Disrupting Like McEnroe
He challenged everything, to his benefit.
“In the realm of perfection” is a 2018 feature-length documentary by the French director Julien Faraut about John McEnroe, focusing on the 1984 French Open at Roland-Garros. It is an extraordinary film, not least because in it we see something most unusual in sport. We see an elite sportsman whose behavior is at odds with that of every other professional tennis player. We see a man who doesn’t harness his emotions in order to succeed, but instead feeds off his sense of persecution in order to achieve higher levels of performance. It is, in the words of another French visionary, Jean-Marie Dru, a Disruption. Jean-Marie is an advertising veteran who coined the phrase “Disruption” in relation to communications. It is best defined as the process by which one identifies the conventions of a business and its competitors, and upturns those conventions to find new room to grow. In other words, finding a way to relevantly differentiate your business to be more interesting to your audiences.
It takes a brave company to be a disruptor. It demands that you take a new and unknown path. It demands that you become a challenger.
John McEnroe was a challenger. He did things differently. He changed the game of tennis. Not only in how he played, but in how he saw the game. As the narrator says, “Bjorn Borg puts the ball in the spot where the other player is not. McEnroe puts it in a place the other player will never reach.” But it was not solely his playing style that set him apart, it was how he channelled the injustices around him that really made him different.
McEnroe had an intensity that shut out reality and prevented rational, conventional behavior. He prowled the court, absorbed the jeers, fought umpires, smashed racquets, rallied against the media, shouted at the world around him, and played tournaments in a state of torment and tears. It was, and remains to this day, unlike anything we have seen before. John McEnroe dislocated the norms of tennis for the benefit of the game. He showed the benefit of being a challenger.
McEnroe had an intensity that shut out reality and prevented rational, conventional behavior.
The challenger philosophy has commonly been applied to advertising. But it is a philosophy as pertinently and effectively applied to any other form of business transformation or communications need and, I would argue, is needed now more than ever. Businesses are having to pivot to cope with the impatient audience demands of a fast-changing world. Climate, COVID, social injustice, cyber-insecurity, digitalization…..the long list of new hurdles goes on, and they all need careful navigation. As a consequence, we are seeing audiences no longer categorized as corporate or consumer, but communicated to as stakeholders. And as stakeholders we all have a stake in the big game of deciding whether these businesses succeed or fail. To influence and cajole us, we are all being bombarded with more messages and more interruptions every day. And whilst businesses can reach us all individually or collectively, it is getting harder and harder to make us stop and take notice. Not just because messages are more plentiful, but because if it isn’t relevant, disruptive, creative, and thoughtful, your key stakeholder won’t care. Your message won’t get a second chance to make a first impression.
Good disruptions in communications are not easily found, but it shouldn’t stop you from aspiring to find them.
A good place to start is by looking at the conventions that occur in a category. You will see many conventions that are perfectly valid and valuable, but many others that you can jettison to start to break from the pack. McEnroe saw the convention of every other player throwing the ball directly upwards to serve. So he did it differently. He threw the ball forwards as well as upwards, and leapt in the air to connect with the ball a yard over the baseline. He gained a yard of advantage over everyone else. He defied conventional wisdom.
A second answer might be in applying this disruption to our own working habits. Creativity thrives on change and chaos, and our enforced working restrictions demand that we do things differently. To that point, I suggest you periodically offer a creative brief to everyone in your organization and invite short-term “binge-thinking”. Whilst your colleagues might be busy, they are looking for excuses to break from the tedium and engage their brains in new ways. Throw them a ball. Harness that collective energy around a business opportunity, where the many are encouraged to conceive ideas. A good idea can come from anywhere, now more than ever.
The other approach is to encourage the occasional focus on boredom. This may sound counter-intuitive, but letting your mind drift and wander away from the day-to-day will encourage your brain to find new ways to occupy itself. The result is often an unexpected flash of inspiration or train of thought that is distinct and unencumbered from your normal processes. A subtle disruption from the norm. The result? A differentiated thought. A way of seeing the game differently, and going where your competitors will never reach.
This article was originally published in the Brunswick Review.