Commentary

Regarding Magic

Over the years, I have certainly thought about magic. When confronted by something remarkable, we probably all have, though not often in business -- a realm in which we are conditioned to acknowledge skill, talent, applied intelligence and outright savvy rather than magic.

I was struck by this elusive quality over the weekend, when my dad, a long-time Knight Ridder executive, shared news of the death of his friend, respected journalist Steve Lovelady. Echoing the themes my dad noted with the clip he forwarded, this reference to "magic" pervaded the obit:

"Steve Lovelady was a magician," said James M. Naughton, a former [Philadelphia] Inquirer executive editor, who said Mr. Lovelady's talent came so easily that The Inquirer's owners had little appreciation that he was one of the masterminds behind many of the 17 Pulitzers the newspaper won under the editorship of Eugene L. Roberts Jr.

"I doubt that we would ever have captured the Pulitzer Prizes we won without his touch," said Arlene Notoro Morgan, a former Inquirer editor and now associate dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism....

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[Former Inquirer editor Maxwell E.P.] King recalled a time when he, as city editor, took a dull story with high potential to Mr. Lovelady, who rolled the copy into his typewriter and went to work.

"What came out was astounding: magical, lyrical, and perfectly capturing the potential of this story," King said.

It's touching to read an account of clear successes flavored with references to magic that never disavow the accomplishments themselves. This resonates in the age of explaining and tracking back everything.

Here's why I think about magic, at all, in business. We talk a lot about the mingling of art and science in our business. And, it's not just that technology has forever entered the scene to enable convergence, scale, delivery, distribution, measurement, analytics and optimization. As we conceive, design, message and market to consumers -- even with whatever degree of focus on the art -- there is a mechanical and a concrete science to what we do. This is especially the case on the direct-response plane. The media progressives I most respect embrace the continued interplay of art and science as we evolve. It's not one or the other.

And as we as individuals tread the paths of our careers and interact with clients,  management and our innermost selves, we might find that the intangibles matter.  I know they do to me. You come to realize what's innate and what's learned; what's a fixed value, versus what's fluid and can continue to evolve. And then there's this X-factor. There are those people you encounter, maybe only a handful, who have this untraceable quality that is nothing short of magic:

  •        The quiet force of an account executive who is able to calm even the most volatile client simply by being present.

  •        The woman who can glance at reams of messy data and instantly articulate the story that can and must be told.

  •        The guy who works a team out of a quagmire and off the cliff overnight.

  •        The seer who can swiftly envision the way out of a bad deal, when all signs point to "screwed."

    The aggregate value of real-life skills and experience is clear. But when it comes down to it, there's just something to be said for touch.

    In these frenetic times, I was calmed by my reading of the Lovelady tribute. Here, where intellect, leadership, journalistic practices and the resulting achievements are honored -- so is the intangible. As we look around our own circles, it's clear the difference someone makes is not always the output of gravitas, credentials or identifiable experience. So, in our efforts to impart greater degrees of science, just as we preserve the art of what we do -- let's give a nod to magic.

  • 4 comments about "Regarding Magic".
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    1. Kerry Inserra from CBS Integrated Media, January 18, 2010 at 1:43 p.m.

      First, my sympathies are with you and your dad at the passing of your dear friend. You wrote an eloquent blog.

      There is indeed a "magical" factor, a certain "poise", "quiet, steady confidence" and yes "touch" as well, that some possess. They bring a sense of calm to chaos. It's hard not to fold under intense pressure and scrutiny. But having been in this situation myself, many a time, I try to step back and quietly observe my situation, my options, the players involved, and what the best potential outcome can be at that moment in time. Touch and soft, steady eye contact are a bit part of this-it's reassurance. A take charge, can do attitude in the midst of turmoil and uncertainty is only the beginning. This is the "art" that often gets overlooked when so much of the focus is on the science and metrics.

      Steve Lovelady sounds like a gentleman who possessed that elusive magical touch that so many of us who deeply care about our clients, long for.

    2. Mike Patterson from WIP, Inc., January 18, 2010 at 2:30 p.m.

      Great article Kendall, I think in business too often we lose connection with what we consider "the magic" and follow too often the voices of the logical. It's for this reason that we see so much conformity and "me-too-ism" in business without original thought.

      I blog about this intersection at times on my posterous blog: http://mikepatterson.posterous.com/. It's an element of entrepreneurialism and business that I feel is severely overlooked and has diminished incredibly over the last decade.

      Thanks again for a great insight.

    3. Adrienne Skinner from Image Space Media, January 19, 2010 at 10:49 a.m.

      Kendall, you have an uncanny way of expressing the art of journalism in its best form. Thank you!

    4. Kendall Allen from WIT Strategy, January 22, 2010 at 12:36 a.m.

      Thanks everyone. Here's to an unclouded view on magic, Paula!

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