, executive editor of Advertising Age.
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the question, pertaining to economic theory, "What is risk?" He wrote two words: "This is."

Apocryphal? Maybe. But the story makes me smile, and came to mind recently as we were publishing a story about Kraft suffering for taking too few risks in product development and promotion.

Risk-taking Brits
U.K. marketers, most industry pundits seem to agree, take more risks than their transatlantic cousins, and as a transplanted Brit I am often asked why.

The answer? My hunch is that vast cultural differences play a part. Witness the TV lowlights of the last month. In the same week that Janet Jackson's cheap n' chesty display prompted more than 200,000 complaints to the FCC, former Sex Pistol John Lydon, appearing on a top-rated U.K. show I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!, used the f-word, followed by a vulva vulgarism in telling the 12 million-strong live audience that he was displeased they hadn't voted him off the show. Fewer than 100 people complained to the regulator.

One might conclude this makes Brits base folk who have too willingly accepted a lowest-common-denominator tabloid culture. Brits might counter that making a big fuss about such vulgarity only encourages the juvenile jokers who use it as a means of getting attention, and that government and media time devoted to such silliness also distracts from bigger issues. But that's another debate. The point is that marketers on opposite sides of the pond are playing to two very different audiences.

Risk-averse U.S. culture
Likely as significant in determining the often-uninspiring output of American marketers is the risk-averse culture that now pervades many U.S. businesses.

The very entrepreneurial, inventive and instinctual marketing approaches that made American corporations the envy of the world seem, in many cases,

An early 20th century ad for Listerine, a strange new product concept that became a mega-brand for a marketer willing to take a big risk.
to have become mired in bureaucracy, obsessive quantification, short-term profit goals and fear of redundancy.

Ask any young creative the best ideas they have ever come up with and you will hear tales of inspiring breakout and nontraditional work that never saw the light of day, because the marketer felt it was "too risky."

Jim Stengel's speech
Failure to take risks was the essence of the problem identified at Advertising Age's Madison & Vine conference, where we heard that marketers haven't taken the branded entertainment plunge, and it was at the heart of the problems identified in Jim Stengel's speech to the 4A's last week.

Great marketers take risks. Think Apple challenging Microsoft's hegemony and changing the music business. Go back to Bill Bernbach and Volkswagen thinking small when all around were selling big. Or go back further to Gerard Lambert, who bet his empire on the idea that he could convince the world there was such a thing as bad breath -- halitosis was unheard of in the 1920s -- and that Listerine would therefore produce plenty of green.

Lambert backed what was then a strange notion and he backed it big, pledging to match ad dollars to Listerine's revenues for as long as sales continued to climb. What is risk? That is. And it paid off handsomely.

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