Survival isn’t a strategy

In the paradoxical world of addiction recovery, the word “survive” is seen as a block to progress. One doesn’t survive cocaine, oxycontin or alcohol; recovery begins by admitting complete defeat, and this is a very hard concept to swallow, for who wants to be defeated? Surviving is all about winning. It’s about being tough, gritting your teeth in the face of adversity and coming out on top.

Ego, the experts say, is the problem when it comes to self-destructive behavior, and it must be crushed before recovery is possible.

In the CBS reality show “Survivor,” the aim of the game is to “outwit, outplay and outlast” competitors, and those are appropriate goals for any survivor. In the world of local media today, we have strong and talented managers trying to outwit, outplay and outlast disruptive innovations, when it might be better just to admit defeat. But we’re addicted to power and success, and our ego tells us that we can beat this thing. We can win. We think. We hope.

I was talking with an industry colleague the other day about the state of local television companies and stations. “Most people I talk with,” he told me, “are just hunkering down and trying to wait it out.” Waiting it out is a form of surviving. Diane Mermigas wrote similarly in her excellent predictions for 2009 that “all media will hang on (in 2009).” Hanging on is another form of surviving. In a article last week by Mary Collins called “Communication Is Key To Surviving 2009,” she wrote: “As the old saying goes, we are all in the same boat; and…we’ll only get to shore safely by rowing together.” Pulling together is another survival skill, as is the notion of “we gotta just keep rowing.”

This theme of surviving 2009 is everywhere, but I’d like to pose an important question for anybody so hunkered, hanging, waiting or rowing, because waiting it out assumes “it” will end and that there will be a reward for those who are still standing when “it” is over. I’m not so sure, so here’s the question: What if the old model is gone for good and it doesn’t come back?

This is an important question, because the downward slide for media companies began long before the economy went south. This is hidden in the complexity of the recession, and the economy is being blamed for all the layoffs, bankruptcies and other unpleasantries. There’s no doubt the economy is exacerbating things, but it’s extremely dangerous to ignore the possibility that it’s masking other, more permanent problems.

Umair Haque, the brilliant London Business School economist who has since taken up residence at Harvard, has been sounding warnings about the economy for years. One of his themes is that the problem with this particular recession (or whatever you wish to call it) is decay in the DNA of the whole economic system. That’s a lot different than a “correction,” regardless of its depth. Haque relentlessly points to systemic problems in examining why this or that happened.

We cannot organize tomorrow’s businesses — or economy — like yesterday’s. What do I mean? Simple. How should we organize and manage how firms interact with consumers? The Economist thinks it’s “creepy” but cool to trick consumers, because it’s profitable.

Is it?

Not a chance — as our research at the Lab notes, the fact is: companies who can build authentic, honest, open, collaborative relationships with consumers are significantly more profitable (and sustainably profitable) than companies who treat consumers deceptively, antagonistically, and manipulatively.

True power isn’t the power to manipulate. It’s the power to create. There is a world of difference between the two — that orthodox economics has yet to understand.

This is tremendous wisdom for media companies, who have been treating the people formerly known as the audience with manipulative disdain for years. It has to stop, for we live in a networked world now, one that rejects the platforms of mass marketing. It is an era in which consumers are god-like in their information choices. Now is a time for leadership in our industry, and what better place to begin than with consumers, our customers.

So rather than hanging on in survivor mode, perhaps we need to just get out of our own way and let the innovators at every level of our companies do their thing. Let’s support their efforts, rather than wrestle them to the ground in the name of hunkering down or surviving. Let’s think strategically about how to approach this new world.

This is a time of incredible opportunity, if we are willing to admit defeat to an enemy we never had a chance against in the first place. Rather than fighting it, we need to embrace it, and that’s hard to do when your strategy is survival.

(Originally published in AR&D’s Media 2.0 Intel newsletter)


  1. […] Terry Heaton explains why survival isn’t a strategy and asks “What if the old model is gone for good and it doesn’t come back?” We’ve helped a few of our clients answer that question this year, but I’m not sure enough businesses have made the switch, yet. […]

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