Do You Spend Most of Your Time on Defense or Offense?

Norman Rockwell, The Recruit

Norman Rockwell, The Recruit

I confess my relationship with American Football is one of foggy understanding and distant admiration. As a child growing up in Britain, I occasionally saw Charlie Brown practising his kicking; I caught the razzmatazz of the Super Bowl on TV; I sensed the mystery of the huddle, the glamour of the quarterback, the drama of the snap; I felt the heroic resonance of names like Payton and Montana, Marino and ‘Mean’ Joe Greene; I recall the Green Bay Packers in the snow. Yes, I’ve watched ‘Jerry Maguire’ and ‘Remember the Titans.’ And I’ve cheered on the Seahawks at recent Super Bowls (Ka-kaw!). But for the most part I have understood American Football ‘through a glass darkly.’

Viewing with this constrained comprehension, I have always been impressed by the fact that each gridiron team has a separate offensive and defensive unit. (To a soccer fan this is an engaging eccentricity.) Broadly speaking, the offensive players pass and run; shimmy and leap; catch and drive. The defensive players block and tackle; guard and obstruct; sack and stop. And with each turnover one unit jogs off the pitch and the other marches on. There’s an elegant clarity to things.

It’s often struck me that we have offensive and defensive modes at work. Sometimes we’re on offense: pitching, proposing, provoking; reaching bold conclusions, making brave suggestions. On offense we dictate the rhythm of our week, the direction and pace of progress. We call the plays. Then sometimes we’re on defense: reassuring and repairing, maintaining and mitigating, explaining and justifying. Defense is all about stabilising relationships, securing accounts, holding onto what we’ve got. Defense is responding - to Clients, to the competition, to circumstances.

As individuals and businesses we have to be able to operate in both modes: to call the shots and respond to them. In the course of our careers we all need to handle the good times and the bad.

There are, of course, those that thrive on defense. These are the mediators and moderators; the people who build bridges and sooth spirits. They have a rare and precious talent, and it’s one that any enterprise should value.

But I would suggest that most people, and indeed most businesses, can only sustain defense for so long. When we’re consistently on the back foot, in recovery mode, we gradually lose our confidence, self-esteem and sense of identity. We become short-termist, cautious and conservative. We start to double guess our Clients and play it safe. Defense can sap strength and damage morale.

Most of us are at our best when we are progressing and pioneering. In the long run we need to play to our own strengths, not to other people’s; with our heads held high, rather than looking back over our shoulders; setting the agenda rather than responding to it. In the long run we need to regain our swagger. We need to be on offense.

So perhaps the old adage is true: attack really is the best form of defence. As the legendary footballer and coach Vince Lombardi advocated:

‘Offensively, you do what you do best and you do it again and again. Defensively, you attack your opponent’s strength.’

Vince Lombardi

Vince Lombardi

It is a critical task of leadership to know when to switch between our defensive and offensive lines. Sometimes, when we are on a winning streak, we can get complacent and fail to shore up our incumbent base. Then we need defense. Sometimes, when the business is under threat, there is no alternative but defense. Sometimes, when opportunity knocks, offense comes naturally. And sometimes, even when we are assailed on every front, we just need to switch to offense in order to rebuild morale and regain control of our destiny. 

Making the call between offense and defense is rarely easy. Often we have to engage both modes at the same time. It’s a matter of judgement and experience. And it’s also, of course, about hard work.

‘The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary.’
Vince Lombardi

No. 149



Are You a Good Loser?

I recently attended the Artist and Empire exhibition at Tate Britain (which runs until 10 April). It boasts portraits of British aristocrats in unfamiliar local garb; maps and mementos; etchings of exotic wildlife; and, inevitably, partisan paintings of triumphs and treaties.

I was struck by the fact that there were also a good many images recording defeat: heroic deaths, military martyrdoms, hasty retreats. You can see the demise of General Gordon at Khartoum; the last stand of Major Allan Wilson at the Shangani; and, in a rather portentous painting, an only known survivor making his way into Jellalabad, Afghanistan. Creating a positive narrative around disaster seems to have been a Victorian speciality. I imagine the intention of these tragic images was to convey a sense of nobility; a reinforcement of values; a commitment to persevere.

The exhibition prompted me to consider how we engage with failure in commerce. How good are we at dealing with defeat?

‘Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.’
Vince Lombardi, Coach, Green Bay Packers

Whether we like it or not, defeat is an everyday reality for even the most successful modern business. Brand owners have to recognise that their customers are endlessly fickle; their competition will occasionally outflank them; often their new product launches will founder. Agencies have to concede that they will generally lose more pitches than they win; most of their output will go unrewarded; and, like political careers, all accounts end in failure.

Of course, we are taught that mistakes are essential to entrepreneurship. Loss is a source of lessons and learning. We want to ‘treat every failure as an opportunity.’ We endeavour to ‘fail forwards.’ We love ‘burning platforms.’ We ‘mustn’t waste a good crisis.’

This doesn’t mean we book a ticker-tape parade every time someone cocks up. In truth, despite the management wisdom, we tend to be superstitious about loss. It punctures momentum. It lingers like a bad odour. You don’t want to get too close.

From my time in the Agency world, I recall that one’s initial response to defeat was often to cry foul, to blame failure on the foolishness of the Clients, the perversity of the process. Personally I would immediately seek comedy in defeat. I found it had a short-term restorative effect.

The first question after an intensive six-week pitch for a luxury brand came from the laconic representative of China, the most important growth market: ‘Where is the luxury in this?’ We knew immediately the game was up…

'To the Memory of Brave Men' by Allan Stewart

In time we commission reviews, post mortems and ‘wash-ups.’ We ask for Client feedback. We pose the difficult questions. We scrutinise procedures and personnel.

However, excessive self-reflection can be counterproductive. We find ourselves seeking scapegoats, ‘reaching for the blame gun.’ So the audits and introspection start to damage morale. I well recall being reprimanded by a younger colleague who felt that the Agency leadership’s painful honesty was undermining collective confidence. And we thought we were being fashionably transparent.

My former boss, Sir John Hegarty, didn’t subscribe at all to the conventional view of defeat.

‘Many people talk about failures as opportunities to learn. Saying this seems to make people feel wise and worldly. Well I say bollocks to failure. Don’t dwell on it. Move on. Forget it.’

Sir John Hegarty, BBH, Hegarty on Creativity

John’s contention resonates well with creative people. They have to insulate themselves against damaging negativity; they must look forward to opportunity, not back at disappointment. Maybe we could all benefit from a little indifference to defeat.

In my opinion we are generally too emotional in the immediate aftermath of failure and too rational when the dust has settled.

I wonder, should we adopt some of the Victorians’ myth making? Perhaps, rather than embarking on earnest self-examination, we ought to seek the emotion in error, find heroism in loss, defiance in disaster. We should use missed opportunities as a means of reinforcing belief, commitment and values. Setbacks don’t just illuminate the way forward; they galvanize the collective spirit.

And I’d still maintain that, just occasionally, it helps to laugh in the face of failure.

‘If at first you don’t succeed, try try again. Then quit. There’s no use being a damn fool about it.’
WC Fields

Previously published in the Guardian Media & Tech Network

 No. 66