The Fundamental Business Mistake We’re All Making Every Day

January 28, 2018 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

Recently, I stumbled across one of my favorite commercials ever—a United Airlines spot created by the great Leo Burnett agency in Chicago.

The spot is called “Speech” and it opens with every company President’s worst nightmare.

That spot ran in 1989. Back before everyone had email. And cell phones. And Instant Messaging. And Facebook. LinkedIn. Instagram. Snapchat. And 100 other digital connections that masquerade themselves as relationship.

Thirty years ago, we were struggling with making and keeping close, personal relationships and today we don’t seem to be any better at it than we were then. If anything, we’ve gotten worse thanks to our myriad electronic tethers.


It’s been said, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” For two people in love, that may be true. For clients and employees, it couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Clearly, the digital revolution has sped up communication, but at what cost? Firing off an email to a client may be easier than picking up the phone, but an email has no inflection. No audible tone of voice. And while a text to a co-worker may be more expedient than walking down the hall, a text has no body language. No facial recognition. And no visual cues that are often the prelude to where real business gets done. Or where close relationships are built.

That’s not to say digital communication doesn’t have its place. It absolutely does. But as more and more of our communication has shifted to digital execution, it’s our personal, long-term relationships that have suffered. And there’s a real reason why.


In “PRE-Suasion,” the new bestseller from social psychologist Robert Cialdini, he discusses a concept called “reciprocal exchange” that helps explain how relationships are built. To frame the discussion, Cialdini references work done by Arthur and Elaine Aron, a husband and wife team of psychologists, who spent considerable time studying the creation of close relationships. We know about the study because it was the basis of  a 2015 New York Times article that went viral titled “To Fall In Love With Anyone, Do This.

In the Arons’ study, paired strangers took turns reading questions to their partner who would answer and then receive their partner’s answer to the same question. One by one, the pairs advanced through 36 questions, each a bit more personal than the last. Early on, a question might be, “What would constitute a perfect day for you?” while near the end, the question might be, “Of all the people in your family, whose death would be most disturbing?” It took each pair about 45 minutes to complete the questions and at the end, the Arons found relationships deepened beyond their expectations.

“The procedure generated feelings of emotional closeness and interpersonal unity that are unparalleled within a 45-minute span, especially among complete strangers,” Cialdini noted. And it wasn’t isolated. In an interview with Elaine Aron, she confirmed hundreds of studies using the same method have produced the same results.

So, what does that have to do with building relationships with clients and co-workers? In a word—everything. Change the setting from a sterile laboratory to a fine steakhouse and doesn’t that sound a lot like getting to know your clients? Change the setting from a small focus group to a cross-country flight with your associate, or a young millennial you’re mentoring, and that’s how relationships are built. Question by question. Answer by answer. Thoughtful gestures. Moments of empathetic concern. Extended conversations repeated over time discussing business but, even more, the things that really matter. The things that make life worth living. The things that connect us according to who we are, not what we do.

Which brings us back to the beginning. The fundamental business mistake we’re all making every day? Missing the opportunity to make a real, meaningful, lasting connection with our clients and co-workers. To pick up the phone so you can hear their voice when you give them good news. Or bad. To walk down the hall to ask someone how they are to their face instead of firing off a text that could be answered with an emoji.

Advertising. Marketing. Maybe more than any other, our business thrives on connection. On emotion. On relationship. Is it any wonder that when we regularly flew to meet with clients, had dinner, spent time together face-to-face, that accounts stayed with agencies for decades? Or that today, when employees feel close connections to their co-workers and, most importantly, to their immediate supervisor, that turnover is exponentially lower? Is that just coincidence? Maybe.

But I don’t think so.

MIKE SULLIVAN is the president at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency. For more about challenger branding, subscribe to our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog




challenger brand marketingchallenger brandingLoomisMike SullivanrelationshipThe Loomis Agencyvoice of the underdog

Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


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