There’s an inspiring story told of a shoe company that wanted to sell it products in the South Pacific Islands. So long ago that the only means of communication was telex. The story predates even fax machines. (I recall reading it as a University student – not as far back as this story, though)

They sent a sales guy to the islands to try and sell their shoes. After a while, he sent a telex back saying: ‘Bad news, these guys don’t wear shoes’.

The company recalled him and sent their most ambitious sales guy out to the islands. He sent back a very different message: ‘Great news. These guys haven’t discovered shoes yet’.

The late, great Bill Bernbach – for those who don’t know, the B in the highly regarded DDB – had a very similar message for us. He said:

“We are so busy measuring public opinion that we forget we can mold it. We are so busy listening to statistics we forget we can create them.”

More recently (2003, actually) Gary Hamel and Liisa Valikangas collaborated on an article – ‘The Quest for Resilience” – which appeared in HBR. Their ingoing observation was deceptively simple and blindingly obvious: ‘The world is becoming turbulent faster than organizations are becoming resilient. The evidence is all around us. Big companies are failing more frequently.’

And the reason for this – equally simple and obvious:

‘Institutions falter when they invest too much in “what is” and too little in “what could be.”’

As for the tendency to look around for ‘best practice’ to copy or benchmark against – well, they comprehensively shredded this behaviour:

‘The quest for resilience can’t start with an inventory of best practices. Today’s best practices are manifestly inadequate. The goal is a strategy that is forever morphing, forever conforming itself to emerging opportunities and incipient trends. The goal is an organization that is constantly making its future rather than defending its past.’

So is this true in the real world? Well, here’s one example I lived through and experienced firsthand.

If you were to look at the Press headlines and research into prevailing beliefs and behaviour in Australia in the late 1990s, red meat was the second biggest evil. Just behind cigarettes. If cigarette smoking didn’t kill you, red meat would.

My client at the time – David Thomason – was one of the most visionary marketers I’ve met. With his vision, belief and courage, we rehabilitated Red Meat within 5 years. Together, we won the Grand Prix of the Effectiveness Awards (now the Effies) and had the bulk of consumers and medicos telling people to eat a Red Meat Meal 3-4 times a week. And doing so themselves.

That was not a task for the faint-hearted. Admittedly, it’s a rare person who is prepared to take on such bad odds. David was not one to shy away from a (monster) challenge.

If you can’t bring yourself to listen to Bernbach, then at very least take it from David – one of the original Legends & Leaders coaches.

Interrogate statistics. Treat them as guilty until proven innocent. Spend most of your effort imagining what could be. And do all you can to see beyond what is.

Then, go out and make new statistics. Numbers that suit you better.

 

*A tribute to the late David Thomason. Gone far too young.

 

Mark Sareff is Chief Strategy Officer at Ogilvy Australia and has graciously written this post for Legends & Leaders as a tribute to the late David Thomason.

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