Commentary

What We Can Learn From The U.S. Army

Smart agencies understand they need to find a new way to work. But the question remains: What will this new way of working look like?

It could be, as CP+B's Chuck Porter quipped, a bunch of bright people sitting in a room. But, in advertising, we tend to look to other agencies, media companies and technology companies for inspiration. There is, however, one organization that could point the way to unexpected results: The U.S. Army.

At first blush, you won't find disciplines as culturally divergent as the advertising business and the U.S. Army. Soldiers speak of duty, selfless service to a greater good and personal courage. Advertisers speak of, well, not that. It might be instructive to look beyond our media subculture for inspiration. The U.S. Army has been building highly creative, responsive, adaptive and organized teams for decades. Specifically: The U.S. Army Special Forces.

The U.S. Army Special Operations Forces (or SF) has a short list of stated missions, including: Unconventional warfare, special reconnaissance, counterterrorism, direct action and foreign internal defense. They must be able to deploy rapidly and solve the world's most difficult and delicate problems with a minimum of supplies, time and support.

Each SF team consists of 12 people. Each team member is an expert in a particular subject matter, such as weapons, communications, medical and engineering. The team is led by a core command group of a Commander, Assistant Commander, Operations Sergeant and Operations/Intelligence NCO, who handles much of the recon.

Besides the deadly and covert nature of this expertise, this organizational philosophy is not dissimilar to many small, fast-moving companies. What sets SF apart is that each member of the team must be cross-trained in the other fields. This is useful in two ways. First, if the weapons expert is injured or separated, other members of the teams can fill this role as needed. More importantly (and more applicable to advertising), no one on the team is saddled with a knowledge deficit. In discussing the best plan of attack, each person is perfectly conversant in all strategies, objectives and tactics, and can provide thought leadership and innovation. Intuitively, this leads to a more dynamic and creative unit. The small team size and flatter structure also allows for faster action.

In addition to individual training and cross-training, there is also collective training and language training. Teams are taught to work together and to learn difficult new concepts quickly.

SF even recruits in an unconventional way. Hollywood fuels the perception that Special Forces take only the best of the best from existing soldiers. While true, there is also an enlistment option called 18 X. This option allows average potential recruits to make the jump from citizen to Special Forces Soldier, although the process takes up to two years. The stereotype of the U.S. Army is that it is a large, slow-moving and traditional organization, but in reality it allows the possibility that someone without prior training might make one of the most accomplished soldiers.

My favorite aspect of the Army's organizational philosophy is the value of the many over the value of the individual. Special Forces teams blend into the local landscape. They are not subject to the usual Army dress code and, ideally, the world will never see their hand at work. They have an enormous influence on world events, yet remain anonymous and uncredited. Their reward comes in the challenge of the mission and the bonds they build with the men with whom they serve.

In advertising, we talk about "rock stars." We venerate those few minds that drive influence, change and culture -- Bernbachs, Della Feminas, Wiedens and Boguskys. We each fight over credit for ads or campaigns that do well. We hop from agency to agency to build up our personal brand value.

If we followed the Army philosophy, our reward would come from working on a winning team, from being part of a larger, tightly-bound, social dynamic. We need more "we" and less "me," to boil this down into the elevator pitch.

What is the result of all this unconventional thinking by the U.S. Army Special Forces? The smartest, fastest, most creative teams on earth.

Special Forces teams help to fight and deter terrorists, capture dictators and free countless people. Indeed, their motto is "De Oppresso Liber" or "To Liberate the Oppressed." Imagine what they might do with a packaged goods brief. Or what we might do by borrowing a few pages from the U.S. Army Special Forces playbook.

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