You Can't Stand Tall Hiding in a Foxhole

Don't Strive for the 'Play It Safe Award'

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Bart Cleveland Bart Cleveland
History shows that the greatest advancements in society happen during a time of crisis, so why are so many of us not using this opportunity to do better work?

It is tempting to lose a few vertebrae when everyone around you is ducking for cover, but the ultimate price your business pays can be high. We counsel our clients that regardless of their budgetary constraints during economic downturns, their branding mission must stay on track. They must not give in to the temptation to be predictable just because budget restraints limit their number of options.

My business partner, Steve McKee, has a new book coming out in about a month called "When Growth Stalls." Steve has discovered through a decade of research how companies set themselves up for disaster by not taking action when things start to go downhill. As in war, business is won by fighting even harder when all seems lost.

A great example is when Steve Jobs came back to Apple in 1996. He immediately took dramatic action to return to the core ideals that put Apple at the top of its industry a decade before. Today, Apple faces another challenge with Job's health being an uncertainty. But I'm betting on Apple. I believe their lesson was learned in 1996: Winning the "Playing It Safe Award" is a more dangerous way to run a business than being fearless.

Even in good times most advertisers are in a dogfight to keep market share. Logically, bad times mean they must fight even harder. But many businesses do the opposite. I'm afraid their ad agencies encourage them to not progress by playing it safe themselves. Sure budgets get slashed, but you don't have to stop being innovative. You don't have to stop moving forward. Those that keep pressing the battle have a huge advantage when the inevitable upswing comes.

Encourage your clients to use a down economy to gain market share by ramping up their branding effort. It doesn't mean you have to spend more, but it does mean you have to be remembered. Apple is another good example from history. In 1984 Apple was on the brink. The company had poured all of its assets into the Macintosh and if the company didn't have an immediate hit, all would be lost. Chiat Day convinced the computer company to go all in and run a Super Bowl commercial titled "1984." The rest is history. Today everyone involved in that effort is deemed a genius and perhaps they were. However, I'm sure they didn't know what was going to happen. They took a shot when conventional wisdom would have been to hunker down.

If an agency doesn't practice what it preaches why should it be taken seriously? Overcome the temptation to play it safe because times are tough. When there is more risk involved, you can be assured there is also more reward.

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