Commentary

Risk Is Relative

We’re all familiar with the great Bill Bernbach quote that safe advertising is the riskiest advertising of all. It’s a classic and timeless quote, but it’s also fairly irrelevant in today’s dynamic, turbulent, disruptive and ever-changing times.

The sad truth is that most advertising stinks. It’s unmemorable, instantly forgettable, underwhelming and mediocre at best. Yes, some creative directors will say that advertising isn’t the problem, it’s poor advertising that is the real problem. So what happens when that becomes the norm?

Breaking through the clutter as the exception becomes a risky gamble that shouldn’t have to come down to chance,
viral serendipity or controversy in order to stand out from the crowd.

Bernbach knew all the way back when advertising was largely unchallenged in terms of its efficacy, that in order to be different, one had to mix it up and challenge the status quo.

A similar prophet was management guru Peter Drucker, who said “to defend the past is far riskier than creating the future.” He might as well have been talking about advertising itself (good, bad or ugly). He might also have been talking about technology-led innovation, embracing startup collaboration or investing in digital, social, mobile and/or emerging platforms.

Drucker also said: “How do you predict the future? You create it.” It seems to me that the road,map to survival is very clearly laid out in Bernbach’s and Drucker’s blueprint.

Safety is an illusion.

Status quo is the enemy.

Your fate is in your hands.

Risk is relative.

As I was reminded from one of my favorite marketing podcasts, "The Beancast," risk itself is measured in terms of financial terms and specifically monetary loss. So how is it possible that we can attempt to put a financial cost on something we’ve never done before; has no precedent and could very well produce the exact opposite effect — namely disproportionate, positive business impact.

Risk is often confused with fear (that tip: David Spark). Fear of the unknown. Fear of change. Fear of uncertainty. Fear of failure.

While there are no guarantees on success, isn’t it also true that the greatest risk is the one not taken?

I’ve lost 40 pounds this year. I did it using a combination of various apps, tools, bands, programs and technologies. One such tool was my wi-fi scale by a company called Withings.

Every time I stand on the scale, my weight, BMI and lean mass are automatically calculated and store in perpetuity on my iPhone and iPad. I also elected to tweet and Facebook my weight with 1,000,000 of my closest strangers. When men hear about it, they’re generally ambivalent, however when women get word of this, they throw up (just a little) at the thought of “putting it out there."

They’re shocked at the transparency and vulnerability of sharing something so personal.

I disagree.

I call it weight-loss-by-community. By letting it all hang out, I’m holding myself accountable to the crowd. I’m also essentially guaranteeing that I won’t fail; that I will get to my goal. If I fall off the wagon, it’s public record.

Risky? Not at all, especially when I’m armed with the complete belief and confidence that I will achieve my goal.

Why can’t we do the same with respect to our marketing programs? Why is getting a brand to do a small calculated test or experiment like pulling teeth? Where is the measured financial risk? (There isn’t.) Where is the known probability of
failure? (There isn’t.) Or more specifically, where is the extreme and unwavering belief that the only viable outcome is success? (There isn’t.)

Isn’t it time we started creating the future, where the only risk is the one associated with the opportunity (financial) cost of defending the past?

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