Are You In Position For Greatness Realized

On Nov. 6 I stood, along with 72,000 others, and screamed, then stared in disbelief as a once-in-a-generation thoroughbred race horse named Zenyatta attempted to have her greatness realized. Zenyatta, a six-year-old mare, came to the hallowed Churchill Downs for the 2010 Breeders Cup, the de facto All Star races to determine the best of the best, in horse racing. Never before in her previous 19 starts had the massive horse tasted defeat, and in this, her final race, she stood a mere two minutes from the kind of greatness that surpasses the momentary and transcends generations.

The race played out like every other Zenyatta race, with her in the very back and a mad dash down the home stretch to reach the finish line. Yet on this day, a horse by the name of Blame found his own moment of greatness. Running on his home track, he found the kind of outcome that few in the crowd -- and fewer watching around the world -- had expected.

On the four-hour drive home with my long-time gambling partner, we discussed the outcome, what could have been, and the emotions of the moment. Over dinner I suggested that what we came within a head bob of seeing was greatness realized. That got me thinking about what happens in our business every day that puts us in a position to do just that. A lot of coverage leading up to the event had dissected what it took to bring Zenyatta to this moment, and it's clear that whether it's a race horse or a business, many of the same elements go in to achieving greatness.



It's safe to say that preparation and people are key components in any successful endeavor. There are few instances where someone has enough talent or resources to simply show up without doing the work - and win. Likewise, the person who wins an award is rarely an individual with no support system. Even in individual endeavors, be it an election or solo sport, you will always find a network of talent behind the face that contributes to the outcome.

Our business continues to undergo seismic changes that require constant evolution. When I started in this business it was a very loose collection of stand-alone companies trying to form an industry on the back of relationships and business deals. The potential was unknown, but there was a linked energy between the effort and the reward. No one knew quite what to expect, but they were committed to the race because they felt a passion for it.

Last year, Zenyatta won the 2009 Breeders Cup Classic and was retired by her owners. That retirement lasted only long enough for everyone around her to realize that they had broken the bond between the investment they had made and the opportunity to see greatness realized. Zenyatta could have rode off as an undefeated horse with little doubt about her quality, but the people responsible for her ultimately felt that the connection of purpose and reward was too great.

As start-ups have turned into media buying company acquisitions and broader digital agencies, this is the piece of the greatness equation that seems to have been broken. The Breeders Cup is a five-million-dollar race, so there is clearly a financial reward in the sport itself. But there's a deeper motivator at work today in that business, and perhaps ours. Blame was retired within 24 hours of beating Zenyatta because the stud fees his barn can now receive will never be higher.

By most earnings reports in 2010, the advertising business has seen a pleasant return to form. In spite of sizable ad spend cuts and reductions in staff, the talent that remains is clearly doing more with less. Likewise, clients are expecting more with less spend, but not necessarily less work on our part. As we know, the effort can't be faked. It may be done with fewer people or dollars but the work is still required to realize whatever potential may exist. What's unclear in this case is the real outcome we're seeking.

Blame is an example of a horse realizing greatness for a moment, and in return, bringing incremental wealth back to its owners. No one will ever consider Blame to be a generational or transcendent horse, and that seems to be OK with his connections,who feel they have gotten what they wanted from the animal and now can translate that into a solid earning reports.

I am, by most accounts, a zero-sum person. I am passionate about my work and equally passionate about competition, specifically sports. As Herm Edwards once famously said, "You play to win the game." And that's the attitude I take whether it's in business or outside competition. Until standing sideline at the racetrack on that Saturday, I had never seen so clearly an example of greatness realized through defeat. Yet, there it was: a horse, its jockey, trainer and owners all devastated by the finality of the last outcome in Zenyatta's career. But greatness was realized because they were all seeking a higher impact. The connections of Zenyatta were linked to elevating not just a horse in a single race, but an industry, an industry that has seen far better days.

Not unlike the advertising business, they had their fortunes tied to an outcome that is beyond a single competition. Zenyatta didn't win that day, but her business did for the future to come.

Are we setting ourselves up for that kind of greatness? Are we linking the success our people have with our organizational success? Do we connect our client business goals with our advertising programs and ensure that we all win together, or are we content with the short- and mid-term impact?

We all serve multiple masters, and as Blame showed, it's possible to realize greatness in the moment. But do we strive for momentary reward -- or are we prepared for greatness realized on a larger scale?

1 comment about "Are You In Position For Greatness Realized ".
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  1. Dan Mckillen from HealthDay, November 26, 2010 at 11:37 a.m.

    Approaching each race with the exact same strategy - relax early and then come charging down the stretch to win in the shadow of the finish line has always worked for the great Zenyatta and her jockey Mike Smith. But sometimes when we expect the same winning outcome every time, we start believing we are invincible. Like Google winning every race and then getting beat by Facebook at the wire.

    Zenyatta was a true champion and her connections did the right thing by racing her again this year, against the boys. They elevated the sport of kings to a new level. But they underestimated the competition just a little bit this time. A good lesson for all of us. Even when you're on top, you have to continue to work hard and never underestimate your competition.

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