Evolution or revolution is a matter of corporate culture

by Shannon Paul on June 11, 2008

Before I started working in public relations, I never thought anyone would reject my ideas for being too creative. However, just a short time in the profession has taught me that great ideas are frequently rejected in favor of staid approaches to communications that never aim to improve company positioning. strengthen customer relationships or even improve the bottom line. I have often wondered why subtle tweaks in the same rhetoric are approved and information simply gets recycled. Why would anyone choose to be mediocre — on purpose?

Disclaimer — I am not speaking about any recent experience in particular or any specific personal or professional experience. I talk to lots of other people in public relations, marketing and advertising and many have pondered these same things in conversation and in print.

Great ideas often die an unceremonious death, or more often lie like sleeping beauty on servers in agencies and marketing departments everywhere just in case the planets align and the universe ushers in the perfect opportunity to bring this great idea into reality for some well-deserving prince of a client company.

I’m glad to see that someone is trying to figure out an answer to this question I have been carrying around in a way that provides a tactical solution.

This week’s issue of Advertising Age features excerpts from Cleve Langton’s new book Save the Jargon and the Radical Risks; Be a Leader By Respecting Client’s Culture

Being innovative and provocative in your presentation is great. Going against a long-standing company philosophy or style is like diving into a shallow pool. Suki Thompson, a seasoned consultant in London, makes it very clear: “Clients talk about wanting a revolution but they’ll generally only buy an evolution in a pitch.

“They will buy a revolution only when they’re working comfortably with you.”

Reading CEO speeches and the company’s annual report are great sources of information on what truly makes the company tick and what the tolerance for change and risk really is. Most large companies have relatively narrow parameters of what’s acceptable and what’s not. Unless there’s a very dramatic business imperative, most CEOs don’t step out of their circles of comfort. The annals of lost pitches are littered with great (possibly business-doubling) ideas that just didn’t fit within the corporate culture.

While conducting initial research into a company’s communications goals and core audiences very little is done to research the culture within the organization. The exception to this rule, of course, is when there is an explicit request for an internal communications plan.

Clearly there must be a way to inject just the right amount of creativity into a proposal for a great communications strategy that honors corporate culture and points the way toward the revolution.

Could this be the missing piece of the puzzle people like me have been searching for? Does this apply to people in other non-marketing professions that cater to business customers?

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

June 12, 2008 Darren Daz Cox 1

You have to be creative enough to affect change without upsetting the ultra conservative status quo.

Often the best way to sell a creative idea is to show what the competition is doing, if it wasn’t for Mac OS we’d still be using Windows 95 (or lower!) as they’d have no incentive otherwise to take that creative leap!


June 15, 2008 shannonpaul 2

I think you’re right, Darren. Striking the right balance between audacious creativity and regard for others’ comfort is essential to moving things forward in business. Thanks for your comment!


June 15, 2008 charliecurve 3

It was a trailblazer like Frank Lloyd Wright or Ayn Rand that once intoned “A committee has never built a great building.”
In the business world, consensus is the enemy of revolution. You may win the trust of a client, but by the time your big idea makes it’s way through committee, you’ll be hard pressed to recognize it.
At the auto show, we see bold concept cars on display year after year. You’ll often here “I love it!” and “I hate it!” at the same vehicle. This is a this the work of a designer with a vision.
On the way to production, that same visionary design goes through a few dozen focus groups and committee meetings where they round off the hard corners and soften the innovative lines. When the car hits the showroom it won’t offend anyone, and there’s the problem – it won’t excite anyone either.
Focus groups and committees will never help you find “what’s next” — they aren’t even good at “what’s now.”
In the ad world, great ads are often attributed to a visionary agency. They should be attributed to a visionary client. A client who fights back the committee of stakeholders to allow a great ad to see the light of day.
It’s takes clear vision and true leadership to blaze a trail. That’s why great clients are something to be coveted.


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