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December 9, 2008
In Praise of Taking Your Eye Off the Ball
Coaches tell us when we are first playing sports to keep our eye on the ball. But when I was very young, my father, who spent most of his life either in or arguing about advertising, told me what he considered the five most important words in sports.
“Movement away from the ball”
When you keep your eye on the ball, you are, by definition, reacting. Brandon Webb throws a curve and you keep your eye on it to hit it. Miroslav Klose attempts a header and you keep your eye on it to save it. Kevin Garnett takes a shot and you keep your eye on it to try to block it. In each case, you are reacting. Also, you’re in a moment of last resort – miss the ball and it’s a strike, a goal, two points.
But if you take your eye off of the ball, what happens? First, you move your focus to earlier in the sequence. Why is no one marking Garnett? Klose is beginning a run – why? That man on first is a threat to run – how will that affect what pitch I see from Webb?
Keep your eye on the ball, and you can only affect the ball; keep your eye on everything else and you have more tools which can affect everything else. This is true not only in sport, but in life, and is especially true in advertising. 
If “the ball” at your agency is “the idea”, then take a step back and think about the other elements at play. The brief that poses and defines the question that the idea answers. The strategy that provides the insight that will inspire the idea. Are these as valued and held to the same high standards as the “idea”? And why aren’t there awards for “best creative brief” or “best strategic insight”? And did I really just complain that there weren’t enough awards?
If “the ball” is the relationship between the client and the agency – take your eye off of it for a second and what do you see? That 90% of it is defined by situations where you’re either trying to sell them something or telling them there’s a problem? Take your eye off the ball and create encounters where neither of those things are happening –focus groups, seminars, whatever exists outside the adversarial.
Or maybe “the ball” for you is increasing revenue. Keep your eye on the ball and you’ll fish where the fish are – more biz from current clients. Take your eye off the ball and you can think about places you’re not competing. About ways to apply what you’re doing very successfully for your current clients that you can intelligently apply to new clients. Thinking that may even take you outside of your current offerings. Places that some may call irrelevant today, but that tomorrow you may find are called “the future”.
Or maybe the ball for you is the client’s sales. So what are you selling them that’s helping them sell stuff? TV? Print? Web? Is that all that moves the needle? Or are you saying that’s all that moves the needle because that’s what you’re selling and god forbid someone tells them otherwise. Fending off attacks from other ad agencies is keeping your eye on the ball. Figuring out new ways to help your client be successful is taking your eye off of it.
Take your eye off the ball and you begin to see dozens of movements that lead up to that final moment that the ball is a part of. Take your eye off the ball and you see the movement away from the ball that decodes that pitch, that header, that shot – and that gives you a chance to hit it, save it, prevent it from even happening in the first place. In other words, take your eye off the ball, in sport or in advertising, and you increase your chance at success.
Or maybe I’m just trying to justify why I could never could hit a curve ball…

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Martin Bihl has generated concepts, written copy, and directed creative for clients ranging from beer to banks to bio-tech and beyond. His work has won awards in advertising, promotions, guerilla, direct marketing, viral, interactive, events, and some disciplines that havenʼt been named yet. Currently, he is creative director at 7419, where he helps agencies all around the world.

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