Think Outside of the Box if you want to have More Influence

Posted by martin.parnell |

I was listening to a recent episode of “Under The Influence”, on CBC Radio and presenter, Terry O'Reilly, was talking about someone he refers to as The Most Interesting Adman in The World i.e.  Albert Lasker.  In  O’Reilly’s words, “Lasker had a hand in influencing professional baseball, Planned Parenthood, North American breakfast , the American Cancer Society and not one, but two presidential elections. And he just happened to change the world of advertising in the process.” 

He lived from 1880 until 1952 and brands he helped launch nearly 100 years ago are still with us today. Lasker began his career at ad agency Lord  & Thomas, where he was introduced to co-founders Daniel Lord and Ambrose Thomas. Thomas took young Albert under his wing and began teaching him the ad business. One day during his apprenticeship, Lord & Thomas received a small advertising request from a company that made knitwear for infants.

It was run by a very difficult German man, so the agency sent young Lasker over to convince the clothes-maker to increase his budget. A nervous Albert Lasker made his pitch, but the owner was insulted the agency had sent over such an inexperienced man, saying, "They think because this is a baby business, they can send children over here!"Lasker began to fret, but then - on the spot - decided to repeat his entire pitch in German, the language he had learned from his father.

The cranky owner was won over by Lasker's chutzpah. Then increased his advertising budget. Lasker went on to impress his bosses with further successes. At only 23, Albert Lasker had already earned enough money from salary and bonuses to buy Daniel Lord's shares when Lord retired.

But the more Lasker learned about advertising, the more he believed agencies were leaving a lot of money on the table by not offering copywriting services. His instincts told him that what the advertising said was more important than just where it was placed. There was only one thing standing in the way of his success: Lasker wasn't exactly sure what made good advertising work.

He began analyzing all the advertising he could find, looking for an underlying theory. All he saw was advertising that announced new products or new ways to use old products. Then one day, the answer came to him, in the form of a Canadian named John E. Kennedy. He was a strapping 6-foot tall, ex-Mountie who used to write ads for the Hudson's Bay Company. The secret to advertising, Kennedy said, can be summed up in just three words: "Salesmanship in print."

Those three words would change the advertising world forever. "Salesmanship in print" was an epiphany to the advertising world in 1904. Essentially, Kennedy was saying that advertising had to persuade. It had to give people reasons to buy the product. It had to convince. Up until then, all advertising was just straight facts. Here's the product, here's what it costs.

Lasker decided to try out Kennedy’s idea. He knew of a washing machine maker that was spending $15,000 a year on advertising but wasn't getting much of a response. So Kennedy wrote a persuasive print ad that gave women reasons why they should buy a new washer. In the first week alone, the ad pulled in 1,547 inquires. Within four months, the washing machine company doubled its advertising budget.

Within 6 months, it was one of the four largest advertisers in the country. Within a year, its business had tripled and the company had to build a new plant to handle all the orders. Lasker was convinced. Writing ads was more important than just placing ads. With this new approach, Lasker went from strength to strength.

A small firm from Milwaukee called the B.J. Johnson Soap Company approached Lord & Thomas with a laundry product. Lasker felt the laundry category was too crowded and cutthroat. Do you have anything else, he asked? The soap company said yes, they had a bar of soap made from palm and olive oils. It was called Palmolive, but they didn't have much hope for it.

Lasker  created a campaign around the "beauty appeal" of Palmolive, rather than its cleaning qualities. Then he sent letters to 50,000 druggists telling them Palmolive was about to launch a massive coupon promotion and to get ready for a stampede of shoppers. The soap company immediately received one thousand orders from retailers.

One year later, the B.J. Johnson Soap Company was redeeming two thousand coupons per month. 99 per cent of drugstores were stocking Palmolive Soap. By 1916, Palmolive was the best-selling soap in the world. The B.J. Johnson Soap Company changed its name to the Palmolive Company. Lasker went on to have similar successes with Goodyear Tyres, Sunkist, Puffed Wheat and Sun-Maid Raisins, to name but a few.”

