The value of metaphor is that it allows us to apply new systems of logic to old problems, systems which challenge our assumptions and, hopefully, uncover new insights. You make some sort of comparison, and then dig deeper into it in order to find certain “principles” that can be used as tools for replicating success. Or, at least, that’s the theory, right?

In marketing and advertising, for example, we love to use the “war” metaphor – the cola wars, the beer wars, the car wars. We’re going on the offensive. We have weapons in our arsenal. We have to rally the troops. It’s not real war, of course (just ask any 21-year-old serving in Afghanistan), but it can often help us make work that is relevant and compelling – for us, for clients, for customers. And that’s a good thing.

And it’s why The Underdog Advantage by David Morey and Scott Miller, is so useful. “This book” they state early on “is about a set of principles that have been proven in political and military action”. And while there are military examples, the balance definitely tips more towards politics. Scott Miller, it should be noted, is a founder of Sawyer/Miller, one of the leading political consultancies of the 1980s which worked with such international notables as Lech Walesa, Corazon Aquino and Vincente Fox.

Now, you might say “Hold on. Political advertising is, at best, stunningly banal and at worst utterly devoid of integrity – even for advertising – and an actual poison to our nation. What could those whores and harlots possibly teach us?”

Lots. Because The Underdog Advantage is not about the horrible executions that we vilify; it’s about the application of the processes of political – and to a degree military – operations that we can learn from. Indeed, that we desperately need to learn from.

For example, how many times have you sat in meetings that seemed to have no point, discussing minutiae that had no relevance, on projects that would, ultimately, have no effect? How many times today? This obsession with the serially unimportant is the bane of corporate America and the agencies who serve them. Why does this happen? Because no one knows what success looks like. Is it “increased awareness”? And if it is, how will you measure it? Or is it an increase in sales? And must that increase be incremental or sustainable? And how will you know whether this particular project was the cause of the success – and not the weather, or the competition, or the economy or the 72 other marketing programs you’re executing at the same time? Or do we need to have another meeting to discuss that?

In political operations, the authors point out, you know exactly what success looks like. You win. Your candidate gets the big office. Or you lose, and he doesn’t. Simple and obvious – and when was the last time you worked on something so clear cut

As a result, political campaigns are stunningly focused. Now, this is not to say that there aren’t bad organizations that are chaotic and poorly aligned. But it does mean that regardless of the effectiveness and intelligence of the people involved, everyone knows what they’re aiming at. People may disagree about how they’ll get there, but no one disagrees about where they’re going. It’s the ballroom with the confetti and the balloons and the loud music – not the one that looks like backstage at a Joy Division convention.

And which one do you want to be in?

This focus pays dividends in other areas as well. Like motivation – people who hate the feeling of losing are considerably more driven than those who never know if they’ve won. Plus there’s an adrenaline rush to political campaigns that literally turns volunteers into lifers and lifers into the kind of people who work insanely long hours to feel that thrill of winning again and again. When was the last time your employees felt that way? Or your agencies? Or you? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Morey and Miller do go into specifics about the actual advantage they believe underdogs have (it has to do with the nimbleness of insurgents as contrasted with the bloatedness of incumbents – and all the ramifications those differences imply); insights born out of their decades of experience in the political trenches. But ultimately it is that very experience which provides the greatest value to marketers in this book.

And that’s a message of which anyone can approve

The Underdog Advantage by David Morey & Scott Miller was published by McGraw-Hill on 06/18/04 – order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

Shortcut by John Pollack
Rare Breed by Sunny Bonnell & Ashleigh Hansberger
Flip the Funnel by Joseph Jaffe


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