Shatter Conventions

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Shatter conventions.

No, smash them to bits.

I was reading Mark Babej's post on what makes an agency hot, and the value of shattering conventions suddenly became even clearer to me than it already was.

What's hot? Hot is being completely in the moment. Hot is being completely original and fresh. Hot is about driving change and inspiring desire. Hot is anything that will either set a trend or take it to a whole new level. Hot is about moving on to the next big thing, because that's how most of us are wired.

Hot is also very, very finite. Hot isn't yesterday or tomorrow. Hot is now. (Thanks, Ernie.)

But back to what makes agencies hot. Best case scenario: Groundbreaking work. Worst case scenario: Hotness by association.

For the latter, consider the concept of transference: Driving a hot car makes you hot. Wearing hot clothes will make you hot. Sporting those little white iPod earphones will make you hot. Being able to say that your agency of record or designer or CEO is superdopemeister so-and-so makes you hothothot.

But not really.

How many times have you bumped into an ad agency, financial firm or consultancy of some kind whose website or portfolio pushed their client lists more than their work?

"Hey, look at all the big names on our list! We must be hot, eh?" (Giving it a little Canadian flair today.)

Can a company or person be hot by association? Superficially, yeah. For a while... perception is everything, after all. And if hotness is by its very nature ephemeral, then why bother with substance? Why bother with being consistently great? Why not just settle for a great client list and see how much mileage you'll get out of those laurels? I've heard it called the self-perpetuating cycle of crap. I think it's a bit harsh, but in many cases, it isn't far from the truth.

Ultimately, I couldn't care less if you were the financial advisor to the king of Siam or the ad agency of record for Breitling watches and Tiffany's and BMW. If I don't know your work, if I haven't seen it or heard it or tasted it, then you might not be as great as you think. Show me something that will speak to me. Show me something that will wow me. Otherwise, go pitch somebody else.

If people aren't talking about you or your product, if you need salespeople to convince me to give you my cash or my attention, trust me, you aren't even lukewarm.

The good news is this: Being hot is great, but if you're already doing everything right, it's just the frosting on the cake. It isn't the end-all, be-all. It shouldn't be your goal. The downside of being hot is that sooner or later, you'll be yesterday's hot agency. Being hot and then being not is traumatic. It's crushing. You watch your numbers drop and settle. It can be emotionally jarring.

Unless you don't care. Unless you're mature enough to appreciate when hotness happens but not miss it once it's gone. This isn't something you can crave. Hotness isn't what great brands or enduring success are made of.

Hotness is a spike on a graph, nothing more. Here today, gone tomorrow.

If you do things right, though, that spike will come back regularly. Think IDEO. Think U2. Think Joss Whedon.

In the best case scenario, hotness is cyclical: You're a great company or author or product, and while you do very well most of the time, you get to enjoy big hits every now and then. The idea is to make this kind of pattern sustainable. That comes from being dedicated to innovation and in tune with the people for whom you are designing something. Their next car. Their next mp3 player. Their next kitchen sink. Their next customer service experience. Their next campaign.

In the worst case scenario, you're a one-hit wonder. You're the ad agency whose one successful ad is forever part of a generation's pop culture, but nothing else you've done before or since was worthy of mention. You're the high school quarterback who threw the one great pass thirty years ago and never moved on.

Hot gets cold fast.

Food for thought.

So what does any of this have to do with shattering conventions?


Being hot starts with producing groundbreaking work, setting trends, being at the forefront of product design, advertising, political thought, literature, art and business. All of these things require a certain measure of rebellion against what is already out there: Rules. Conventions. Assumptions.

I am working for three hot companies right now, and what makes them hot is the fact that they march to the beat of their own drum. They do things that no other company out there does. They are completely into their customers and their skills and their purpose. They look at their work as being fun. They gauge their success by their customers' smiles rather than by their revenue (they're both high). They are completely in the zone. What they do is the stuff that would make most people go "Damn, why didn't I think of that?!"

Their client/customer lists are completely irrelevant. The answer to "what do you guys do?" changes daily. They have fun. They love their work, and it is second to none. They are fearless in their pursuit of excellence. They are quickly running all of their would-be "competitors" out of business.

Adapt or die.

Shattering conventions is what propels us forward.

Shattering conventions is what being hot is all about.

Screw choosing the path less taken. Carve your own.

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