Think like a Challenger Brand and get paid for what you DON’T know.

August 6, 2014 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

Let’s be honest. We live in a world where people get paid the big bucks for what they know. Just look at the value we put on degrees from places like Harvard, Yale, Stanfordand Wharton and what companies pay consultancies like McKinsey and Bain. More often than not, what you know has a direct correlation to what you make.

In the case of ad agencies, industry experience is often the correlative factor for whether they get hired, or not. In a pitch, one of the first questions you get is, “how much experience do you have in our category?” It’s a fair question. But for brands looking for truly breakout work, it’s the wrong question.

In Eating The Big Fish, his landmark book about challenger branding, author Adam Morgan lays out eight credos for those companies in second place, third place, last place, trying to fight against the market leaders. The very first credo is a concept called “intelligent naivety.” The idea is to look at your brand and everything that goes with it as though you have never seen it before and know nothing of it’s history. It’s about exploring every possibility with fresh eyes and an open mind. It’s trading “that won’t work” and “no you can’t” for “why not?” and “what if?”

LOOMIS Imagibrand Process

Think about the great American companies that began as a startup in someone’s garage. Amazon. Apple. Disney. HP. Harley-Davidson. Now consider how much the entrepreneurs behind those startups knew about global business, manufacturing and branding when all they really had was an idea. Probably not much. They had to be open to every possibility. And that was the unlocking move that led to the transcendent successes they became. When you are ignorant to what’s impossible, everything is possible.

Legendary choreographer Twyla Tharp put it this way, “Experience is what gets you through the door, but experience also closes the door. You tend to rely on memory and stick with what has worked before and don’t try anything new.”

Challengers win because they don’t think they know everything, or think they know better than everyone else. They leave room for fresh perspectives. They allow for ridiculous suppositions and the proverbial “stupid questions.” They understand the process will be messy and that to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs.

So why is it when it comes time for a pitch, so many brands run to partner with agencies that have already done what it is they want to do in their exact space? The answer is, it’s safe. Different feels risky. But it’s also exhilarating. And as a brand with a significant budget to spend, what’s really more risky – pushing for the unexpected and potentially game-changing idea, or doing what you and everyone else in your category have always done, even if yours is a little bit better.

The ironic thing is over the years, I have seen the same dynamic take place on the agency side between older and younger account service and creative people – especially when the older people have been on an account for years. The olders have been through the wars. They’ve heard clients say no enough times that they just “know” what will work and what won’t. Time and time again, the younger staff will come up with solutions that while strategically sound, are “so far out, no client would ever buy them.” Yeah? Says who? And shouldn’t we allow the client the privilege of saying no?

It’s not our fault, really. Over time, our brains build neural pathways when we cover the same ground over and over and over. When we solve things the same ways, our brains learn what works and what doesn’t. It’s efficient, but unchecked, is also limits our possibilities. Embrace what you don’t know. Allow your mind to wander and make unexpected connections. When it does, you’ll be amazed at the places you end up.

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” – TS Eliot

Michael Tuggle is Chief Imagination Officer at The Loomis Agency, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency

challenger brand

Mike Sullivan

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


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