Seth Godin And The Taleban?

The modern marketing world shares a lot with asymetric warfare…

What on earth does Seth Godin have to do with al-Qaeda and the Taleban? What links Somali pirates to the story of the iPod? surprisingly – quite a lot. Godin brilliantly describes a new digital economy, one populated by super-connected Linchpins milking their Purple Cows. And strange as it seems – that world shares a lot with the 21st century asymmetric warfare of Iraq,  Afghanistan and the horn of Africa.

At least it does when viewed through the lense of Henley Business School. I was lucky enough to recently attend an absorbing session led by Prof. David James as he introduced the main concepts from his new book co-authored with Lt.Cl. Paul Kerney – an officer from British Special Forces. So, that rare combo of an ex-Ad-man turned business school academic with a guy who led a crack squad of 100 Royal Marines hunting al-Qaeda. This is like learning the accountant from the third floor has just invested last months profits in a Columbian ‘medical import-export’ company. But James and Kerney shared a convincing message.

Agile Corporate Terrorists


In summary, just as traditional western military prowess can be challenged by cheap IED’s and hit and run tactics, so large brands are increasingly in the sights (or should that be sites?) – of fast, technically savvy and aggressive – ‘corporate terrorists’ – smart businesses that change the rules and steal market share whilst we’re not looking. Low budget airlines, online retailers and digital music services change the rules and leave traditional players trying to work out how the can stay in the game. Prof.

David James has an engaging style and clearly has a passion for pricking some of the finely tailored egos of large corporations. He sees them as being too slow to react, thwarting individualism and orientated more towards their beloved systems than the market. Kerney had a serious career in UK Special Ops – working alongside US counterparts in Baghdad and Kabul. I imagine he still keeps a drone in his garage. And should he wish, he could monitor my blog, track me  take me out from 3 miles away, so, I for one, ain’t going to contradict anything he says – ever. Kerney described a world far removed from the one marketers live in. Lets be honest: If we make mistakes, a feed may not be updated or a promotion may run late. If a Special Ops officer makes a mistake, brave and talented young men, serving their country – can get killed. And increasingly the enemy in Afghanistan and Iraq does not fight the war of the 1850’s, 1940’s or the 1980’s or 1990’s. It uses 21st century tactics. Low cost. Quick to change.

With devolved decision-making and a passionate will to win. IED’s. Suicide bombers. Smart use of new technology – from texting to social networking. Whilst guerilla tactics have always existed – from the Apache to Churchill’s SOE – the Taleban and al-Qaeda have taken it to a whole new level. To combat this new threat, Special Forces have re-organised themselves too. They had to. Its core organisational elements are Communication + Trust + Attitude. Communication of clear objectives to the team and connecting to vital intelligence.

Trusting The Team And The Ooda Loop …


Officers also need to Trust their troops to make decisions as there is no time to go up and down traditionally tidy Sandhurst hierarchies. And Special Forces have plenty of Attitude: opinionated, entrepreneurial, anti-establishment but still prepared to carry out a plan with discipline. They have to be more fluid, more flexible and quicker. It reminded me of the famous line from Woody Allen, that “the mafia is highly profitable but spends only a small amount of overhead on office stationery”. In military terms, the new 21st century enemy is keeping an eye on the OODA-Loop.

The OODALOOP? Not those green faced helpers of Willy Wonka – you’re thinking Oompaloompas. The OODA-Loop is a model created by a US top-gun in the 1950’s describing the fighter pilot’s strategy. OODA = Observe > Orientated > Decide > Action. Sounds simple enough doesn’t it? So where is the risk to our pilot? It is in the gaps in that loop, inside that process. The time in-between observing and orientation. The delay between deciding and action. And the smaller, more nimble and more cost-effective the enemy is – the easier it is to ‘hit the inside of the OODA-Loop’ before the better armed and larger enemy has time to react.Al-Queda, the Taleban and other terrorist groups around the world are loose knit cooperatives run more like a smart start-up than a Sandhurst academy.As James and Kerney point out They ‘always attack the centre of gravity’. They exploit the gap inside the loop.

So what does this all mean? Do the military metaphors provide a useful insight for modern marketing? There is nothing new of course in comparing warfare with business thinking. From Sun-Tzu to Machiavelli and from Musashi to von-Clauswitz and  – the comparison has always been made. Ries & Trout – who wrote the classic Marketing Warfare in 1990 pointed out how marketing was a battle of resources, competition and positioning.And famously of course, a battle of the minds.

The New Marketing Warfare


The difference with James & Kerney in their recent take is pointing out the battle is more one of organisational culture and the need to have less authoritative power, not more of it. Businesses have a choice – to be conservative and hope the old approach will make a comeback or to try to embrace the tactics of the corporate terrorist. More corporate commando than corporate general. Less captain on the bridge of the aircraft carrier – more band of Somali pirates planning to win big and fail cheap. It was recently reported that Google feared Facebook but that Facebook was taking a close look at the threat of Twitter. And that Twitter was now in the sights of Foursquare.

Nimble, smart challengers are appearing and challenging the previous nimble, smart challengers. It is a world that is familiar to readers of Seth Godin. People operating outside the norm, having flexible careers, being passionate about what they do and using technology to gain an advantage over big players. The 21st century military world is one of asymmetric warfare. Our 21st century marketing world is one of asymmetric marketing full of new entrants, challengers and disruptive dis-intermediaries. They find the gaps and target the ‘centre of gravity before we even know we have the gaps. But rather than be defensive, brands and companies need to adopt the same approach that Special Forces have done – and use those same commando tactics on the competition. There is no monopoly on these kinds of tactics, it is a question of Communication + Trust + Attitude.

In my experience it is alliances, collaborations and partners that can make the difference in marketing – and it makes me wonder if this is what will make the difference in modern warfare. The enemy of my enemy – is my friend. Me, I’m going to embrace this whole marketing commando approach. In fact, I’m take it further and I’m getting in touch with Lt.Col Kerney to see if he and his elite sniper team can take out that poorly performing supplier for me. That really is target marketing.

This is an oompa loompa – not an Ooda Loop
Not an oompaloompa – but an Oodaloop

Author: Andrew Armour

Andrew Armour is a marketing and media professional, a specialist in business partnerships and the Founder of the consulting business - Benchstone Limited. His career spans from the UK music industry to the America's Cup, from winning agency pitches to securing key digital content deals. He is married to Viv, lives in Hampshire and works in London.

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