I find the whole story of Albert Lasker a fascinating one, partly because he was able to achieve all his many accomplishments whilst suffering from severe bouts of depression and crippling anxiety. 

Lasker  was able to make the most of every opportunity and persevered where others had failed. The way that Lasker was able to achieve such significant accomplishments was by not only using his initiative and incredible streak of creativity but also by thinking outside of the box.

This is not an easy task for most people. In fact, according to Jim Haudan Co-founder and CEO of Root Inc. In his article, 3 Ways to Think Outside the Box More Often, published on the INC. website, January 4th. 2018, Haudan explains:

“Thinking outside the box is supposed to mean confronting problems in atypical ways, thinking creatively and freely, and encouraging frequent challenges to the status quo. Outside-the-box thinking, in the creative words of Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino, is "constructive noncomformity" behavior. This is behavior that deviates from organizational norms or common expectations, to the benefit of the organization.” 

However, he reveals that “In a study of 1,000 employees in a variety of industries, fewer than 10% said that they worked in firms that encouraged nonconformity or thinking outside the box. Additionally, the Harvard Business Review conducted an internal study asking employees how often they saw senior leaders challenge the status quo or ask their teams to think outside the box. Only 29% said "often" or "always," 42% said "never" or "almost never," and 32% said "sometimes."

So, if you are someone who thinks that this strategy may work for you, Haudan tells you how you can “nurture the ability to look at things differently and encourage constructive nonconformity”. Here’s how:

  1. Question the status quo regularly. Make nonconformity the expected conversation. Ask "Why?" "How might we...?" and "What if...?" Put apparent conflicting issues side by side and begin to solve for them as a team. Conventional wisdom might say resolving conflicting issues isn't possible, but if you challenge "the way we do it today," you'll come up with new thinking.  Here's an example activity: Give your people the opportunity to imagine they work for your competitor, and their job is to attack your organization where you are most vulnerable. This is a great way to challenge the strategic status quo and identify new issues from a different perspective. 
  1. Take a wider perspective and oscillate between uncommon content!  Breakthrough thinking and creativity often come from making uncommon connections. Keep widening the lens aperture to take in different and broader perspectives that could make sense. The key is to oscillate between seemingly unrelated topics, concepts, or issues to find the uncommon connection that causes a different view or an idea to move "outside the box." Don't discount anything as unrelated or unconnected. 
  1. Draw a picture as a team. Draw a picture of your challenge and possible ways to solve it. You don't have to be Da Vinci. Drawing engages your right brain and can release the hold your logical left brain has on thinking about the issue or "the box" the same way. Metaphors are also very powerful tools for holding a lot of information in a small amount of space. The key is to engage your team in the process of visual thinking and visual iteration to encourage different views about how a solution could take a new path.” 

This may help you if you wish to succeed not only in marketing your product, but in many areas of business where a little creative thinking and a challenge to the status quo may help you come up with new and interesting initiatives.

To listen to the full podcast about Albert Lasker, Download S8E07 - The Most Interesting Adman in The World: The Story of Albert Lasker (An Encore Presentation) on Under The Influence on the CBC’s website.

About the Author

Martin Parnell is the Best-Selling author of MARATHON QUEST and RUNNING TO THE EDGE and his final book in the Marathon Trilogy, THE SECRET MARATHON-Empowering women and girls in Afghanistan through sport, was released on October 30th 2018. He speaks on having a “Finish the Race Attitude – Overcoming Obstacles to Achieve Your Full Potential” and has written for, or been covered by CNNBBCCBCThe Huffington Post, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Runners World, Men’s Journal, Canadian Business, and Maclean’s.

In a five year period, from 2010 to 2014, Martin completed 10 extreme endurance “Quests” including running 250 marathons in one year and raising $1.3m for the humanitarian organization Right To Play. In 2016 he ran the Marathon of Afghanistan in support of Afghan women and girls running for equality. Find out more about Martin at  and see what he can do for you in the long run.

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