Stories From The Past: I Don’t Know Why I Don’t Know

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The mid and end of the eighties will be remembered in history as a period when Europe has undergone a major historical change. At that time, people could sense it but no one could have foreseen that the 50-year long post-war European order would come to an end just then, let alone that it would happen so quickly and in such a way.

The Berlin Wall was still intact as a symbol of the “iron curtain” which had been lowered in 1945 “from the Baltic to the Adriatic Sea”, dividing Europe into east and west. On the eastern side of that wall, it was not possible anymore to hide the fact that the system is in deep troubles. The leader of the Soviet Union at the time, Mikhail Gorbachev, initiated the “perestroika” and “glasnost” movements, believing that a controlled loosening of the grip that ideology had over the people, and minimal reforms, would be enough to preserve the system. Of course, this was impossible. Moreover, it accelerated the separation process and soon the Berlin Wall or the Eastern Bloc were gone, and the Soviet Union did not exist anymore. The leadership of the former Yugoslavia only observed these tectonic changes in its immediate environment staying somehow on a margin, believing that this storm, which will change the course of history, will somehow pass by the boarders of our country, leaving them unchanged. This belief was based on the fact that Tito’s Yugoslavia had successfully positioned itself “somewhere between” the East and the West by then, so it did not really matter or had to do anything with us, and then, logically, there was no reason for any changes. The symbol of such a standpoint could best be illustrated by the popular political slogan of that time – “Even after Tito, Tito”, coined after Tito’s death in 1980. But, as we know, life goes on, and so, too, the wave of change surged over Yugoslavia, especially over its younger generations. This was first and foremost visible in music, film and art, leading to the emergence of entire youth subcultures. It’s completely logical that some of these new themes found their way into the field of politics, thereby additionally eroding the already flimsy legitimacy of the system. Society, at first timidly, then with growing intensity, voiced its concerns regarding freedom of expression in the form of the campaign to abolish Art. 133. of the Criminal Code regarding sanctions for offenses in the domain of political opinions, human rights and freedoms by raising the issue of homosexuals’ right to freedom of sexual orientation; another current issue of the time was the question of civil army service; various initiatives were made for setting up non-government organizations and other forms of civil society organizations. Despite the attempt of the establishment at the time to ignore these topics, some of them managed to enter the sphere of political discussion within institutions, where the utter inability of the establishment to understand, and thereby to adequately respond to them, became evident.


This was the atmosphere in which the event which I want to describe here took place. At the end of a press conference held at the time by a senior official of the CK SKJ (for our younger readers: Central Committee of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia), where he had talked about how “we would, everybody would”, a reporter inquired about the standpoint of the Central Committee regarding the increasingly frequent initiatives concerning democratization of society, citing civil army service and homosexuals’ rights as examples. There was a silence, followed by uncomfortable fidgeting and after the longest minute of waiting and uncertainty, the Comrade finally responded: “I disagree with the question!”

The Comrade was no spring chicken! He had realized that the question was somehow aimed against the system, but he didn’t know how to respond to it. So now you’re wondering, why didn’t he just say: “The Central Committee has no comment regarding the issue” or simply “I don’t know”? No, no, that was out of the question! The Comrade knew well that this would be a sign of weakness because there can be no question to which a system doesn’t have a response – the correct response, naturally! We know what happened with the CK SKJ and Yugoslavia of Tito’s time, they shared the destiny of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, but that’s a different story.

Let’s return to our world of media and marketing and ask ourselves why “I don’t know” is an answer you will so rarely hear today even in our line of work.


„Cirque de Soleil“ (The Circus of the Sun) is a Canadian company which was established in 1984. By two street performers – Guy Laliberte and Gilles Ste-Croix. They describe themselves as „a dramatic mixture of world’s circus art and street entertainment“. Today, „Cirque de Soleil“ hires 4.000 people from 40 countries and makes an annual income of  800 million dollars. All these years, they have been persistent in the idea to show the synthesis of circus styles from around the world connected by the central theme, which is to watch their performance on the edge of their seats from the beginning to the end, not as a series of artistic performances, but as a unique story.

In order to work in accordance with their initial motto, they have they own scouting teams that travel the world in search for the best acrobats and talents from the world of circus art. In addition to scout teams, they have their researchers, people who travel around the world without any particular purpose, visiting various places, talking to people, in short – observe the world around themselves. Every six months, they submit reports to creative directors on what they saw and experienced, along with their impressions and new world’s trends. Based on these reports, topics for shows are made, which are then turned into a unique mosaic of connected stories, making a top-quality performance with original music, unique choreography and the best performers from the world.  In this way, every new show rediscovers the world around us and connects us with it. This is the reason why anyone who has watched at least one of the shows of this unique artists, describes it as a special and unforgettable experience. And this is why „Cirque de Soleil“ has become a global phenomenon.


