A Wise Word for Obama and Our Profession: Transparency

Constituents and Consumers Left in the Dark Will Assume the Worst

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The Obama campaign's recently released 17-minute documentary-style video about the Obama presidency has stirred up emotions among the president's supporters and critics. Designed to show off the administration's greatest achievements, the video also reveals that the president -- and those of us in marketing as well -- might benefit from some words of wisdom from one of the greatest creative directors ever, Alex Bogusky. That's because, unlike the government, Bogusky is practicing transparency these days.

He once graced the cover of every major industry magazine, with clients including Burger King, Old Navy and Microsoft. His agency won Agency of the Year 13 times and he was awarded Creative Director of the Decade. Then, in his prime, Bogusky left the world of advertising. Now, he's the go-to guy to find out how brands can behave in an age of transparency. Bogusky runs Common, an organization helping to reshape capitalism by fostering business innovation in different and unusual ways. Common is investing, for example, in a company that crafts bicycles made primarily of bamboo grown in areas of Alabama that are in dire need of a new cash crop.

"Brands are transparent. The question is not whether or not you are transparent; it's whether you want to participate in it," Bogusky said at one of the first Common meetings. His organization chose to participate by streaming all the Common meetings in real time. The meetings didn't always consist of good news and pats on the back. Moments of stress and confusion were interspersed with inspiration. But Common wasn't scared to share the low points with the high because it is committed to the greater good of embracing transparency.

On the opposite end of the transparency spectrum is politics. A few years ago, Obama appeared to be one of the most inspirational leaders in U.S. history. His approval rating has since eroded and his ability to craft the national conversation has waned. Part of his problem is that the president, like many businesses, has not been consistently transparent about the challenges he faces, such as the economy, debt and the country's financial quagmire.

In the short campaign video, he has included some transparent messaging about the challenges he faces, but he is using the film to play catch-up. Had he embraced transparency earlier, Obama might still have a lot of the earlier momentum, because his constituents would have seen him in action, attempting to bring the nation out of a deep economic crisis. Instead, they were left largely in the dark about what the administration was up to, which leads just to negative assumptions. The same is true for your business. If you embrace transparency in your day-to-day behavior, you won't need to rely on expensive advertising to offset negative perceptions.

What if the president had followed Bogusky's lead and invited cameras to broadcast the deficit discussions he had with members of Congress? He wouldn't have looked great at every moment, but the real-time transparency would likely have forced all participants to act in the best interest of the American people-- and the nation would have had a clear understanding of Obama's specific strategies and tactics.

Of course, the president's ideas don't appeal to everyone. A lot of people won't like his jobs plan, for example. That's fine. At least a transparent platform would be efficient. Those who agree with Obama would be able to support his plans. Those who don't could denounce them. Right now, there's mostly opacity and confusion. The end result is a lack of approval and a lack of progress.

The lesson for you is to recognize that , like the president's approval ratings , your business can undergo a major downward slide and then face an uphill battle, armed with only gimmicky messaging like the campaign video. Not every meeting and every initiative needs to be embraced with full transparency. Clearly, your business is entitled to privacy and you don't need to share every meeting and every idea in real time. But, you need to share your key challenges. Your audience will do it anyway -- and without your input. Because of social media and mobile technologies, your company can't hide.

You don't necessarily have to use real-time video like Bogusky's Common. There are countless ways to share information about the good and bad aspects of your business. The important point is that embracing transparency will expedite the process of improving your company's performance. As Bogusky said: "People don't expect you to be perfect. They are actually quite forgiving. They just want to know you are trying."

Jeff Rosenblum is founding partner of Questus, a digitally-led advertising agency with offices in New York and San Francisco.
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