Not a best practice. (Photo by Albert Yau via Wikimedia Commons.)
I was the world’s worst little league baseball player.
I’ve always had the hand-eye coordination of a sponge, so I couldn’t hit and I couldn’t catch. (Too bad this study on baseball science wasn’t around then.) I didn’t even like baseball — watching people stand around and spit didn’t meet my standards of entertainment. And yet I joined my junior high team simply because all my friends were doing it.
Sounds like a drug, right? Or social media… (You see where this is heading.)
Since my small town junior high team had to accept everyone, they were stuck with me. The coach put me out in right field where few balls ever fly. He also put me last in the batting line-up, right behind the injured kids and those with tonsillitis. And yet inevitably I found myself in the batter’s box.
It wasn’t pretty.
My first few times at bat, I spasmodically swung at the ball like I was aiming for a piñata… while blindfolded… and standing on ice… during a category 5 hurricane. But I quickly learned something: there’s only one thing worse than a pre-pubescent batter, and that’s a pre-pubescent pitcher. I did the stats in my head: the odds of a 12-year-old pitcher throwing four balls was significantly higher than a 12-year-old spaz (me) getting a hit. So my next few times at bat, I just stood there. Even if the ball came straight down the middle of the strike zone, I didn’t even look at it. I just stared psychotically into the eyes of the 12-year-old opposing me, ignoring my teammates telling me to swing and his teammates calling me chicken. The balls whizzed by.
And my on-base percentage was awesome.
Usually I got walked, but I also learned how to get hit — yes, I leaned into a few pitches. (Remember, it’s a typical 12-year-old throwing at the speed of cold syrup, and at that age, we boys are made of rubber and feel little pain.) Begrudgingly, coach moved me ahead of the injured kids in the batting line-up.
Of course, what we can get away with as kids doesn’t necessarily work as adults. At my age, the opposition throws a lot better and a lot harder. Getting hit actually hurts. I never played baseball after junior high, and am glad to be self-employed so I don’t feel any pressure to join a company softball team.
Now here’s the funny thing: I keep seeing adults using my junior high baseball “best practice” in marketing today.
They take absolutely no risks. They never take a swing. Hell, they don’t even lean in.
- They are permission marketers who think the best way to make money is to sit still and hope someone finds them.
- They are Silicon Valley CMO’s who rely on gossip (aka “word of mouth”) since “that worked for Google,” even though they and Google have nothing in common.
- They are social media gurus who preach “authenticity” and “transparency” but are too frightened to express how they really feel in their posts.
- They are university students who turn in papers without a single original thought — just reporting whatever Wikipedia coughs up.
- They are companies that hire marketers who will fit in instead of marketers who will help them stand out.
So picture thousands of so-called marketers, from college on up to C-level, just standing there and spitting and hoping something will hit them. Given that there are tens of thousands of such professionals, some will luck out:
- An executive gets hired by friend at a hot company with a hot product and takes all the credit for the “hotness.”
- A celebrity chances upon the marketer’s product sample while searching his agent’s office for drugs and decides the product is really cool and tweets about it while stoned.
- A wealthy investor’s wife’s brother’s kid went to school with the marketer’s intern and said investor is looking for a tax write-off or a date with said intern.
“What if” happens, and that marketer is now a “genius” who is hired to run JC Penney, a misguided Pepsi social media stunt, or the John Carter movie marketing campaign.
Everyone else among the passive thousands just gets hit really hard by market reality, blames it on the economy, and hopes that their company is too big and busy to notice.
So as a former little league pitching target, I’d like to applaud the marketers and others who did not do what I did. Instead, they took an actual swing at what’s whizzing by — and hit it home. Here are a few of my favorite recent risk takers:
- Dos Equis, for demonstrating that an old man can be cool — and sell a lot of beer
- Shinola Watches, for discovering the brand value in “Made in America” and “Detroit”
- Netflix and HBO, for proving that creative people left on their own can actually create hits
- Old Spice, for taking a crazy concept all the way in all media (even their product packaging)
- Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks (a classic self-marketer), for speaking his mind and not in clichés
And most of all, to all the students out there who see school as a place to take risks and to make mistakes, who give every assignment their all, and who would rather discover what they’re capable of instead of what their professors are expecting. I will go to bat for you anytime.
Okay, I might just lean in a little, even it hurts.