It’s become easy to make fun of Starbucks. The people, the décor, the overpriced hyperinflated language about the overpriced, hyperinflated coffee. Slagging Starbucks has become as much a staple of American popular culture as actually going to Starbucks is.
And it would be easy to make fun of Onward, too. Not only is it about Starbucks, but the story itself is the stuff that gets writers’ rooms all across L.A. firing up their laptops and googling jokebooks: The plucky story of the dynamic once-and-future CEO who had built the company from nothing and then left it in the able hands of hand-picked successors, only to find it teetering on the edge of collapse, and how he came back to rescue it, like some sort of latte-day Cincinatus leaving his plow in the fields to save Rome.
See – with a pitch like that, it’s amazing I don’t have a three picture deal already…
But let’s not make fun of the book. Because there’s real value here – and by “value” I don’t mean a discount on a double half caf-mocha lotte. I mean stuff anyone at any agency – or in business generally – can actually use.
But first, the story.
Its February 2007, and Howard Schultz has sort of checked out of Starbucks. He was still there, but his focus was more on international growth than on the domestic day-to-day. And while he goes to great pains to explain how he loves and respects the people who he had put in charge of the day-to-day, by February of 2007 he feels the company is starting to lose it’s soul. Or maybe already lost it.
But he’s torn, because he wants to let the people he’s hired do what they’re good at. And he sincerely believes that there are new challenges facing the company that these successors will be uniquely qualified to meet. So he writes a memo to them that was only supposed to be internal. But nothing is purely internal anymore, and soon the world is reading it and, to make a long story (that takes up the first twenty percent of the book) short, by November he’s putting a new team in place to get the company back on the right path, and in January of 2008 he’s back in the saddle.
Every successful agency can relate to this, right? Founded by a charismatic leader whose unique vision of the company synchs brilliantly with the particular zeitgeist of a particular time and BLAMMO! – big results. Happened to Lasker, Reeves, Ogilvy, Bernbach, Wells, Fallon, Weiden, Goodby, Bogusky – maybe it even happened to you.
And, as with Starbucks, there comes a time when the old guard has to let go. When they have to face (or not face) the fact that life isn’t static and that the particular spirit they tapped into three, five, ten years ago isn’t the spirit today. Or that the company isn’t that company any more. Or the business isn’t that business any more. And they have to ask themselves if they should bring the company back to their original vision or if they should just let someone new worry about these new problems.
Onward, then, is the story of someone who decided to bring the company back to his original vision, because he believed that vision was still valid. The rest of the book is about how he did it – especially in the face of the worst economy since the Great Depression – what the results were, and what he learned from the experience. And that’s the second thing that makes this book frankly so fascinating.
Because, we’ve all watched clients – heck we’ve all watched ourselves – try to negotiate this roller coaster economy these past three years. We know what we’ve gone through, we know what our friends and associates have gone through. To see how a company as big and iconic as Starbucks did it, up close and personal with comments from the CEO as he airs his dirty laundry and relates his insights and failures, is, I’ll be honest, pretty riveting stuff.
Because in the end, Onward isn’t about Starbucks. It’s not even about Howard Schultz. It’s about business – and if you’re interested in business, you’re interested in this book.
And you can take that to go…