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Kill your Radio Station’s “Sacred Cows”

Beau Fraser is co-author of the new business bestseller, “Death to All Sacred Cows: How Successful Business People Put the Old Rules Out to Pasture.” Fraser is also managing director of the international advertising and corporate identity firm The Gate Worldwide. I spoke with him about the themes of the book, and what they mean for the radio industry.

Here is the full audio of our conversation. What follows is a heavily edited transcript

Beau, what is a “sacred cow” in the business world?

A “sacred cow” is a rule, a standard, a formula that we, in business, blindly follow because that’s the way things have always been. At one time those rules, those standards, those formulas may have made sense, but unwittingly they became “sacred” over time even though the world, the consumer, the business, the industry has changed. And, unfortunately, a lot of businesses don’t recognize that the rules have changed and the world has changed, yet they still use these outdated criteria.

One of your chapters is “Follow the Leader.” What makes that a “sacred cow”?

At The Gate, when a client is in trouble they will often look wistfully at their competition who’s doing very well (and is invariably No. 1 or No. 2 in the category) and say, “Well, “Acme Nuts and Bolts” did that, we should do that as well.” The problem is that Acme was successful for things that went well beyond whatever strategy or idea they had. That strategy or idea they implemented was successful because of things such as distribution channels or operational issues or brand issues or geography issues. If you can’t duplicate those, you certainly will not be successful if you try to borrow their strategies.

Certainly you need to keep an eye on what the competition is doing, because you want to stay abreast with them, but if all you do is duplicate what they’re doing, all you’re doing is keeping pace.

For example, while a radio station my have the same format from one market to another, that radio station in another market may be successful for things that may not exist in your market. What I always tell our clients is to keep an eye on the competition because you don’t want them to get too far ahead of you, but spend more time looking at your own business and figuring out what it is that you do very well and work harder on doing that even better.

If all you do is match your competition’s strategies, all you’re doing is keeping pace. And in most businesses keeping pace is not enough.

Okay. Here’s another “sacred cow” from your book: “Focus on the numbers, and the rest will take care of itself.” Now, in radio there are an awful lot of people focusing on the numbers first. What are we doing wrong?

Let me illustrate this very personally. My responsibility to The Gate is to deliver a certain amount of revenue to my holding company. What they tend to do – and most companies do this – is to say to the general manager, “You need to deliver this much revenue.” But that doesn’t give really clear directions. To me that’s really a goal as opposed to telling people what it is you want them to accomplish.

So suppose instead that I tell everyone inside our organization that our goal is to be agency of the year by 2011. Now, I know that if I achieve that, all the wonderful numbers that investors and employees and owners want will come, but to me numbers are a byproduct of having achieved something else. So I think it’s more interesting to think of what it is we want to achieve – for example a radio station could be “the most favorite radio station in the marketplace” which is more an emotional measure rather than an actual number measure. But if you are the most favorite radio station in a marketplace, all the things that you’d want, such as reach and frequency numbers as well as listenership numbers will come. But these become a byproduct of a larger, more interesting goal.

Now, here’s another one, Beau, from your list of “sacred cows.” It’s called: “Don’t screw up.” Talk to me about that one.

I like that one because starting off in the business world I certainly screwed up a lot. But the problem, for instance, is if you tell your child, “Don’t screw up. Don’t screw up. Don’t screw up,” they’re going to spend more time trying to figure out ways to not screw up rather than coming up with a more interesting way to do something.

Look at Pfizer coming out with Viagra, which was not a goal but something discovered by constantly failing on a drug that was conceived to do something else. So very often by making mistakes you can achieve something that is much greater. I’d rather tell my people, “I don’t mind if you make a mistake, as long as you can give me a rational reason for what your goal was.” As long as you learn from your mistake, I think you’re going to come up with far more interesting solutions.

You can’t stifle creativity, and I think that, for me, is what the sacred cows are all about. They hinder progress, they hinder creativity, they hinder original thinking, and if you block those out, if you eliminate those, you’re more likely to succeed – and focusing on making sure you don’t screw up is certainly one “sacred cow” that needs to be very gently and humanely put out to pasture.

So then, Beau, what you’re saying is that part of creativity itself is screwing up?

That is correct. But I prefer the word imagination. Those who have imagination spend more time thinking about, “What if? How about?” as opposed to using some of the words that hinder.

When I’m talking to a client, and I present an idea and they reply, “We’ve tried that before and it didn’t work,” and I ask them why it didn’t work, and they can’t answer – then I know I’m in the presence of a sacred cow.

Or even the worse one is someone looking to create an easily repeated formula, because, by definition, a formula always works – you can’t argue with a formula – so when someone says, “What’s the formula?” I know that I’m in the presence of somebody who holds onto a sacred cow. And all those things hinder original thinking.

If you think about some of the great breakthroughs in the business world, it was invariably something that was totally unexpected. They had the courage to try it. And it doesn’t mean that you have to spend an awful lot of money. If you’re a large organization and you try something and it fails, a failure can be quite devastating. You can certainly try it small, and make changes as you go to market.

Okay. Here’s another one of those “sacred cows” in your book: “Branding is expensive.” Well, branding is expensive, isn’t it?

I think the assumption is that when people say, “Let’s brand something,” they automatically think of 60-second commercials on the Super Bowl. But to me, branding is an intellectual exercise, and I don’t think intellectual exercises are expensive. Depending on how you execute it, your branding program can certainly be expensive. But even if you don’t put any communications behind it, even if you don’t put any media behind it, what you should always do is act like a brand. And a brand is what defines you as being different, better than the competition, and gives potential perfect customers reason to choose you. A brand is giving a reason to choose.

To me, the best definition of a brand that I’ve heard is this: “A brand is what you get when you add differentiating substance to a product.” I like that definition because it tells you that you the client, or you the marketer, are in control, and you get to decide how you want to define the brand.

And, to me, the other part of it is differentiating substance. Very often when I read brand descriptions of a product that comes from a company, and to me it sounds very blah, blah, blah, or I’ve heard it before. So it really has to be differentiating, and it has to be substantial – something that people can really sink their teeth into.

Meanwhile all of that is an intellectual exercise and has nothing to do with spending.

To me branding is a noun and not a verb.

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