Cannes Communiqué: Lesson by Malcolm Gladwell

Greetings from the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity in warm and sunny southern France, where the global marketing industry has gathered to celebrate what’s working, what’s coming and what’s hot in marketing communications. This week, a Ketchum contingent is in attendance to capture as much information from the many impressive sessions.

First off, it’s not often you get to hear a live speaker like New Yorker columnist and best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell (the mind behind The Tipping Point, Outliers and others), so we queued early to get a good seat. 

He didn’t disappoint (even if he did use material from an earlier essay). What, he asked, would happen if we all spent less time trying to be first, and a good deal more time being better seconds and thirds?

Citing examples from the military, the Industrial Revolution, personal computer design and the evolution of social networks, he made a compelling argument: getting there first may come with glory, but rarely with the profits that accrue to those who improve upon the original. Inventors get the fame, but it’s the tweakers and implementers who reap the rewards. Just look at the iPad and MP3 players, or Facebook and other social networking services. Thoughtful hindsight and the willingness to improve upon what has come before is perhaps more important than the original innovation.

Of course it would be nice to be both inventor and tweaker — to get the credit and the reward. This rarely happens, Gladwell argues, because cultures or systems built for innovation are usually not optimized for implementation. They’re not hungry enough, or are too unfocused to see the real opportunity before them.

The lesson: not everyone will invent the wheel, but some will figure out how to make it move things, and those are the ones who reap the biggest returns.

In our own business, I wonder if we sometimes worry too much about doing things fast and first, when we might benefit from slowing them down and doing them better — even if we’re doing them second or third. Any thoughts?