Fighting Institutional Inertia

Yesterday as I was eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich during my lunch break, I started thinking about institutional inertia and how people like me have been fighting it their entire careers. When you're best known for your new media work, you're playing in the realm of things that have yet to be accepted on a widespread basis by most marketers.  You're not part of the camp of technologies, strategies and tactics that marketers have learned to rely on over the years.  Instead, you're constantly fighting a battle to get marketers to not only accept newer, unproven things, but also to do that at the expense (either wholly or partially) of that which is known to be somewhat reliable to them.

That's not an easy job.  And I'm not trying to toot my own horn here, but I'm coming to realize that I will likely be fighting this same uphill battle for the rest of my career in marketing and media.

The first uphill battle was convincing marketing directors and brand managers that online advertising could work.  Lots of them jumped on the bandwagon initially, but many of them fell off during the dot com crash.  Let's not forget that 2000 through 2003 were not great years for online advertising.  And if you consider that the fight really started in 1994, it took nearly nine years for mainstream acceptance to arrive.  (And I still run into advertisers who haven't done anything meaningful with online media at all...)

Along the way, there have been a number of smaller battles fought and won - rich media, eCRM, paid search, SEO and behavioral targeting, just to name a few.  There are still quite a few battles being fought - mobile marketing, social networking, conversational marketing, online video and many, many more.

All too often, I'm working with the thing that can be so incredibly powerful when used correctly by a marketer, yet isn't accepted into the lexicon of mainstream marketing.  And I'm fighting the same force every time - institutional inertia.

And it's not just the frustration of having the door slammed in one's face 95 times out of every 100 tries.  Selling in a concept is just the beginning.  Five times out of 100, you succeed with the initial sale.  At least a couple of those successes will die when the person you managed to convince goes back to his internal team, sees the magnitude of the institutional inertia he'll have to fight and goes, "forget it."  Even if you do manage to turn on everyone who needs to bless an idea on the client side, the nincompoop forest begins to spring up.  Your job has just begun.

You have to protect the new concept from sell-in all the way through execution, lest it get co-opted to serve a purpose it was never designed to address.  You might sell in a terrific brand concept, cover all the measurement metrics and get head-nods across the board, and halfway through the campaign be told that the whole thing is unsuccessful because it's not getting enough ad clicks.  You'll show the results of the brand studies you sold in, and how they demonstrate that the campaign is working, and you'll reference the presentation you gave when you sold the campaign in, showing how ad clicks were never a part of the success measurement discussion.  You'll be ignored, and told to mold your compelling idea into something that will get more ad clicks and completely defeat the purpose of what you set out to do.  A tree has sprung up in the nincompoop forest, and you've just collided with it.  At a very high rate of speed.

It's all because of institutional inertia.  Organizations get used to doing things in certain ways, looking at things in a certain light, and shepherding things through certain processes.  Many of these things are simply not compatible with the notion of getting the most out of new media.  And they'll kill your idea or mutate it to the point of unrecognizability.

So, back to my peanut butter and jelly sandwich...  While I was eating lunch I was thinking about who is better off - the guy who is always fighting for the ideas that are on the cutting edge, or the guy who waits until mainstream success is well on its way?  In short, who has the easier gig, the change agent or the opportunist?

I've seen so many companies die off for committing the unpardonable sin - being too early to the game.  To add insult to injury, another company will arrive on the scene years later with the same idea and have success with it.  There is such a thing as being too early.

I see this in my own business all the time.  The online media buying part of Underscore is booming.  Work comes to us, rather than the other way around.  Meanwhile, conversational marketing initiatives come to us in a trickle, even though we've put a massive amount of effort into educating marketers about how to make the most of them.

I'm not saying that I'd like to move from being a change agent to an opportunist with respect to conversational marketing.  But I am saying that as someone who tries his best to fight the good fight every day, it can wear you down.  You look over at the guy who spent 10 hours selling in something that's profitable and effective, and you've put in 50 hours and don't have anything other than some initial interest to show for it.

I think institutional inertia is probably the most powerful force in business today.  What are some of your strategies for combatting it?  Please share in comments.