The only unsurprising thing about the new economy is that it's full of surprises. Who could have predicted that Dell Computer, a company started by an undergrad at the University of Texas, would outperform the world's most powerful technology company? Or that America Online, long ridiculed as a destination for "newbies," would acquire the world's best-known media company?
These propositions seem downright heretical — and that's what makes them so powerful. Indeed, the folks at Merkley Newman Harty, a New York City-based, $300 million ad agency with such big-name clients as BellSouth and the motorcycle division of BMW, believe that the only way to lead in the new world of work is to deconstruct the ruling dogma of your industry, to generate heretical ideas to challenge that dogma, and then to build strategies (as well as branding campaigns) around those ideas. "I'm trying to bury the phrase 'We're the voice of the consumer,' " says Douglas Atkin, 43, partner and director of strategic planning at Merkley. "These days, you can't succeed as a company if you're consumer-led — because, in a world full of so much constant change, consumers can't anticipate the next big thing. Companies should be idea-led and consumer-informed."
And the most important idea is your "governing brand idea" — an overall perspective that includes original insights about such things as the nature of what you're offering, your values, your personality, and your marketing performance. A governing brand idea distinguishes you from conventional wisdom and creates a compelling alternative in the eyes of customers. "In a world of change," Atkin and his colleagues like to say, "either you make history, or you are history."
One recent example: JetBlue Airways Corp., a startup airline that began flying out of New York's JFK Airport last February. JetBlue is not just another startup in yet another industry run by slow-footed giants. It is a heretic — an organization that's built around responding to the "river of hatred that consumers have for an industry over which they have no control," says Clay Langdon, 31, one of Merkley's account planners for JetBlue.
Almost everything about JetBlue is at odds with the prevailing wisdom of the airline business. It's a low-cost carrier, but its planes don't skimp on space or quality: It has a fleet of brand-new aircraft, each of which has seats equipped with 32 inches of legroom. But the real heresy involves the positioning that Merkley suggested in its initial pitch to the company: Don't be an airline — be an advocate for consumers. "Think of it as the judo of marketing," Langdon says. "Instead of ignoring consumers' hatred, use that energy to understand the people you're advertising to." Langdon calls this approach "a radical application of common sense."
Suddenly, everything was open to reconsideration: flight-attendant uniforms, meals, even the types of people that JetBlue looked for when hiring pilots and flight attendants. To enhance the airline's recruitment efforts, Merkley's creative team designed cards that read, "You appear to have mastered this job. Now how about a career?" Even the look of the planes started to change: Blue dots, diamonds, and stripes were added to the tails, and the airline's Web address was displayed on the engines.
When Amy Curtis-McIntyre, now 33, came to JetBlue from Virgin Atlantic in 1998, she became the startup's one-woman marketing department. She turned to Merkley for help. "We knew that we wanted to shake up the airline business," says Curtis-McIntyre. "The idea of 'a radical application of common sense' was an immediate 'aha!' "
Merkley's marketing strategies reflected JetBlue's edgy energy. One result was a series of print ads that said things like "$79 to Ft. Lauderdale? What, as a stowaway?" (Next to the type was a black-and-white photograph of an angry, 1950s-era man with a crazed, scrunched-up face.) "There's anger in the consumer's voice," says Curtis-McIntyre. "We're saying, 'Hey, we know what's going on, and we're trying to change it.' "
Although JetBlue is just a $10 million account, Merkley believes that the airline will be a defining client, because its campaign embodies the best elements of the agency's creative and strategic approach. The folks at JetBlue agree. Curtis-McIntyre offers this advice for persevering: "Big ideas need a champion. Having faith in your ideas is more important than getting along with everyone at the office."
Contact Douglas Atkin by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or visit Merkley Newman Harty on the Web (www.mnh.com).
Sidebar: Confessions of a Heretic
Douglas Atkin, director of strategic planning for Merkley Newman Harty, talks like an industry heretic: This is not a man known for mincing words.
He works like a heretic too. Atkin tries to work only with clients who have a vision for their brand; he sometimes turns away clients; and he believes that marketing people should confront problems. Here, he describes how he confronts his clients' fears.
"Many clients ask, 'How do I know if I have a heretical idea that will work?' You need to tell them that any idea poses some sort of risk. You can minimize that risk, however, by making sure that you're strategically informed. If you try to research a radical idea, consumers will usually tell you not to do what you want to do. So, instead, you should become informed about your market. Then you can take a creative leap: You can step out of the darkness and into the semi-light.
"You must realize that any contact today defines a brand. A brand isn't just what the customer experiences; it's everything that a company's vendors, employees, and board members touch. Companies need to rethink who defines their brand. The power of the marketing director is declining. As service becomes an important part of the brand experience, employees such as customer-service managers and distribution managers become just as important as the marketing director. The separation of marketing, research, advertising, and customer service into silos no longer makes sense."
A version of this article appeared in the April 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.