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October 1, 2013
How Tic-Tac-Toe Saved the World and Taught Us To Be Better Marketers
It’s 1983 and humanity’s survival hangs in the balance. Self-aware software has hijacked NORAD’s control over America’s nuclear arsenal and is about to launch thousands of missiles at the U.S.S.R. Military geeks desperately try to regain control of the launch system to no avail, until a young Matthew Broderick breaks the code.
“Tic-Tac-Toe,” Broderick says as he challenges the computer to play the simple game.
Seconds later the computer overheats after playing itself in an infinite loop of Tic-Tac-Toe and the world is saved.
“A strange game,” the computer says. “The only winning move is not to play.”
Tic-Tac-Toe, famously portrayed in the 1980s classic “WarGames,” is the most basic of games. With two competent players, no one will ever win, making it a game of discipline more than knowledge or skill. To succeed, a player must have uncommon levels of focus, patience, and consistency while waiting for his opponent to make a mistake. In essence, it is a test of human weakness more than genius.
Marketing is exactly the same.
The principles of creating effective, powerful communications are no secret. They have been written, tweaked, honed, and rewritten thousands of times since the birth of modern advertising. In fact, I could recommend three books through which you can learn 95% of everything you would need to know to succeed in marketing.
So why do most companies struggle with mediocre or downright bad communications? Because companies are made up of people. And people are weak.
If you want to win in any marketing endeavor, focus less on just knowledge and skill and more on correct behavior. Below are four common human weaknesses in marketing that, if overcome, will make you a marketing (and Tic-Tac-Toe) master.
Insecurity. Insecurity arises most often when a company hits a rough patch and loses the nerve to focus on one narrowly defined target. Often when sales dip, our natural inclination is to beg anyone from anywhere to buy our product or service. We just want business.
Ironically, our fear of narrowing our target hinders our ability to grow. Or as Seth Godin wrote in We Are All Weird, “If you persist in trying to be all things to all people, you will fail. The alternative, then, is to be something important to a few people.”
Lack of focus. It’s hard to play Tic-Tac-Toe for a solid hour, let alone a lifetime. But that’s exactly what is required to be a successful marketer. In a culture of distractions, it’s the marketer with uncommon levels of focus that wins.
The only way to stay focused is to build a strategic foundation from which every decision you face can be filtered. Your focus will be constantly challenged by a lack of consensus in your company leadership, new technologies, competitive moves in the market, and the legions of vendors calling who are ready to execute that hot new marketing tactic for you. Before you can make wise, focused decisions, you must first know why your company exists, who your target is, and what your brand stands for. Then you can put every ounce of your being into doing a few things well.
Impatience. Perhaps the hardest weakness to overcome is impatience. How many times have important decisions been rushed in the name of speed? How many marketing campaigns have been replaced simply because the organization or marketing department was bored?
As Warren Buffet famously quipped about timing, “You do things when the opportunities come along. I’ve had periods in my life when I’ve had a bundle of ideas come along, and I’ve had long dry spells. If I get an idea next week, I’ll do something. If not, I won’t do a damn thing.”
Do you have what it takes to stand up to our speed-obsessed culture and say “slow down”? Winners do.
Inconsistency. Ultimately, the most consistent Tic-Tac-Toe players win. But being consistent requires that all of the other weaknesses are overcome in concert over a period of time. Coca-Cola has become an iconic example of consistency. From the “Hilltop” commercial featuring “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” to “Mean Joe Green” and “Open Happiness,” Coca-Cola is always bringing the world together to enjoy a sip of happiness. Contrast Coca-Cola’s success with the meandering randomness of Burger King through the years and you can see the power of consistency.
According to QSR magazine, “Burger King’s downturn started in the early 2000s,” when “the chain…passed into different ownership several times and jumped on and off the public markets every few years.” Burger King famously pursued adolescent males by featuring the creepy King mascot only to switch gears once sales slowed to try to appeal to a wider audience. Burger King’s North American President, Alex Macedo, summed it up in a recent Adage article when he attributed a 3% drop in same-store sales “in part to marketing messages that he called ‘unbalanced.’”
Tic-Tac-Toe may be infantile compared to the complexity of today’s marketing world, but the principles remain the same. Those who are able to master self-discipline and align their company behaviors with well-established marketing principles over a long period of time win.
Those who lose change targets frequently or don’t know their target in the first place. They repeatedly shift strategies, chasing answers without asking the right questions. And they rush decisions, stacking bad choices on top of bad choices.  
I’ll leave you with a dare. Next time your six-year-old nephew challenges you to a game of Tic-Tac-Toe, see how long you can play without making a mistake. If you make it past ten minutes, you’re well on your way to becoming a marketing master. Besides, the world may depend on it.

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Jonathan Lewis is partner, Vice President and Strategy Director at McKee Wallwork + Co. Advertising, winner of the 2015 Ad Age Small Agency of the Year SW and Campaign of the Year awards. Jonathan’s firm specializes in turning around companies who are stalled, stuck or stale, publishing two books on the topic including When Growth Stalls and Power Branding. Follow Jonathan @JonathanLewis11.
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