4 November 2013

Off To See The Wizard: The Need To Look Behind The Curtain

by Freddy J. Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango LLC + Guy Who Questions the Answers

A recent class discussion brought up one of my core tenets: the need to question everything in the market.

We had been discussing Charity Water, a nonprofit that achieved near celebrity status because of its use of social media and videos:

Great ad, right? When asked to analyze why the video was effective, a student described it as “authentic” and “transparent” — two popular cliches that are so overused, misused, and abused that they no longer mean anything.

I’m not saying that Charity Water is duplicitous; what I want is my students to eschew labels, and to go behind the curtain to see if the wizard is the real deal, or just smoke and mirrors.

In Charity Water’s case, the founder (who oddly goes unnamed in the video) is Scott Harrison, a previously successful New York City club promoter. No wonder hundreds of people showed up at his birthday party! Being a club promoter also gave him amazing connections that helped him get Charity Water off the ground. Where was this information in an “authentic” and “transparent” video, which makes the Charity Water sound like it had a rough-and-tumble beginning?

In addition, some have questioned Charity Water’s methods and actual impact.

The student’s response (partially in jest): “You’re a hard man… Yes! Charity Water has critics. Don’t we all?”

My response: I’m not trying to be hard, just critical, which is what I’m trying to teach everyone to be in business. Too much nonsense floating out there on the Internet. Too many amazing offers and smooth talking sales people.

Instead of taking a hard critical look at the trends and talking heads, too many business people nod in agreement and resort to jargon to justify poorly informed choices:

  • “Our social media may not be ROI-positive, but it’s stimulating engagement” — in other words, your social media team likes to chat on company time.
  • “In order to stimulate sales, we need to leverage big data” — in other words, your management team wants more expensive computers and software, when the fundamental problem is a defective product.

We’re seeing it all around: Best Buy, JCPenney, Pepsi Refresh and other companies who bought into a trend, without critically examining the fundamentals.

That’s why I push students and clients to conduct critical analysis beyond empty jargon like “authentic” and “transparent,” and to look at what exactly makes something look and sound that way. As the late actor George Burns once said, “Sincerity is everything. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

Note that there’s a big difference between criticism and critical thinking: criticism is saying “bad” or “good”; critical thinking is just asking “why” and “how.”

By skipping the jargon and labels, and by persistently asking WHY and HOW, we might actually see the pulleys and levers, and learn what really can or can’t be done. We really can’t blame the man behind the curtain for fooling us — he’s just pushing buttons. When we settle for jargon and cliches in place of hard questions, we ultimately fool ourselves.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

4 Responses

  1. Hi Freddy,

    A comment such as “Great blog” does not sound critical enough, does it:-) Great blog nevertheless:-)
    Best regards,
    Roman Sabo (your former MBALS student)

  2. Nice one Freddy! :)

  3. Freddy,
    Thank you for continuing to teach me beyond your class. I think it’s effective because of the passion behind their drive to help. And because theirs is an underdog, everyman story to help other underdogs. That’s what speaks to me anyway.

    • Hi Katie:

      Thanks, I love teaching!

      As for Charity Water, they definitely excel at fundraising and bringing attention to an important issue – in other words, they rock at marketing. Of course, I respect that!

      However, the founder is not really the underdog/everyman that the video might convey. Granted, he’s no Bill Gates, but he still managed to get 700 people to attend his birthday party…

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

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