Story time 6: synaptic marketing


In blogland, we talk a lot about the role of spontaneity and creativity in making the corporation more responsive and innovative.   

But there is another, simpler use of spontaneity and creativity: good old fashioned survival. 

Sometimes, the client needs an answer from you right now. You can’t say, “I’m not prepared, can I have a couple of hours?” They will say, “sure,” but you know and they know that you will never eat lunch in their corporate cafeteria again. You are over. Done for. Now there is no substitute for problem solving in real time.

Sometimes, management believes erroneously that you were tasked with something…and they want to hear about it right now. It’s no good whining “Hey, no one told me about this.” This will only make your immediate client look bad. You have to come up with an answer. Now. 

In the very worst case, you are asked to address a topic that you WERE charged with investigating, but somehow managed to forget. “Oh, that’s right,” shouts a voice in your head, “I remember now.”

Ok, time for the theatre of gravitas, the dumb show of competence. You must look solemnly at the table, appearing to collect thoughts you are in fact creating, and start talking. Sometimes things go well, and the words and the thoughts fall nicely into place. Sometimes, you find yourself performing a well known one-act play from the theatre of humiliation. In quick succession, you will break into flop sweat, sputter and lose altitude, and spin wildly out of control. You will deploy every rhetorical device at your disposal, fighting for time, hoping that something will come to you. But all these chutes will fail to deploy and it becomes clear eventually that time is, as they say, up. If someone in the room has a sense of humor (and of cruelty), they will say, “thank you, I think we all found that particularly illuminating.” You will laugh about it afterwards. 

Answers, good ones, can be assembled in real time and some people just have a gift for this sort of thing. Robert McNamara stood up once in prep school with a blank piece of paper to "read" the essay he was inventing as he spoke. Hargurchet Bhabra, a friend of mine in Toronto, and now deceased, once gave 8 perfect minutes at a dinner party on the topic of meat loaf. It sounded like he was reading an entry from an encyclopedia of the culinary arts. Dean Clark of the Harvard Business School prided himself with being bullet proof under scrutiny, and he could indeed produce flawless answers in real time. Perhaps the smoothest operator of the academic version of this con is, I think, Marjorie Garber. I once heard her give answers to about a dozen questions, each of them more exquisitely formed than the last. I remember thinking it was a too bad her prose did not have the clarity and precision of these impromptu performances. 

But this is Friday and therefore story time, so I am obliged to report some moment on intellectual improv of my own. Last Friday, we talked about a moment in which Sergio Zyman created an improv moment inside the headquarters of the Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta. And today, Mr. Zyman, then senior VP in charge of marketing, returns as the subject of the narrative.

Our story opens with Mr. Zyman sitting in this boardroom at the head of long imposing table. (One of the most gifted readers of This Blog Sits At has pointed out that story time gives the impression that my consulting puts me in exalted company. [I will use his name if he gives me clearance to do so.] In fact, I am only occasionally so situated. Just so that’s clear.) 

There were eight people sitting at the table. At the far end of the table sat four guys who were so perfectly dressed and so damn handsome that it looked like they were hold a convention of high school quarterbacks. Closer to the Zyman end of the table sat four more people, including me, all of us rather less presentable, not quite ragamuffins but not quite quarterbacks. 

Our foursome was lead by Nick Hahn, and we had come to tell Zyman about project we had undertaken and wished to follow through. Things were going slowly. It was clear that the quarterbacks were restive, perhaps jealous of our access. Mr. Zyman was himself skeptical. It was time to call on our powers of spontaneity and win for ourselves and the project a little momentum. 

And the improv came as a gift. Mr. Zyman had opened with remarks about recent developments in marketing. I think he was complaining about the phenomenon of “virtual consumption.” This is where consumers declare that the love the advertising but then fail to go out and buy the product. Conversation meandered forward. It was about time to wrap the pleasantries up. 

Then it happened. Our fourth make a comment. Our third picked it up. Nick supplied the “set.” And happily, it was left to me to spike it home. (Sometimes, you get lucky.) As the thought moved through our foursome, it seemed both to speed up andto  clarify. In fact, it seemed to pass with synaptic speed between us, as if one idea were rushing from head to head in an effort to discover itself. Best of all, it was a brilliant piece of sycophancy. It began where we were and ended up where Mr. Zyman was.  

There was a stunned silence. One of the quarterbacks was actually staring at us with his mouth open. We were blinking with astonishment. After a pause, Mr. Zyman looked down the table and said to the quarterbacks, “well, I hope at least you are taking notes.” 

It wasn’t fair. I haven’t ever seen an idea move this fast. That the quarterbacks were not moving at this pace was surely not their fault. It was as if Mr. Zyman had two choices: to express a little astonishment of his own, or to make someone pay. He chose the latter because his management style is (or at least was) a matter of setting bar high and seeing how could rise to the occasion. In remarks on last Friday’s post, several people took him to task for a judgmental managerial style. I see the point begin made. It is consistent with my first instincts. 

But I have come to respect a style that is a little less forgiving. After all, we don’t “do business” to become one another friends. Mr. Zyman has what is sometimes called a fiduciary responsibility.

 Ok, I must leave the rest to you. I am now back in CT, having been on the road for two weeks.  I leave on Sunday for another of couple of weeks away.  I just can’t finish this post. I promise to come back to it.  Yeah, right, sure I will. 

8 thoughts on “Story time 6: synaptic marketing

  1. Matt

    Management that’s not judgmental isn’t management at all. Especially not at a company like Coca-Cola that’s in a very real way a victim of its own success.

    Your customers don’t care if you feel good about yourself as a person…they care about the quality of your work for them. If you think the folks above you in the corporate chain of command should have priorities in opposition to the priorities of your company’s customers, then frankly you don’t _deserve_ to succeed.

  2. George Girton

    Nice job of patting yourself on the back; I’m sure it was a wonderful moment. When you return to the topic it would be fun to hear recounted what was actually said. Still, you met your deadline. Cheers!

  3. Peter McB.

    On the topic of management setting the bar high: I had the good fortune in the 1990s to consult to most of the Baby Bells (the Regional Bell Operating Companies, or RBOCs) created from the break-up of AT&T in 1984. They were all in the same core business, all quasi-monopolies, all were run by similar, conservative middle-aged mostly-male engineers, all of them products of the AT&T culture (which like all corporate cultures had both strengths and weaknesses). What was interesting to see was how differently the different RBOCs had set the bar internally. Some were relentless in requiring well-argued, well-presented, fully-justified internal reports and proposals. In others, any old last-minute sloppiness would do. The only explanation for the differences that I could see were the personalities of the very top people: if the CEO insists on the best, he or she may well get it.

  4. Irene

    Some weeks, story time makes me tense. But it always rewards. After the Greek-like catharsis of last week (poor, poor Mr. ExpensiveShoes!), I enjoyed the triumphant arc of this tale. However I think I missed the point because it took me 25 minutes and several drafts to compose this comment.

  5. fouroboros

    So, it was Zyman’s turn. To our astonishment, his head rotated 360 degrees and flipped back as if on a hinge. In it’s place, a la a transformer revealing itself, the head of Darth Vader constucted itself, then opened up further to reveal huge jaws. Sergio Vader ate the closest quarterback, and said: “Next?”

  6. c davis

    I recall that your story is about McGeorge Bundy, not Robert McNamara. If memory serves, it appears in Bird’s biography of the Bundy brothers (“Color of truth,” which, poetically for this story, is gray).

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