Challenging thinking series – article 1

In this, the first of our challenging thinking series, we kick off with some thoughts about objectivity, and how by looking outside of your particular sector you can break through into new, exciting and highly effective communications tactics and strategies.

The marketing equivalent of Groundhog Day

The struggle to step outside the sector bubble is one of the trickiest conundrums facing marketers today. Indeed, there are multiple pressures ranged against you if you dare to try. First of all, in a results-driven world, doing something outside of the norm is regarded as a bit risky. Against such a background, the safest option is always going to be the tried and tested.

Secondly, there’s an accepted wisdom within marketing about the value of specialism. Marketing tends to place a premium on sector knowledge and expertise. It’s why businesses like to hire marketing people with a track record in their sector. And why some brands are putting certain marketing services in the hands of in-house creative teams. The same logic drives the decision to appoint agencies with ‘relevant sector expertise’. ‘No need to bring them up to speed’ they reason, ‘they know their stuff, they’ll hit the ground running. These guys already talk our language.’

Naturally, there is a clear need to understand the sector you’re working in. Some sectors are complex and require a degree of specialist knowledge and experience. But there’s also a problem with this approach – if you only have a hammer, you see every problem as a nail.

A new set of tools

Let’s decode what’s going on here. When someone – a new employee or a potential agency – sells themself solely on their sector knowledge, what they’re effectively saying is, ‘we know how this is done, we’ve done it before and we can do the same for you’. But who wants something that’s been done before?

Escaping your sector bubble could push your marketing to new places. As a marketer you know what your competitors are doing and you know marketing within your sector. But it’s worth also spending some time trying to step outside of that bubble. Because that’s precisely where many real breakthrough thoughts, ideas and tactics come from that keep market-leading brands ahead of the rest.

Seeking inspiration outside of the usual thinking of your immediate sector can be difficult to achieve on your own, or with an in-house team. But you could always recruit some help. Through speaking to those in your network operating in other sectors, external consultants or agencies, you can get a genuinely fresh perspective. They can bring a new set of tools that come from working across a number of sectors. Outside ‘creatives’ will be less constrained or biased by accepted thinking and will often suggest approaches learned by working across other disciplines and industries. You’ll also get a more objective view of existing practices in ways that internal teams, perhaps for reasons related to the internal culture of their organisations, simply can’t.

Cross sector creative pollination

Some of the best ideas come by thinking completely outside of your immediate field. For example, in 1941 a Swiss engineer, George de Mestral, teased out a burr that was stuck in his dog’s fur. His curiosity led him to examine it under a microscope, which revealed the simple structure of barbed strands topped with a hook that will catch anything with a loop. And so the reusable fastener we all know as Velcro was born.

By applying similar ‘think outside your sector’ thinking, London Heathrow airport’s flight scheduling is being improved by applying learning from Formula 1 team, McLaren, and their high performance culture and working methods.

And more recently, the World Health Organisation (WHO) dramatically reduced death rates in operating theatres worldwide by taking key learnings from the aviation sector. Atul Gawande, professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Harvard University set about trying to make operating theatres safer. Put simply, whilst the amount of operations being undertaken globally had dramatically increased, and expertise, training and technology had advanced exponentially, the safety of patients had not. Throughout his research of other high risk industries, Atul learned that the aviation industry had a simple check list to complete before each take off. And so the WHO adopted this approach, to ensure that proper checks were taken at appropriate times, and death rates fell by 47% worldwide!

Be inquisitive

So next time you’re faced with a seemingly impossible problem, or are simply answering the same old challenges with tried and tested methodologies, stop for a moment and challenge yourself to think differently. It starts by looking up, raising your gaze above the narrow constraints of your sector bubble, and being prepared to be open minded, neutral and impartial. Assume nothing. Listen carefully to answers and opinions. Have the bravery to do something different. Who knows where you might end up?