Strategy lessons from football: anticipate or observe?

You can't just watch where the ball is expected to go or even where the ball is going, says a strategist at mono.

I am not a football fan. But I did happen to sit down to watch the last 10 minutes of the Vikings-Saints football game a week and a half ago. While I was pleasantly surprised by the game’s last 14 seconds and made the mental note that football might not be that bad, my bigger takeaway was the relevance of Keenum-Diggs’ play to strategy in advertising.

There’s a phrase in business that gets tossed around a lot: Wayne Gretzky’s "I skate to where the puck is going." It has nice parallels for us business folk to latch onto, such as the idea that we need to be innovative, watch consumer trends and dream up products and advertisements that will predict what the consumer wants 10 weeks from now. But the problem is that while this phrase applies perfectly to a puck’s predictable arc across the ice and a business’s stable trajectory for product innovation and sales, it misses a key part of being a human: our irrationality and unpredictability. Case in point: the Keenum-Diggs play. Confused? Watch this: 


In my attempt to understand football better and figure out just how this unbelievable play happened, I came across this news clip of Skip Bayless. He explains that the Saints’ defender, Marcus Williams, was playing by the book and doing what he was supposed to. Williams commented afterward that his job is "to attack the ball." This sounds eerily similar to going where the puck is going; he was going to where he believed the ball was going. But if that were the case, why did he miss tackling Diggs?

Defenders in any sport know that there are two key pieces of advice: skate where the puck is going (anticipate) or watch the eyes (observe). In any game, defenders have to take in all the different inputs and make a spur of the moment decision: anticipate the play or watch the play. Unfortunately for Williams, he took the wrong risk: he went to where the ball was expected to be under normal circumstances. But these weren’t normal circumstances. There were mere seconds on the clock and the Vikings knew they would have to make an impossible play to win the game. So, they decided on an unpredictable play, a play that would help them win big or lose big. Luckily for the Vikings, they won big.

And this is where the Keenum-Diggs play becomes so crucial for anyone working in business or advertising, particularly strategy: you can’t just watch where the ball is expected to go or even where the ball is going. You have to also watch the play.

In advertising, this means that we have to watch the circumstances our customers face and recognize that they’re not going to keep making the same, routine decisions. Had major news outlets been paying attention to people outside major metropolitan areas, the 2016 election may not have come as such a shock. Had Pepsi listened to the way people were discussing human rights, they would not have produced such a blatantly disrespectful commercial. We cannot keep assuming that with people A + B = C, or even that people are going to make the same decision tomorrow that they made today.

So, what can we takeaway from this? Don’t just go where the trend is heading, go where the consumers are looking. Despite how unpopular this belief is, what we think people will do and what people actually do can often be two very different things. We’re not mindreaders and there is still no AI that can predict exactly what people will do or what trend is going to pop up next. If there were, Google’s car wouldn’t have gotten in that crash.

Fortunately, we don’t need to become mindreaders; we just need to tune into what’s happening in our consumers’ lives every single day. And, when we notice that the environment has changed and there are dissident murmurings among our consumers, we can be ready to flex for whatever they need.

Maddie Wolf is a strategist at mono.

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