As an industry, we’re notoriously obsessed with FOMO. "What? They’re going to Lake Tahoe to find their corporate north star? Shit, book some tickets fast!" I’m sure the entire agency world suffers from a massive, collective kink in their neck, caused by Chronic Sideways-Looking Fatigue.
Sure, it’s important and healthy to wonder what the competition is up to. But let this curiosity influence your actions too much and it can come back to bite you. Because the people we compare ourselves to can have a significant impact on our performance.
It was a study among Olympic athletes that discovered this correlation. The subject matter: what separates Olympic finalists from "mere" Olympic athletes? Presumably, at that level, there is very little difference in talent, training routines, race preparation, diet etc.
Having spent my teenage years trying to become an Olympic finalist in the pool, and falling (very) short, I have spent no insignificant amount of time trying to decide if it was down to my swimsuit, the water temperature or not enough sleep. Turns out I was looking for the wrong difference.
It only takes one very small difference to separate the legends from the footnotes. In this case, it’s a difference we can all learn from. For whatever it is we are trying to win at.
Because, as it happens, it’s all about benchmarking.
Olympic finalists spent the years before the games tracking their progress against themselves. They planned and benchmarked based on their own personal bests. How they progressed from season to season. What times they wanted to achieve. The strength and health of their body. Inventing new techniques to suit their needs. And resting when required. They only ever tried to beat themselves, regardless of what place on the podium that got them.
Compare that with those who missed out. They spent the years before tracking themselves against others. Plotting their workouts, altitude training and gym sessions according to whom they were trying to beat and what their respective strengths and training regimes were. To finish ahead of that competitor from Brazil. Their strategy for victory depended on some guy called Hans, or some girl called Gretel, having a bad day. Instead of benchmarking themselves against themselves, they would always benchmark themselves against the competition.
The problem with that approach? You’re not in control, because you’re not developing your strength. You’re focused on reacting to everyone else’s.
And therein lies a lesson for us all. We waste a lot of time getting distracted by what everyone else is doing, thinking, saying. Whether it’s another brand, another agency or a colleague, or even listening to too much research. We keep looking over our shoulder for the way forward instead of looking to ourselves.
Strategists are especially susceptible to this. Because, well, we collect all sorts of information and trends, and generate tons more off the back of it. The more the merrier, right?
Over the years, I’ve actually found that ignoring a lot of stuff can be just as useful. Not getting so distracted and bamboozled as to drown out the voice in your head, the feeling in your gut, the passion in your heart. Because that’s where our true strength is, where winning starts. And where distraction is a game best left to others.
Anna Vogt is chief strategy officer at TBWA\London