Monday, February 6, 2012

Marketing strategy at the Super Bowl.

I no longer watch the Super Bowl for the ads. Of course I watched the spots religiously when I was a young creative. If you didn't, you'd be thrown out of the club quick-like. But I'm neither young or creative anymore.

I haven't watched football for football's sake since I was a lad, back when I lived for the brute strength of Steelers' "Steel Curtain" defense and Lynn Swann's ballet-like catches. But I have to admit to still having a soft spot for it, so I watched the first half of last night's game. Oddly, I thought quite a bit about work during that time--and it had nothing to do with the GM apocalypse spot with a direct swipe at Ford (although the shriveling creative in me liked its audacity).

It had to do with chaos theory.

Let me explain. I read a fascinating article on Friday about Generation Flux. One of its primary themes was that, since there is no predicting tomorrow anymore, individual success will depend on your ability to shift skills wherever, whenever, however is necessary.  It's all about riding the continuous and random wave of change businesses will be on from here on out. And good luck with planning ahead for that. This thinking plays right into Black Swan, the must-read business book from a few years ago that I'm finally getting around to reading.

This has led me to wonder if there's such a thing as "strategy" in business anymore. If we're all just improvising all the time, why plan as if you could possibly know what happens next? And with that in mind, how presumptuous to think that you could ever figure out which angle is best out of an infinitive number of possibilities.

So back to football. Back in the day, the game was fairly methodical in its strategy. You picked a formation and had a handful of plays that were carried out along an ironclad chain of command--from coach to quarterback to huddle to hike under the center. Most of the time athleticism, motivation, and pure blood-and-guts grit were the keys to victory.

Now it's different. The number of plays on Tom Brady's Dick Tracy-esque play card on his wrist is vast, I'm sure, with who knows how many variations. Calls from the line, no huddles, formations galore, backfield movement--was there a single play last night that didn't have at least one of these? It's become a much more complicated game. You could say that now it's in constant flux.

But from what I observed last night, I'd say that strategy is vastly more important in football now than it was back in the day. Last night's game was a combination of fast-twitch decisions made in the moment and slow-twitch directions made far, far in advance--years ago, I'm sure. Sure, grit and athleticism and motivation all played a role still, but no way could either team have made it a quarter without some serious strategic chops behind it.

So isn't the way football is played now analogous to the way business is played? Seems like strategy is more important than ever. But you tell me. Maybe I'm just finding the analogies that work for me these days, now that I no longer get my Super Bowl rush from the ads.

2 comments:

  1. A quick follow-up on this post. I just happened upon a fairly recent HBR article on "Learning To Live with Complexity." It speaks to this subject much more than I ever could.

    My fav quote from it:

    "Complex organizations are far more difficult to manage than merely complicated ones. It's harder to predict what will happen, because complex systems interact in unexpected ways. It's harder to make sense of things, because the degree of complexity may lie beyond our cognitive limits. And it's harder to place bets, because the past behavior of a complex system may not predict its future behavior. In a complex system, the outlier is often more significant than the average."

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  2. Oh, one other thing. Sure enough, there's a fantastic blog dedicated to football strategy and analysis. It's at, appropriately, http://smartfootball.com

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