You Win Some, You Lose Some

Our VP of Product Management said something to the effect of, “This is a great idea, Lee!”…and he couldn’t have been more supportive in his tone.

baseball-player-pitcher-ball-163487In September (or October) of 2010, at one of our quarterly marketing offsite meetings, I pitched an idea.

I was an individual contributor at the time, a Product Marketing Manager, and by that time I’d already written most of the company’s marketing material. In doing so, I noticed an annoying pattern: to show our product/feature/technology differentiation, we had to include all these lengthy explanations of how our stuff worked. What our stuff did was often differentiated, but how our stuff did it was almost always differentiated. Our products solved specific, complex problems, so the details mattered quite a bit as they had real-world consequences.

Lacking any recognizable shorthand for much of the guts of our system, we ended up saying the same things over and over: in datasheets, in brochures, in presentations, on our website, etc., to describe what made our solutions different. We’d explain the same concepts in multiple places, which wasn’t just inefficient, but also led to things becoming outdated and inconsistent (for instance, a description would get updated in three places, but not two others).

My idea was a combination of consciously naming individual atomic features, and aggregating related features under a ‘marketable’ name that referred to the ‘thing’ achieved by that collection of features.

Or, put another way: to give our most important features fancy names.

I’m not suggesting it was new, but it would be new to us.

To overcome the repetition and inconsistency problem, I wanted to provide an explanation of the fancy feature in our most comprehensive marketing material – for instance, a datasheet – but then just refer to it by name (i.e., without explanation) elsewhere (e.g., in presentations, in brochures).

By doing so, I hoped to achieve a few things:

  • Establish and protect stronger market differentiation
  • Improve the aesthetics and design balance of our marketing material, by relying much less upon giant blocks of text
  • Improve the effectiveness of our marketing material by being less overwhelming to read and by giving customers fewer discrete things to remember, so they could better remember the important bits

To build my case, I went through a presentation that…

  • Highlighted the problem using real examples from our own website, presentations, and infosheets to show the amount of repetition, risk of inconsistency, and valuable space consumed
  • Demonstrated the effectiveness of memorable technology names with an interactive quiz that used real-world examples including Apple’s Retina Display, Audi’s Quattro system, and others, including some from B2B markets
  • Showed how we could apply the lessons with some worked-through test cases from our own solution portfolio

My pitch couldn’t have gone better…folks agreed there was a problem, recognized the real-world examples, and liked what I proposed.

My pitch couldn’t have gone better…folks agreed there was a problem, recognized the real-world examples, and liked what I proposed – both in terms of my specific examples for our material, and of the change in approach, in general.

Our VP of Product Management said something to the effect of, “This is a great idea, Lee!”…and he couldn’t have been more supportive in his tone.

Alright, cool: I saw a problem, pitched a solution, and would champion and directly execute its implementation.

Then something happened: one person said, “I don’t agree”.

One person said, “I don’t agree”.

Unfortunately for my idea, that one person was the executive into whom all of marketing reported.

He didn’t offer much in the way of an explanation, just something about “It wouldn’t work for us”, and “I don’t think there’s a problem”.

The VP of PM was incredulous, and what followed was a fairly – shall we say – animated exchange, in which the executive dug in, pulled rank, and shut the whole thing down. Then we broke for lunch.

The executive dug in, pulled rank, and shut the whole thing down. Then we broke for lunch.

For what it’s worth, I really appreciated the VP of PM’s passionate defence of my proposal.

As an amusing addition to this anecdote, there was a person in the room for whom that was their first day at the company: afterward, she took me aside to tell me how amazing/inspiring the pitch had been, and how excited and impressed she’d been…and then how disappointed and confused she was when it just got kiboshed without explanation. So kind’ve a mixed bag.

I don’t see things in the work environment as battles, with wins and losses; instead, I see them as collaborative.

Personally, I found the whole thing a bit entertaining (which might sound unprofessional, I suppose). Despite the headline of this post, I don’t see things in the work environment as battles, with wins and losses; instead, I see them as collaborative, because (presumably) we all want what’s best. Plus, this exec and I rarely agreed on anything, so I wasn’t surprised when he objected.

I’ll also say that his rejection of the proposal didn’t make me think any less of the idea – I thought it was the right thing to do back then, I’ve had no reason to change my mind since, and his shutting it down didn’t influence my thinking on the matter. It could be a good idea, and we could still not do it…both those things could be true at the same time. And it’s perhaps worth noting that I work hard to do the best job possible, but I don’t personally attach my self-worth to my professional life. I just thought it was a missed opportunity for the company, and I moved on.

Over the years since that day, a few people who were in the room have brought it up, like, “Hey, remember that time…” and we’d share a laugh.

And, as it happened, within a year or two we were all reporting into a different executive, and one day he independently came to the conclusion that maybe we should consider giving ‘marketing names’ to some of our core technologies, to avoid confusion and to capture our value better.

When that happened, a few folks kindly pinged me to say, “Isn’t this the idea you pitched a couple of years ago?” and we’d share another nostalgic laugh.

So ultimately we did (what I believe was) the right thing; it just took a little longer than it could have. And really, that’s the only thing that saddened me about the episode – the opportunity cost of the time that went by.

A few people in the room that day have brought it up over the years, like, “Hey, remember that time…”

So why am I telling this story?

I guess, to me, it’s just a funny anecdote that showcases the real-world challenges and frustrations of professional life. Through hard work, conscious growth, and good fortune, I’ve experienced a lot of professional success, but I’ve also had my share of failures: some ideas I’ve championed or executed have fallen flat, and others never even got the chance to succeed of fail.

Being a pro involves a lot of things, but moving on from challenges, frustrations, and failures (and, I should say, not dwelling on your successes, either) is definitely part of the mix.

Being a pro involves a lot of things, but moving on from challenges, frustrations, and failures is definitely part of the mix.

Lee Brooks is a freelance technology marketer based in the high-tech hub of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

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Posted in Leadership, Marketing
3 comments on “You Win Some, You Lose Some
  1. […] many companies and individuals struggle, because it’s rarely simple or straightforward. And things were no different at Sandvine. Due largely to a combination of past choices over a fairly long history, inconsistency, corporate […]

  2. […] many companies and individuals struggle, because it’s rarely simple or straightforward. And things were no different at Sandvine. Due largely to a combination of past choices over a fairly long history, inconsistency, corporate […]

  3. […] few days ago, I wrote about a concept I’d pitched back in 2010 while I was a Product Marketing Manager at Sandvine: to use market-friendly product, technology, […]

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