Have the courage of your risky convictions


Doing marketing well is about managing a lot of different functions and relationships. But of all the things marketers must take responsibility for, I would argue that potentially the hardest thing is managing risk.

There isn’t a lot of training available for the skill of believing in your instincts strongly enough to keep pushing against a series of closed doors, even if all evidence, research and logic suggests you are wrong. Doing so while knowing you are almost certainly jeopardizing your job or your reputation is not for the faint-hearted.

I read Stuart Smith’s column on Unilever boss Paul Polman with fascination. There has been plenty of coverage of Unilever’s new sustainability pledges, and rightly so. On one hand it is not very surprising for a company to be looking to reduce its footprint. Sustainability is, after all, higher than it has ever been on the corporate agenda; see the commitments, for example, undertaken by the Food and Drink Federation and the British Beer and Pub Association.

But while Smith explores with some admiration the promises Polman has made, it is more the almost impossible nature of those promises that interests me and, in spite of that, the extent to which Polman is prepared to fight whoever stands in his way to make them reality.

“The then Cadbury chief executive famously told Phil Rumbol point blank that the ’gorilla’ ad would never see the light of day”

“If you believe in something strongly enough you should bring everybody together, get them on-side, and make it happen.” That is my paraphrased version of a presentation that you will probably have heard relayed by somebody suitably dynamic and impressive if you visited a decent industry conference in 2010.

But in practical terms this is a difficult thing to do. By all accounts Phil Rumbol, former marketing director of Cadbury, faced almost total resistance from Cadbury’s management when his team was ready to launch the ’gorilla’ advertising campaign. Indeed, the then chief executive Todd Stitzer famously told Rumbol point blank that the ad, a full minute and a half long with no chocolate bar in it and only three seconds worth of the brand shown on screen, would never see the light of day. Rumbol knew enough to face down all the arguments and believed in the idea enough to risk his reputation.

The ad ended up smashing all previous records for brand recall and arguably moved marketing on a notch or two in its evolution. Rumbol, a quiet but self-assured man, has since said that he knew instinctively it would be so successful. That instinct was all he needed to bat away all the arguments. That, and a sense of managed risk. Such ingredients can be the difference between you as a business hero, an enforcer of real change, and you as a marketer needing to rebuild your reputation from scratch. What change or campaign are you prepared to risk everything for in 2011?

Mark Choueke, editor