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Opinion / Beware Your Best People

by Arif Haq

Positive outliers at your company might often be responsible for great work but they're also the most dangerous part of your workforce, writes Contagious Insider, Arif Haq

If you were to look at your company and plot the capability vs the number of your people you’d end up with something that looks like this:

Yep a bell curve – the data wonks among you will know that pretty much anything in life can be plotted out on a bell curve  that shows there will be some people who will be relatively more capable than others (let’s assume capability is a measure of both ability and ambition).

At the two extremes you have the negative outliers (perhaps best to think about moving these people on) and positive outliers (most of these, but not all, are likely to be in your leadership group).

The reason the curve is instructive is that it allows us to consider that most of the people are in the middle, and that most of the work produced in any business is done by this group – and it is for this group that we develop a ‘company process’.

These processes are intended to get to good – but of course often when companies say ‘Good’ they mean ‘not Bad’; avoiding failure rather than pushing for excellence. During my decade working for Pepsi if could get my European markets, from Romania to Russia to use the correct Pantone colours and logo on their packaging label I had achieved good – the process had worked. This middle of the bell curve process represents the discipline of modern marketing and is perhaps what Duff McDonald means when he writes in The Firm, that ‘the essence of efficient management is hiring and training unheroic, ordinary people to play by certain rules’.

The problem of course is that we know that good campaigns are increasingly not enough these days. The kind of ideas that disproportionately cut through the ever increasing clutter, the kind of ideas that Contagious showcases in its editorial output are not GOOD but GREAT. And GREATness is often achieved only by the positive outliers. If you look behind the origins story of a lot of great campaigns, there is often but not always) an outlier that made it happen  a maverick or renegade, crazy enough to go against conventional wisdom and with a dangerous willingness to subvert or just plain ignore the ‘company process’.

A common and understandable mistake that we come across with our consultancy clients is that senior management are convinced the brand is achieving brilliance because of their company processes. In fact, our analysis has been able to show them that they are only producing moments of occasional brilliance, in spite of the company processes, often by accident.

Of course, pushing for greatness is seen as more risky than settling for good – an insight confirmed to us while working on the development of the Heineken Creative Ladder. The ladder is as much a circle as it is a hierarchical scale; as you push for a higher score, the chances of dropping to the bottom increase significantly. But the urge to push for higher scoring ideas remains, due to the disproportionately positive effect of great work vs merely good work.

The danger of pushing for greatness has sadly been shown to the world by Pepsi in recent weeks. Brad Jakeman, the boss of the drinks business there, is an incredibly talented marketer leading smart, committed people, and they all must have thought they had achieved Greatness. In fact, they were collaborating to create the worst piece of advertising we’ve seen in quite a while. This highlights the danger associated with the positive outliers which we must consider along with their undoubted benefits. I suspect the Pepsi spot was pushed through by a number of ‘maverick’ positive outliers in the face of some pushback from the mass of team members who inevitably must have reviewed the work during and after its completion. I mean, how could you be an in house lawyer or a PR expert and NOT raise a concern about the possible negative reaction the ad might have in some section of the population somewhere, somehow…? It’s simply impossible to comprehend that everyone who looked at that work in the production phase said, ‘Yep, I see no problems there, let’s put that out (oh and I love the guy playing the cello!)’.

It seems to me the idea to co-opt (support?) the Black Lives Matter movement wasn’t inherently BAD per se – there certainly IS a way for brands to produce powerful advertising linked to highly politicised and provocative causes in a way that is credible and appropriate – it’s just that this was far from it. The failure here was primarily in the execution of that broad idea – in rough order of importance casting, script, storyboard. Thinking about it off the top of my head, just consider if Beyonce or Samuel Jackson or Kanye had been used instead of Kendall, imagine if the strong whiff of naive teen-cheesiness had been replaced by a savvier script and storyboard, and you can already begin to see how this campaign might have actually been well, great (or at least good/not terrible).

The singular truth that the Pepsi team should console themselves with is that amazingly talented people produce crap films and music all the time – the best we can hope for now is that Brad will decide to own the mistakes and get on stage this year at Cannes with a presentation called “How I made the world’s worst ad”. Give us a warts and all retelling of the process by which the work was conceived and developed, serving as a Brothers Grimm-like warning about the dangers inherent when involved in any artistic venture.

Brad has shown himself to be a pretty ballsy guy in the past so this isn’t as far-fetched as it might sound  Lord knows it would be more a fun and insightful presentation than some of the usual ‘I’m onstage because I bought Will.I.Am with me’ type of stuff we see at the Palais these days. But I suspect even Brad may have limits on how vulnerable he’s prepared to be on this issue. If he does, I for one will be on the front row, applauding him loudly all the way.