Numbers are the universal language of business. We use them to attract investors for our startup ideas, to win approval for product introductions, to make the case for expanding into new markets or entering new categories. In other words, numbers, when used well, tell a compelling story. So why is it that so many of the numbers we encounter in business–from endless Excel spreadsheets to bloodless calculations in business plans–make our eyes glaze over rather than set our minds racing?
Earlier this week, I spent time with executives from DraftFCB, the advertising agency whose clients include Dockers, Miller Lite, and Honda. It was an impressive group of leaders, from offices around the world, who were thinking clearly, creatively, and ambitiously about the kind of organization they want to create–about how to build a fast-growing, high-performing agency in a fast-changing, high-pressure field.
And, not surprisingly, these advertising executives had a real flair for language. They talked about the power of “calculated boldness” and urged each other to be “provocatively competent.” Each of them offered his or her own simple aspiration for the agency, including these two, which were among my favorites: “To keep changing, but always stay the same”; and “That we all make our clients rich and our mothers proud.”
But what made the biggest impression on me about the DraftFCB meeting was how clever this group was about numbers. Sure, marketing and advertising is about big ideas–the winning pitch, the boffo campaign. But it is also very much about numbers: budgets, ratings, impressions, ROI. Which is why the agency and its leaders spend lots of time thinking about ways to get to “numbers that matter”–numbers that attract attention, shape perceptions, change minds. Which brings us to the search for what it calls the “Holy S#!t” Number, and why one piece of data may be worth a thousand words.
Here are a few such numbers, identified in a workbook the agency developed to help account planners communicate more persuasively.
- 70% of teens who abuse prescription drugs get them from home.
- 80% of women plan to exclusively breastfeed; only 20% actually do.
- We’re in front of whiteboards 4 hours a day, but only use them for 4 minutes.
- 80% of people age 45+ consider changing careers; only 6% actually do.
Why do these numbers tell a story? Because they’re simple and easy to understand. Because they’re human and easily relatable. Because they surprise us, and/or capture the gap between intentions and actions. Indeed, on the agency’s Web, each video of its work on behalf of a client comes with a piece of data that shaped the campaign.
For Robert Harris Coffee Roasters: The average coffee drinker spends the equivalent of 11 days a year on coffee breaks. Robert Harris believes this is valuable fresh thinking time.
For Sharpie: In a world where only 13% of communication is handwritten, we need all the help we can get to break through the technological clutter.
For Dockers: Men’s testosterone levels have dropped 17% percent in the last 20 years. 82% of jobs lost in the last year were by men. The new Dockers campaign is a call to inspire the masculinity in all men.
Go figure. No, really, go figure! To figure out if you’ve arrived at a number that matters, the folks at DraftFCB argue, you have to ask, “Is it fit for human consumption? That is, it expressed in a way that others will not just be able to take in, but that will actually make them hungry to do something with it?”
And how do you get to such numbers? DraftFCB suggests at least three simple strategies. Juxtapose: “Put related numbers together to create new information.” Try different contexts: “What’s the social angle? The green angle? Put it in terms of time, or length, or volume.” Turn them over: “2% one way might not be as interesting as 98% the other way.”
However you choose to rethink your approach to numbers, it’s an important way to address a huge missed opportunity. Business isn’t just a battle of products and services. It’s a battle of ideas about priorities, opportunities, values, and value. Ultimately, those competing ideas get reduced to competing numbers. So, if you can arrive at numbers that matter, you’ve got a better chance at winning the battle of ideas.
Reprinted from Harvard Business Review