MARKETING

Is There a Grown-Up in the House?

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A friend of mine, the well-known French anthropologist Dr. Clotaire Rapaille, is fond of saying that America is an adolescent culture. I am reminded of that trenchancy rather often these days -- not just when it comes to our sophistication (or regression) level in fashion, or politics or discourse -- but also in our need for immediate gratification. And surprisingly, evidence of our adolescence is embedded in the business culture, as well.

What reminds me of this is a phrase that I hear with increasing regularity in general conversation, business or otherwise, these days. It's all about "being the grown-up." The other day, Renee Montagne, co-host of Public Radio's "Morning Edition" was interviewing with Cokey Roberts. Montagne joked that Cokey was probably doing the session in her bathrobe, to which Cokey replied, "Yes, and you have to be the grown-up and go to work." Other variants include "It's time for someone to be the grown-up" and "His role is to be the grown-up in the room." And believe me, I hear this with serious people when serious issues are in the air.

Let's peel back the layers and see what we've got, what it means, and what its implications are. When I hear someone in jest (but not really) call out for a grown-up, it means that he or she is recognizing that there is an absence of reality in the room, and in it's place, a warm bath of self-indulgence -- if not outright fantasy.

Have you been in meetings where a temporary grown-up is called for? I have. And the longer it goes on, the harder it is to be the voice-of-reason. After all, it's not cool to be the one forced to jolt the group back to reality. To employ another phrase du jour, everyone is drinking the Kool-Aid.

While this can happen -- and does -- in meetings involving virtually every subject, it's most prevalent in meetings about marketing. It's the one subject where everyone is encouraged to be their most "creative," where the untraditional is embraced, and -- even more to the point -- if anyone dares to come down on the side of what is perceived as the mundane or the routine, they get tagged as an unimaginative business dolt.

There are a clutch of colliding reasons for the grown-up deficit, which even has naturally-inclined grown-ups suppressing their better judgment. For one thing, it's not cool to be old and the bearer of constraints. But it is cool to be the rule-breaker. What's more, as we know, the basic thrust of much of today's business advice is to throw off limits and box-imposed thinking. While we reached the pinnacle of this during the dreadful reinvent-your-business 1990s, it's become an embedded part of our value system.

What can you do about this? The first thing is to be alert to it, and its manifestations. They're often more pervasive than we realize.

So find your inner grown-up, and don't be embarrassed by him or her. Don't be intimidated by intimations of party-pooperism. Your job as a business owner or leader isn't to indulge undisciplined marketing thinking that isn't tethered in some grown-up reality. Yes, you need to recognize fresh and original ideas, but they're no substitute for planning and performance.

And here's another thing. While we're desperately looking for the totally radical, unique, one-of-a-kind solution, the vast majority of marketing -- or even business -- problems can be solved by the lapidary application of disciplined strategic thinking, scenario-building, and clinical logic. Take the creation of 2004's most successful consumer product, the lifestyle-reshaping iPod. As revolutionary as it was, every building block -- product design, music provisioning, marketing -- was an incremental step versus a barrier-busting leap: the application of a memory-storage capability; the cool, sleek, white and chrome aesthetic; the user-friendly selection wheel; the decision to sell 99 cent songs as opposed to the subscription model; getting U2 to lend their name to a specific model.

None-of-these decisions, by themselves, was astoundingly provocative. The integration and synthesis of all of them, however, was just that. That was the difficult, practical hard part. Which is a good reminder that it's often easier to think out of the box, than in it. But only a real grown-up knows that.


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Last updated: Jan 1, 2005




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