Patrick E. McLean : Just what it says on the tin.

Don’t Hire an Army When You Should Learn How to Fight

This principle applies to more than far branding, but the way to say it in that domain is — A big company might not need a big agency. I’m they’ve already got a crapload of people. What they need is a better and more completely implemented brand.

I have long harbored this rather dangerous line of thinking. Dangerous, at the very least, for the advermarketing industrial complex in which I have worked for most of my career. It started for me with a broken Volkswagen window.

I owned a Volkswagen Jetta when Volkswagen’s ad campaign was particularly great. It was focused on an escape from a stylized blue-green hued world of corporate bullshit. Yeah, escape from the man! Buy a Volkswagen! Everything will be cool and better.

Except for the fact that Volkswagen had a design problem with the door windows. They would just randomly break and fall into the door. Like in the middle of a rainstorm. This flaw was well-documented but there was no recall. Even worse, the replacement window lift WAS EXACTLY the same. So you the window could break, you could pay $600 to get it fixed, drive off the lot and the window would immediately break again. (Especially if it was raining)

And even worse for the brand, the only place you could get the replacement part was a Volkswagen dealership. Thus connecting the wrong of all of this firmly with the VW. I have never seen a more acrimonious place, than the service department of the VW dealership I went to get my window fixed.

So sales and marketing literally climbed mountain to get someone to buy the car and the actual delivery of the product all but guarantees that a customer has been lost for life. Maddening. Heartbreaking. Terrible. Sales go down, agency gets fired, marketing director gets fired, sales guys get fired and it’s none of their fault.

And how much more so now?

It used to be that the only way to get a message out was advertising and PR. But now, everybody is their own media outlet and, even if they are a complete idiot, they are a trusted advisor to at least the fools they are friends with on Facebook. Which means, an effective brand must be a brand all the way to the core. You can’t hire someone else to be you.

My favorite, and more general application of this principle is from the turning point of the Peloponnesian War (420 B.C.) Athens decides they want to use their ships to seize the island of Sicily and make it a colony, including the city of Syracuse. Needless to say the Syracuseans aren’t happy about this. Unless they get help, they think, they are gonna get crushed. So they appeal to the Spartans. “Athens is your enemy,” they say, “Send and army to save us!”

The Spartans agree to help. But, instead of an army, they send one guy. A general named Gylippus. He organizes and trains the Syracuseans. They fight and hand the Athenians a crushing defeat, the turning point of the war, making the Syracusean campaign the very model for Vietnam War. The upshot, the Spartans explain, is that if they saved them, they would either be a Spartan colony, or forever need their aid. But by helping to make Syracuse a city that could stand on its own, they had not only saved a friend, they had created a worthy ally that they might call upon in times of need.

In my work, I try to be more Gylippus than Ogilvy. And making the companies that I work with better at working with their own brand has really paid off for me and them.

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What do you believe about work?

This is an easy one for me to answer. I wrote a book on it. And I got to do it for a client. It was a strange, frustrating and wonderful project. An outdoor advertising company wanted to do a “Mission Vision Values” project. They said they wanted to be a cool company, like Apple. But c’mon, their a frigging outdoor advertising company! And the language they used to describe a lot what they did was awful. Like using the word cool.

But the thing was, the company, and especially the president had a great deal of vision. This was 10+ years ago and lots of people still thought Radio and TV were hot shit for local market advertising. But not these guys. They knew that a sea change was coming and pretty soon, outdoor — and spectacular outdoor — was going to be the most powerful way to reach a locality. You can cut your cable, you can get satellite radio, but you can’t even run away from outdoor because it’s along any route you might use to flee.

But this “Mission Vision Values” thing was awful. Two other firms — big design firms — had gone down in flames on this. And it was just me. We butted head something fierce, but I wouldn’t give it up.

So I got so sick and tired I said, I’m going to give it one last draft, then I’m done. And I sat down and wrote pretty much what I believed to be true about work. And that wound up being the spine of the thing.

It was simply designed and letterpress printed on thick paper bound together with old billboard vinyl, so you could see who was and wasn’t reading it in the organization. The more you turned the pages, the whiter the cover would turn. What’s below is the interior of the book.

(Oh, and after it went to press, I realized that Plato didn’t say that. It was Confucius. But nobody noticed. Shhhh)

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