The beauty of constraint: How to turn your limitations into opportunities

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Adam Morgan.
Adam Morgan.

Author of "Eating the Big Fish" Adam Morgan discusses his new book "A Beautiful Constraint"

One of today’s greatest paradoxes: Despite technology making our lives more efficient, we have less time and limited resources. Or at least it feels that way.

This is true in the business world, too. Companies constantly face challenges — of resource, time, competition, economic uncertainty — making it a tough, sink-or-swim climate to operate in. And the marketing and communication industry has not escaped the brunt of this, with clients and agencies are under pressure to do more with less.

But what if these constraints and limitations could be turned into an advantage, with nothing more than a shift of mindset?

It’s been 16 years since Adam Morgan wrote "Eating the Big Fish," a seminal text for the industry that detailed how the little guy can win by outsmarting the big guy.

Morgan’s new book, written with Mark Barden, explores how businesses have become "path dependent," stuck in the routines that blind them from seeing competition. But constraint doesn’t have to hold us down, they argue. Constraint can actually be fertile and enabling.

Campaign caught up with Adam Morgan after his book launch in partnership with PHD in New York to find out how limitations can be reimagined as opportunities.

What is beautiful about constraint?

Strong brands are really all about constraint. The role of marketing and communications is to find the edges of a brand and create within those limitations. As soon as a brand starts relaxing their constraints, it will be the brand that becomes weaker.

Google is very famous for talking about how creativity is all about latitude within limitations. Really creative people understand that in creating new ideas, constraints are important because they define the problem and they define the focus. Lack of budget, lack of time and the need to be brief — having to compress things to six seconds rather than 30 seconds — we tend to view as limiting, restricting or lessening. But we have to apply what we know about our constraints and use them for the better. A beautiful constraint is about making a constraint a force for good and using it as a stimulus to get you to a better solution than you would have got to before.

From "A Beautiful Constraint": How PHD profited from constraint

You use the example of Mick Jagger in the book. How did he use constraint to his advantage?

In the early days of the Stones, they would play in small pubs in Richmond and would have limited space; when you had the band set up, the space on stage for the lead singer was tiny. Jagger wanted to really get the crowd going, so he had to develop these extravagant moves and routine to work the crowd. Some say Jagger was at his best in that small space — it was something that was very formative and valuable to Jagger as a performer.

So less is more. Would you say too much resource can actually hamper creativity?

Absolutely. You could argue that very big advertising budgets, for instance, lead to lazy behaviors. You can become too reliant on just doing ads and much less agile in terms of building strategic relationships and partnerships.

A good example is Virgin America; when they launched they didn’t have a big marketing budget, compared to the Southwest Airlines budget, and that forced them to find a another way to get people to talk about them. So, that led them to do partnerships with Victoria’s Secret, HBO and other similarly "sexy" organizations, bringing all sorts of value to the consumer flying with them. If they had a bigger budget they would’ve never bothered to find out. It created originality and a freshness in the customer experience for the airline.

One constraint we can all identify with, no matter how big or small an organization, is the constraint of time – especially operating in the 24/7 digital world. How can people overcome this?

When you are used to having time, you think that "faster" is going to mean "compromised." There are a lot of people doing things quickly in the creative industry, where that doesn’t mean compromised at all. You can get to rawer state of the idea and you iterate and move on after.

It is only compromised if you are trying to fit everything you have done in three months into two days. In fact, the point of the beautiful constraint is that it pushes you into thinking about different processes. I think it is interesting what Twitter is doing by increasingly using shorter and shorter formats.

Faster and briefer — we are going to have to get much, much better at in the communications business, because that way of working is here to stay. Instead of whinging about them and fearing they will make us less, we have to find a way of helping us do more.

Since you wrote "Eating the Big Fish," would you say the ideas you put forward about the role of challenger brands have changed at all, particularly in a post-recession business climate?

I wrote a small book with PHD called "Overthrow," which came out a couple of years ago and looked at how challengers have evolved. What you notice about challengers over the past five to 10 years is that it has become much less about little player verus big player; it is more about what are we challenging, rather than who are we challenging.

The challenger mindset has become much more prevalent, and you get large companies talking about it. They recognize one of the key questions you have to ask yourself is: what do we need to challenge to succeed? The understanding of the challenger has become richer and more nuanced as a result.

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