“Average is over,” Thomas Friedman wrote last Wednesday in the New YorkTimes, and it may well have been the headline of the week. In sports, politics, business, and the movies, we learned this week -- in case we didn’t already know -- that there is no longer room in our world for mediocrity.
Consider the evidence. Yesterday’s epic tennis match between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal was a testament to the adage that the best athletes on the best stage leave it all on the court. And last Sunday, we saw two great quarterbacks -- Tom Brady and Eli Manning --lead their teams to a spot in Super Bowl XLVI. With the Pats leading by only three points late in the game, Brady threw a deep bomb when a more conservative quarterback would have played it safe. The pass was intercepted in the end zone in spectacular fashion by the Ravens, but the message was clear -- Brady was playing to win. On the opposite coast, Manning was knocked down time after time but still threw the ball more than 50 times in a heavy rain. Again -- playing to win.
Two days later, Newt Gingrich upended expectations to take the South Carolina primary. He had gone on the offensive and gave the race his all; it paid off. In contrast, Newt’s opponent Mitt Romney had been playing not to lose. The result? He lost. Now, with the Florida primary upon us, Romney has changed his tack and stopped playing not to lose. Of course, whether that’ll win him the nomination remains to be seen. Note that Gingrich might be playing to win, but he doesn’t always follow the rules, and ultimately you can’t win if you’ve got too many personal fouls. As he himself said in 1997, “I brought down on the people's house a controversy which could weaken the faith people have in their government.”
And then there’s a message we can take away from the movies we watch. Some merely entertain, but some inspire. Take “The Grey,” a well-reviewed Liam Neeson film about man vs. nature, which opened last week. Without giving anything away, I can tell you that the movie’s message was “play to win, live for today, die another day.” Sounds familiar.
So how does this translate to the television industry? Don’t aim for the middle anymore; there is no middle. Time was, Friedman noted in his op- ed, a fellow could get a good-enough education, land a good-enough job, and make a decent living. Not anymore. These days, workers require specialized skills to survive in an increasingly automated marketplace. And companies need to stay flexible and respond to customers’ needs in order to stay relevant in a fast-changing landscape. In his column, Friedman made a reference to the modern textile mill, whose staff numbers two: a man and a dog. The man is there to feed the dog, and the dog is there to keep the man away from the machinery. As we saw in the Times’ eye-opening report last Sunday on Apple’s manufacturing in China, our factories do not hold the future of the American economy.
The lesson? Innovate or perish. And this extends to our business of television. In the increasingly competitive environment we inhabit, none of us can afford to be on the defensive. Only those of us who play to win will survive the paradigm shift that’s already underway – from analog to digital, and media buying based on stale age/sex demos to buying on the basis of accountability.
Generally speaking, large companies play not to lose. They have to: Often, they’re not agile enough to respond to market changes in a timely and strategic fashion. They often hold long-term contracts with clients, and so have a vested interest in protecting the status quo. We’ve got our Gingrichs in the industry, too -- the ones who play to win, but can’t follow the rules. You can count the phone hackers, trade-secret thieves and the patent infringers among them. But as television becomes more challenging, and as Big Data and analytics empowers brands with choice and accountability, our customers will demand authentic innovation, responsiveness, and specialization.
So are you ready to answer the call? Are you going to play to win? Because if you aren’t, it’s time to move on. There will be many stories in 2012 to inspire -- from next week’s Super Bowl to the Olympics and the Presidential elections beyond. Play hard, play fair, or go home.