It was a lazy Sunday afternoon, and I walked up to the putting green to practice.A foot-high white flag was set up at either end, and near one of them a man crouched over a spray of balls preparing to putt. “It’s pretty simple, isn’t it,” I said, breaking the awkward fact that two strangers were sharing a silentpatch of grass. “You take this metal stick and you just make the little balls roll up to the pin, right?”
The man straightened up and frowned at me. Instead of coming back with a friendly inanity of his own, he said, “It’s about concentration. These are concentration drills. You have to focus.” Hoookay. I guess we’re not going to be chit-chatting here. I dropped a few balls and starting stroking them toward one of the flags.
I practice quickly. Step up, lean over, stroke. I hit the white flag several times and felt relieved that I wasn’t mired in some head-game of determined focus. “Grip it and rip it” is the famous credo of the joyfully dissolute and absurdly talented John Daly. He’s the champion free spirit of golfers, of every human being. At some point we all say, as Daly once did, “Screw this, I’m just going to go a bar and get absolutely drunk, and I’ll deal with it tomorrow.”
As I nonchalantly putted, it occurred to me that the frowning guy and John Daly represent two ends of the creative spectrum—the cerebral and the emotional. To develop a good brand name—or an ad campaign—or a strategy for differentiating a company in a commoditized market—you need to mix the frowning guy’s intense focus with John Daly’s sense of spontaneous abandon.
Consider a branding theme I developed with Alan Siegel, our mentor and former boss. The project was a strategic positioning for the Cornell College of Engineering, and I had come back from interviewing alumni in Boston. Alan asked me for my initial ideas for the Cornell Engineering brand… I had a few—something about“collaboration in science” and a line about “shaping the future”—expected themes. Alan just stared. “Don’t you have anything else?” I riffled through mynotes. “There was this line from a lady who graduated in the ‘90s.” I had asked alums what they had learned at Cornell—and she said, “I learned to break the rules.” Alan punched the air in my direction. “Breaking the rules. There’s your brand positioning.”
Breaking the rules to advance science. Breaking rules for the good of humanity. Breaking rules to work across boundaries and create new knowledge. The idea was huge and had inherent motivational power.
So that’s my takeaway. In the realm of creative communication you gotta frown and concentrate and focus first. But then you have to be open to the moment, let fate serve you up a good idea, and have a wise mentor and good sense to take advantage of the moment—to, we might say, grip it and rip it.