Iterating vs Quitterating

Tons of things separate the amateurs from the professionals. But to me, one of the most obvious signs of whether someone is a pro is their willingness to pivot and iterate after a less-than-spectacular result.

Or perhaps it’s the difference between talent and skill.

Here’s a spoken-word version of this piece for your dining and dancing pleasure.

Part of the chess match that is Major League Baseball involves whether or not the starting pitcher goes deep into a game. Some will tell you that even if your starter has a no-hitter going, by the seventh inning the hitters are seeing them for the third time. And what are the chances that the pitcher has any surprises left up his sleeve? So sometimes, even when things are going well for a pitcher, a manager will pull them out in that third time through the batting order, because the assumption is that a professional hitter has learned things from their previous failures and there’s a pretty good chance that the result will be different. But even the best of the best Major League Baseball players fail around sixty percent of the time.

Actors will tell you they get rejected from around ninety percent of the roles they audition for.

Television networks initially rejected the pilot episodes for shows like Star Trek, Big Bang Theory, The Sopranos and yes, even Breaking Bad.

And the stories are legion about how The Beatles, Ed Sheeran, Elvis, Madonna, Kanye West and pretty much everyone else in music was rejected by countless record labels before they finally found their way.

Or, you can do it another way.

I wrote a book several years ago where I referred to Claude Hopkins as a member of a holy trinity of copywriters; Hopkins was a huge believer in the effectiveness of free samples, In his 1926 work, My Life In Advertising, Hopkins said,

A good article is its own best salesman.

It is uphill work to sell goods in print or in person without samples.

The hardest struggle of my life has been to educate advertisers in the use of samples. Or to trials of some kind.

They would not think of sending out a salesman without samples. But they will spend fortunes on advertising to urge people to buy without seeing or testing.

No one has ever disputed the wisdom of Claude Hopkins, and so several years ago when I was working with a radio station that was struggling to get attention in a very saturated market, I suggested the idea of giving out free samples. Yes, free samples of a radio station. This was my theory: For virtually no cost, we could send the daytime DJ’s, including the morning and afternoon drive hosts, out to various high-traffic areas and just have the radio station playing on speakers, featuring only the very biggest hits on our playlist and have every possible version of the radio station’s logo visible.

So rather than do what most stations do, which is buy expensive ads on billboards or on the side of a bus with a photo of a musician, we would be out there for free, playing the greatest music of all time and hopefully, if you looked up for a second to see where that great song was coming from, you’d see the logo and make a mental note of it. So we were literally handing out free samples of the station to everyone who walked by. And as a bonus, if you had a second to stop and chat, you’d be talking to the DJs who play the music and were the ultimate ambassadors for the radio station. It was, quite possibly, the highest quality, most cost-effective marketing the radio station had ever done.

Our tech wizard figured out a way for us to use a mobile internet connection that gave us studio-quality audio back to the radio station, so if you weren’t on site with us, we still sounded great and the quality of the on-air product didn’t suffer at all.

Until, that is, the trains came in.

We had set up for the first of these broadcasts at the very busiest possible place in Toronto during the morning rush: Union Station. It’s right downtown, in the heart of the business district, and is basically Toronto’s version of Grand Central Station – the transportation hub for the 4th largest city in North America.

And what did everyone do when they got off the train? Checked their phones. Thousands of people walking past our broadcast location, checking their phones. Checking their phones and chewing through our bandwidth. The bandwidth we were depending on for the morning show to be on the air.

One of the many other things that Claude Hopkins drove home as a standard practice in the advertising world was the idea of testing. And in Hopkins’ world of direct marketing, everything was being tested in every ad. The size of the type. The number of words. Specific words and calls to action. The position of a coupon on the page. Everything. Hopkins would practically thrive on failure, because failure allowed him to improve the next iteration by clearly identifying what things worked, knowing for certain which things didn’t, and pivoting accordingly.

Here’s the thing, though: The process of iteration isn’t easy. There’s considerable skill, wisdom and hard work involved in identifying the elements that aren’t serving you. It takes imagination and creativity to come up with the elements that will make the next iteration more effective. And it takes buy-in from each stakeholder and a commitment to do the work necessary to succeed. Because it’s surprising how quickly an enterprise like that can become a house of cards once you realize that not everyone on the roster is a true professional.

And sometimes, you don’t come to that realization until your best hitter throws his bat in the dugout and asks the manager to take him out of the lineup. Or your actor friend sells their stuff and moves back to run the family farm in Nebraska. Your drummer sells his kit. Or, your radio station decides the whole “free samples” thing was actually a terrible idea.

There’s iterating, and there’s quitterating.

When you’re iterating, you look at what you got wrong, what you could have done better, and what you will do to improve. And then you get down to work. The hard work of being a professional and rising to the challenges – or maybe even the opportunities – that failure provides. You go to the locker room and watch video. See if you and your coach can spot where you’re falling short, and come up with a plan to fix it.

When you’re quitterating, you don’t have to do any of that. You get to be a victim. And it’s somebody else’s fault. You struck out because the pitcher is cheating. You got thrown out at second base because the other team is stealing signs. You’re not hitting because the idiot manager has you in the wrong spot in the batting order. You just take your bat and your ball and go home.

You can ride the bench with the other amateurs all you want. I’m going to keep swinging for the fences.

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