Led by Angela Ahrendts as the CEO of “Burberry”, this 158-year old fashion label went through an amazing transformation from a weary old brand which symbolized trench coats into a “hot-cool-trendy fashion” brand, which communicates with its fans and followers in a way previously unseen, using digital media, and whose every new collection pushes the limits, not only of fashion but of the way in which we communicate, as well. So, what was the revolutionary thing that Angela Ahrendts did when she came to “Burberry” in 2006 and assumed the position of Chief Executive Officer? The first thing she said was: “I don’t know!” She knew that she had to establish contact with a new generation and she knew that this generation wouldn’t respond to the stimuli of the old media and the old ways of communication. She also knew that there was no secret formula that would enable her to do this on her own. But she had a plan. She set up a Creative Board and appointed the former head designer, Christopher Bailey, as its Chief Creative Officer. She then made a decision unheard of in the history of corporate business: she subordinated the Executive Board which she headed, to the Creative Board in matters of brand strategy. The Executive Board was now responsible for implementing the brand strategy autonomously defined by the Creative Board. She connected the existing elements of the organization differently. And that is why “Burberry” holds its current position.

Under Bailey’s creative leadership, „Burberry“ became much more than just a fashion brand, it became the content generator that has democratized fashion not by seasonal discounts, but by becoming the context for an individual experience of person’s  own style .„Burberry“ presents new collection online first, and then on catwalks and fashion shows. In this way, „Burberry“ attracts new followers who appreciate the trust they were given and become authentic brend ambassadors.  „When you have confidence in people and when people in company feel that confidence, they become free and feel stronger!“ – these are the words of Angela Ahrendt. Christopher Bailey applied this to buyers. (Epilogue: 14. 10.2013 „Apple“ announced that the former CEO of the „Burberry“ Angela Ahrendt was appointed the new position as Senior Vice-President and member of the Executive Board, responsible for customer experience in all „Apple“ stores, including online shops;  Christopher Bailey became the CEO of the „Burberry“ . Waiting this story to be continued…)


From these two inspiring stories, we can see that the condition for the change of the existing marketing communication model is, above all, the recognition that the traditional model of marketing communication is dead and that the new one is still non-existent, and that it has to be defined first, then set, and altered along the way. The time we live in force us to change things making headway, even before we managed to fully understand them. This seems like a “mission impossible” for the existing, rather weak sclerotic media-marketing model! For the majority of players in the existing business model, the fear of losing their existing position overshadows the uncertainty of venturing out into the unknown and exploring new options outside of the existing model.

People who work in that model are not the problem here. It lies in dominant culture of the companies which represent that obsolete business model along with culture that resist changes, but only improves, whatever it means. According to this pattern, “I don’t know” is an answer that can’t be accepted, because if you “don’t know”, it is likely that it will be interpreted as “you are not capable”. That’s why you risk more if you say you don’t know than if you risk to make a mistake. If you choose a strategy “choose one of the answers”, chances of making a mistake are additionaly reduced. If you don’t know how to solve a problem, you should choose one of the previosly applied solutions which will justify your choice, even in case you make a mistake by saying that it worked, so it’s not your fault. Another strategy is “I know more than I know” commonly used and recognized as a phrase “to act like a wise or smart guy”.

As things in the world change faster than our media-marketing companies are adapting to it, “acting like a wise guy” is sometimes getting hard to recognize. As “everything can happen, but it doesn’t have to happen!“ Companies in this business apply this strategy to each other. Following the same pattern, the agencies “act wise” in relation to clients, media in relation to agencies and clients, and clients “ act wisely” by changing the agency when dissatisfied with the campaign results, evaluating decisively and boldly that everything will be different and better from that point. Meanwhile, budgets fall, the number of independent agencies decreases and traditional media increasingly offers more and more for a lower price. And it will go like this until one moment we all come to the same answer, which is “we disagree with the question”!


In order to stop this “spiral of death,” we should be aware that the existing situation can’t be changed from the inside and from the bottom up. The first step must be made by top management. It is necessary to change the perspective on the problem. To begin with, we should stop “acting like wise guys”. “I don’t’ know” is the answer that only brave and those who want to stay on the market can give today. In the false and temporary security of the refuge they had created for themselves or had found themselves in, they are already prepared to step out into the storm, encouraged by the knowledge that they don’t know where they’re headed, but aware that the journey into the unknown is the only possible way, and ready to start seeking answers in places no one had gone before. Only by doing this, they will be able to change themselves and the culture of the organization and will be prepared for the necessary changes.

If you are ready for such a journey, here’s a proposal. To begin with – open a new position: Chief Connecting Officer. Identify someone within your organization who has been labelled as different, unruly, or weird from the perspective of present vision. Or bring someone who is not from an existing media-marketing world. Recently, at a conference, three business ideas came to my mind by listening to an architect and a film director. None of the ideas came from my businessmen colleagues, because all they said, I already experienced it myself or read about it. And it is actually very natural – same as art which doesn’t make emotion that connects people dies, a business that doesn’t connect and link people has to disappear. And when you are in a business based on successful communication, and you do not see it or understand it, then it’s fatal! Linking existing elements in a new way is no longer a matter of winning over the competition, it’s a question of survival. So, you have nothing to lose. If you stay where you are, don’t worry, you’re already doomed.


Your Chief Connecting Officer

Source: Media Marketing

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