This year CMG Partners, an East-coast based marketing strategy firm hosted a panel discussion entitled Why Good Products Fail & How to Improve the Go-to-Market Process. The face-to-face event was complimentary to the local business community in Northern Virginia, and included experts from four enterprises: startup beverage company Honest Tea, National Geographic Channel, WeatherBug, and Intelevision.
Five minutes into CMG’s introductory PowerPoint, a man in the audience named John interrupted the presenter and opined “You’re the experts in marketing strategy, and yet, I don’t hear anything new. You haven’t provided anything we don’t already know!” He continued by reciting the unremarkable bullet points projected on the large screen in the front of the room, and emphasizing that he wanted to hear thought-provoking insight worthy of his time. The slack-jawed audience at the McLean Hilton fell so totally silent you could hear a Blackberry hitting the plush carpeted floor.
Faced with this unexpected detractor, the presenter replied with such aplomb that his response belongs in the history books along with Lloyd Bentsen’s legendary debate response to Dan Quayle : “Well John, you get what you pay for!” The widespread laughter that followed was evidence that the tension of the moment had been broken. The exchange somehow ended amicably, although I don’t think CMG will invite John to their next event.
The panel tried hard to live up to John’s expectations, thanks largely to Mark McNeely, CEO of Intelevision (more about that in a moment). During the post-panel networking, I introduced myself to John and thanked him for voicing an opinion that was probably unspoken by many, including me. “I might not have said it the same way, but I appreciate that you spoke your mind. There have been many times that I’ve wanted to say what you said, but didn’t.”
John might have been similarly moved during the recorded one-hour webinar on social media and selling I listened to on Monday. The topic is of particular interest as I’m completing a series of interviews with salespeople for an article I’m releasing next week. Like CMG’s event, there was a panel of thought leaders with cross-functional expertise—a great blend that should have created pungent discourse. And there were some good ideas that I jotted on my notepad and marked with an asterisk. But a few opinions were so over-worn that I stopped the recording and pushed back the timer a few seconds to make sure I heard them correctly: “We have to be in touch with our customers and understand what’s OK for them and what they expect from us.” And “It’s becoming more critical to know your customer.” Really? I acknowledge these comments are removed from the context of the discussion, but they were as attention-grabbing in the webinar as they are here.
Which leads to a question: are thought leaders fostering a sort of institutional stupidity by being too timid to espouse bold ideas? Or are thought leaders simply reacting to a perception that businesspeople need to be spoon-fed unremarkable ideas (not too big, not too small, not too hot, not too cold) so they can be nudged into considering larger ideas? On the other hand, could executives and managers simply be too intimidated by the multitude forces that are upending their business plans and strategic objectives to consider big ideas?
Mark McNeely might have answered the question when he synthesized the reason for the problems American businesses face: “there’s no oxygen in the room. Companies are run by management that is stagnant, bureaucratic, and self-satisfied.” He predicted that will change—because, if you subscribe to the idea of a Darwinian process for business, it has to.
Resolving our global economic situation demands the creation of provocative ideas. Controversial ideas. Ideas that are unpopular or disagreeable. We don’t need any more Mom and Apple Pie. In marketing and sales, nothing great will happen when well-known truisms are dusted off and passed on as contemporary expertise.
To those who regularly offer contrarian views, keep doing what you’re doing. The world needs your fresh perspectives now more than ever.