Here There Be Dragons


Originally published in Ad Age Magazine

On the Need to Cultivate Challenger Thinking

In olden times, they filled in blank areas on maps with dragons — suggesting not just uncharted territory, but the potential danger that fundamentally looms in the “unknown.”

That said, anyone in our business can see plenty of blank areas these days — and potential dragons hovering at virtually every turn: From the radical evolution and permutation of information distribution to the whiplash-inducing speed with which this information is developed, interpreted and modified (and then redistributed). In the 20th century, it took TV 13 years to reach 50 million users. In the past decade, it has taken Facebook just six years to reach 500 million.

Charged with helping our clients navigate the ever-changing unknown, it is critical that agencies get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Be fearless in leading the way through these proverbial blank areas — diligently exploring, learning and blazing a trail. To not become content (or worse yet, flustered), but rather provide sound, reasoned thinking that results in sage, trusted counsel.

To that end, here are three reminders for your agency to ensure you are successfully finding your way through the unknown.

1. Foster a challenger culture. Now, I know what you’re thinking: Easier said than done. Even the most open-minded agency veterans, free-minded principals, or freewheeling firms can get stuck in their ways. That’s why it’s so critical that a challenger culture is infused into every aspect of your organization (and revisited on a regular basis).

Take stock of your agency. How do you inspire innovation? How do you seek out — and take time to really listen to — fresh new viewpoints? Build on best practices in a way that is constructive, not limiting — from a process perspective? From a new business perspective? From a client interface perspective? Who are the true “thinkers” in your business, and what can you as an organization do to continually foster unconventional and non-traditional points of view?

At the end of the day, we’re fundamentally in the new-product-development business. As such, in the midst of true sea change in our industry, we must constantly challenge every assumption that “got us to where we are” — which means leaving no stone unturned in optimizing both what we do and how we do it.

2. Challenge your assumptions. Change is one of the few constants in the world — and yet it is far too easy to fall prey to the twin sisters of comfort and habit. So what are you waiting for?

Conduct a good, old-fashioned SWOT (strength, weakness, opportunity and threats) analysis for your shop. Where are your blind spots? In which areas of your business — or your clients’ business — are you behind the times? What are your competitors doing? Who is emerging (and why)? What will your business look like in five years? What scares you the most — and what are you doing about it? How are you making yourself truly indispensible to your clients?

Bottom line: Give yourself a kick in the pants — as there has never been a worse time to be complacent. Attend a conference. Hire a consultant. Seek out contrarians. Solicit perspectives from everyone in your network — partners and clients, vendors and prospects. Build the muscles of humility and discomfort.

3. Challenge yourself. In his classic Harvard Business Review article, “Managing Oneself,” Peter F. Drucker identified the responsibility that every “knowledge worker” has to be his or her own CEO.

In a down economy, with much uncertainty, and amid profound change, there has arguably never been a more important time to put fresh eyes on our own individual performance.

As Drucker presents in the article, we must each take a hard look in the mirror. Identify our strengths. Develop a proactive personal development plan. Continue to evolve and grow. And do everything we can to bolster what we personally bring to the table.

No agency is perfect; we’re all struggling with our own issues in this rapidly changing universe. But the cold reality is that our modern-day dragons aren’t going anywhere. As such, it’s time for us all to put on our best suit of armor — because the blank spaces on the map are going to stay that way unless we venture further into the unknown.