Built to last – but who cares?

Business books are full of delicious ironies.

For instance, Byron Sharp’s ‘How brands grow’ has inspired legions of devoted fans.  Despite being a demolition job on the whole concept of loyalty.

Likewise, Adam Morgan’s  ‘Eating the big fish’ has rightly become a market leader in planning thinking.  Despite being a paean to challenger brands.

Meanwhile. Robert Heath’s various papers on ‘Low involvement processing’ make James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ seem like ‘Topsy and Tim go to the Zoo’.  Despite championing the idea that we don’t want to think too hard about brands.

Based on this apparently immutable, inverse relationship between business titles and their results, I’ve long thought of launching a book called ‘A poor man’s guide to advertising’, as a sure-fire way of making me filthy rich.

However, my faith in this logic has been shattered by a recent re-read of an old favourite, ‘Built to last’ by Collins and Porras.  According to my theory, this analysis of the ingredients behind long-term corporate success shouldn’t stand the test of time.  But it does – in spades.

OK, so some of the companies the authors praised back in 1994 have had their troubles since then (Motorola, Ford and SONY spring to mind).  But the basic principles of having a ‘Big Hairy Audacious Goal’, an enduring purpose beyond making money, and a restless culture of self-improvement still really resonate.  (Arguably, it’s precisely because the companies named above lost these qualities that they got into difficulty).

So the book is still a great guide for creating enduring corporate value.  But hold on a minute.  Maybe companies and agencies are less interested in doing this in the first place, these days?  Perhaps today’s business environment is so pressurised and short-termist that next week’s figures are all that count?  Or the Quarterly results.  Or, at best, a sprint to an IPO.  It certainly feels like the whole idea of ‘building something to last’ has gone out of fashion, which I believe is not only a great shame (surely it’s more satisfying for all of us to create something of enduring value than a flash in the pan?) but economically flawed (a host of studies show that the long-term approach is much more effective than the short-term view).

If you haven’t read ‘Built to Last’ please do, as we could all do with lifting our heads up from the day-to-day.  Think about the short-term, of course, as most studies show that lasting success is the cumulative result of earlier, ongoing victories (it doesn’t just appear out of nowhere).  But try to keep an eye on the more distant horizon too.

In the meantime, maybe my theory still holds good.  Best get on with that book of mine…

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