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What Scottish golf taught me about marketing and communications

What’s best to go out in?

Recently, I spent 10 days in Scotland, roaming hither and heather to delight in places where higher powers once pressed hands on ground, then scratched and poked it to shape fairways, burns, bunkers and appropriately named adjacencies, rough.

This jaunt was meant for all-play-no-work-makes-John-a-happy-boy. And yet, as I went over a day’s 18 holes, something from that other life at the office always attached itself to my brain like Scottish thistle to corduroys.

After my very first round, one during which I bathed in sun and rain, rode a temperature swing of 61°F to 48°F and watched my Titleist ProV1 either pierce the air like a missile or get slapped sideways by a turbine disguised as wind, I did remember why a low-80 score became near-90. And, as I pondered the ups and downs and lefts and rights of ball flight, an intrusion from my workaday world some 3,200 miles west announced itself and wouldn’t leave until I gave in and gave thought to it.

Uncertainty is certain

If you want to play golf in Scotland, best you accept uncertainty. It could be sunny in St. Andrews but rainy in Crail only 10 miles down the coast. An 8 iron on the Old Course’s “Short” hole at 10 AM becomes a 5 wood at 1 PM. Four layers drops to one by the 18th.

So it goes for a round of life in business. Things change fast these days so predictions on what we’ll weather in marketing and communications aren’t so sure. A new technology creates a new playing field, or an uneven one. That sleepy competitor gets bought up by an aggressive VC firm; your brand is in their crosshairs. Two successive quarters of soft numbers sends your clients’ budgets packing, along with your champions there.

My advice: Pack accordingly

Because I had a tee time a few hours after I landed in Edinburgh, I wondered, “What do I go out in?” Flying over in mid-May, I wore rain pants over my underwear, a half-sleeve rainproof zip-up top over a lightweight, long-sleeve half-zip breathable crew neck and soft-sole golf shoes. Plus, I had a waterproof slicker for my golf bag packed in one of its pockets and in others an umbrella, rain gloves, rain hat and a heavier rain-resistant sweater. I was ready when I walked out of the airport and during that first round, I used everything just described…at various times.

So what’s that mean for our rounds in business, other than the Scout motto: “Be prepared”? Here are my top three pointers for playing the uncertainties of marketing and communications.

  1. Assess the influencers – Over a year ahead of my trip I checked long range forecasts, average temperatures and rainfall, typical crowds, tournament days, rates, etc. I wanted to get a good sense of the major forces affecting not just my trip but my total experience. We should do the same at work. If we’re not monitoring the key trends influencing our businesses, we’re either counting on luck or perhaps too focused on the day-to-day. The big picture can indicate what the conditions might be when we’re ready to play. There are several trend-watching services out there. Or, perhaps a staffer or intern can become a trend tracker; even an hour a week can provide useful perspective. Whatever, let’s make sure we have a good feel for what the jet streams of our businesses are sweeping our way.
  2. Check the weather daily – I wasn’t satisfied with just having a sense of the big picture, I needed to know the immediate conditions. As mentioned, the wind and weather in Scotland can differ dramatically even between short distances. Every day I played, I checked the weather and even the hour-by-hour forecasts to have a better sense of what to wear and when might be best for a tee time. For us marketing players, we should not only scan the macro, but also get down close to the ground and assess in real time the grass, grain and undulations. So for instance, if we don’t get daily news feeds on key technologies, competitors and economic factors for our brand categories, we risk missing something that can change how we play our shots.  In Scottish golf, there are plenty of blind shots; we all must deal with lack of clarity. However, if we’re not in the moment, we’re out of touch, and we’re not in the best position to play our best.
  3. Create scenarios – I was quite surprised that I played pretty well on courses I’d never seen before. Many factors contributed to that but one that stuck out like the “Spectacle” bunkers at Carnoustie (the caddie called them the “Dolly Partons”) was using scenarios. For most holes, I had to study the general layout, the distances to hazards and the wind direction. Then I’d have to consider my play: how was I hitting the ball that day, was the wind favoring my shot or not, and so on. Finally, I’d think about what the result would be if I hit the shot solidly or the risk if I tweaked left or pushed it right. Then I’d commit. It didn’t always work out, but in the end I was satisfied, and in some cases elated. Lesson: Make a habit of reviewing what ifs before the ifs become cliffs we fall over. Don’t wait, anticipate. Let’s get our teams together to assess the influencers, check the weather and imagine “what ifs”. We’ll have plenty of information to plan our shots and pull the trigger with ample confidence.

I realize that I’m talking about basics. But, I’ve often seen these basics ignored in favor of “ready, shoot, aim”. Do that in Scotland and you could end up in “Hell” bunker. Is that where you want your best shot to end up?