Being “connected’ is no protection against being wrong

This is a somewhat embarrassing story, so I hesitated to tell you about it for a long time.
But, since I feel it contains a helpful idea, I am telling you now.

Our story begins on a cold morning in the winter of 2012. The branding agency I consult for received an invite to present its ideas about how to best position a Saskatoon-based company (a local representative of a global manufacturer from overseas) in the local marketplace for the “Next Wave of Retailing.” The challenge: how to contemporize the organization’s branding so that it breaks through clutter in a simple way that’s attractive to the modern eye.

After the cordial first meeting with the management of the company, our team began an extensive research process in an effort to better understand them and the key drivers of its to-date success. The solution: to everyone’s delight, we managed to discover a somewhat neglected yet extremely potent truth in their organization, and we decided to give it a hug. (Send me an email if you’d like to learn more about what a practical application of “giving a hug” to a business-building idea looks like.)

Where and how did we discover that somewhat neglected truth? It was immersed within the long forgotten footage of a 20+ year old video programme we found deep inside the Saskatchewan Archives Board. Said program devoted an entire show exclusively to the company’s founder — and it was he, this humble, plain spoken, and well-respected member of Saskatoon’s community who “delivered” that somewhat neglected truth to us while retelling the story of his company’s origins. His story was so simple, authentic, and elegant that it “forced” itself onto us with such an impact that we decided to design the entire campaign with it at the centre.

Shortly after seeing the first draft of some of the new branding assets we were planning to design, some members of their middle management told us that our to-date work was, quote, “excellent.” Now comes the “this is so embarrassing” part. At the eleventh hour, if you will, their senior management contacted us to let us know that they had decided to go forward with another agency. “There’s nothing embarrassing about that. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.” If that’s what you’re thinking, you’re correct. In our line of work, that part of the business is a bit like parallel parking: the idea is to get to the point where you are successful slightly more often than not. (BTW, unbeknownst to us, the management team we were dealing with from day one had acquired a new nickname overnight: “middle.”)

What was somewhat embarrassing, however, was the revelation in the note we received after we were told that we lost the account. It surprisingly, if not so subtly, stated the reason why their senior management picked the other agency: a personal relationship. Reading it made us all laugh. It was clear to us that it was not that their senior management didn’t see how good our solutions were, it was that they did not see how deep their problems were. Fast forward to today: the organization’s new branding was recently revealed to the public. How is it? In short, and putting it kindly, if you bother to ask anyone they’ll tell you that it’s the joke of the town.

Let’s wrap this up: the assumption that personal connections are what matters in modern business is so ridiculous that it’s embarrassing. Not convinced? Consider the following people and their accomplishments, and please remember that all they started with was their wits:

Andrew Carnegie was born in Scotland, and emigrated to the US penniless along with his very poor parents.
Walt Disney came to Hollywood with his suitcase, twenty dollars, and zero connections.
Steve Jobs was an orphan.

I could go on. For example, we all know what Henry Ford accomplished in his life, but can you tell me what his well-connected son did? Having the right ideas and the ability to execute them is what matters. It’s not who you know, it’s what you know. The business that considers itself immune to this principle sooner or later finds itself immune to business. (The Eatons come to mind, no?) And that is the why behind both the moral and the title of this story: “Being ‘connected’ is no protection against being wrong.”

Dec 1, 2013