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Advertising Agencies & Clients: The Fox or the Hedgehog?

Decision Models for Effective Team-Building

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
― James C. Collins, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies

Into The Woods

I recently caught a glimpse of a fox cub as it disappeared into the massive oak tree near a golf course. Its trailing red tail was evidence that I had not imagined it. It emerged again, to my surprise and delight. (Yes, I have better things to do but the small fox captivated me.) It popped out, changed directions, and disappeared back into the tree as golfers chipped up on the nearby green. After the last of the high fives the golfers left. The sleek fox darted into thick woods, having judged the surroundings and timed its escape perfectly. Impressive, even artful in its maneuvers.

The Greek poet Archilochus’ observed that “The Fox knows many things, but the Hedgehog knows one big thing.” His statement inspired subsequent essays and fables with western and eastern variations on animals illustrating his full meaning.

In business the fox vs the hedgehog analogy is used to characterize two extreme ways of thinking and problem–solving. The concept has been applied to leadership styles, company cultures, individuals and even teams. Can it also be used to navigate the acute relationship challenges between client companies and the ad agencies they hire to work with them? Most marketers would agree the quest to structure effective and productive teams of people working well together is a prerequisite to success, especially in a field that relies on art, science, thought and feeling in equal measures to solve brand and business problems.

We may recognize the fox or the hedgehog in our work worlds. Clients may need to hire more of one or the other based on their own goals.

Meet the Hedgehog

  • Known to operate within the framework of a singular defining worldview, hedgehogs forge ahead with conviction; they are no-nonsense types, tireless in their work and devotion as they move on their path.
  • They think and act with utmost certainty, dismiss dissonant data and as such, rarely change their minds.
  • They place highest value on the ordered process to plan, sequence, and worktowards a goal.
    At their best, they are productive, reliable, and effective at completing a challenge with their clear view of what is required.
  • At their worst, they can be closed minded, judgmental and aggressive towards predators. Under stress they hunker down.
  • Churchill, Sam Walton, Walt Disney and Urban Myer come to mind, as does the meaning of hedging one’s financial investments.

Meet the Fox

  • Foxes are known to be as cunning, agile, and able to draw upon a variety of experiences to discern meaning from them.
  • They embrace ambiguity and relish expansive thinking. Foxes entertain contradictory data to aid decision-making and are adept in negotiating a world of constant change.
  • Foxes value the breadth of perspective. They stitch together disparate information with acute observation. They can move in multiple ways that are at times contradictory.
  • Under stress they may be so entangled in their own sense of options and endless possibilities. They become paralyzed, unable to decide and act, sometimes entertaining flight from harm.
  • Arguably, Jeff Bozos, Oprah Winfrey, Donald Trump, and Indra Nooyi come to mind.

Greatness

Author and management expert Jim Collins casts his vote for the hedgehog. In his book Good to Great, he defines the “hedgehog concept” as the key to greatness; his model suggest a company’s hard to unearth but undeniable hedgehog concept sits at the intersection of its true passion, its competitive superiority and its economic driver of profitability. Example: Walgreens’ hedgehog is its conveniently placed drugstores focused on profit per customer visit; this singular view of purpose is executed within a culture of discipline, fanaticism and relentless focus. Southwest Airlines under the leadership of Herb Kelleher is another example.

In contrast, Philip Tetlock , Professor of Management and Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, studies how differently hedgehogs vs foxes think; his research debunks the notion of any true subject expertise and its effective forecasting by suggesting hedgehog-like models become overly narrow; hedgehogs are not able to navigate far and wide to make sense in our dynamic world. Advantaged decision-making goes to the interdisciplinary fox, not so much because of what s/he thinks, but how s/he thinks and solves problems.

The key to building effective teams, especially those chartered to produce creative outcomes and foster new ideas, is to appreciate differences and commonalities with high levels of awareness. The larger the relationship venue like the proverbial woods of a big company, the more likely hedgehogs and foxes can co-exit. The narrower the venue, like a direct report relationship, the more likely friction exists between the conflicting modes of operating and decision-making.

Advertising Industry Application

Sometimes advertising agencies are valued by their clients for hedgehog qualities.

  • As executional partners in brand building, they are the arbiter of brand strategy, connecting and rationalizing ads and assets against an agreed upon, defined strategic framework.
  • They work from established models and agency process grounded in prior success, illustrated by case histories.
  • They are valued by marketing clients for sharing the clients’ view of the world in which they operate.
  • In hedgehog-like ways they dutifully execute the agreed upon scope of client work, with little room for fox-like explorations of new territory.
  • Occasionally a fox exists among them, offering insights that seem to come from somewhere of less significance. Not supported or grounded in the data and logic hedgehogs holds dear, the anomaly fox is tolerated or simply rejected.

Sometimes advertising agencies are value by their clients for their fox-like qualities.

  • Agencies’ external perspectives, nimble responsiveness to market changes, and capability to think in different modes to solve problems are seen as additive or even crucial to client organizations.
  • These agencies survive and thrive on uncertainty and continuously change. By virtue of their deep client roster they are immersed in different realms each day. They can adapt plans with strategic acumen.
  • Whether the client marketer who hires an agency is a fox or a hedgehog, s/he values its foxy agency partner for these key reasons. The fox-like agency is able to produce differentiating ideas for development, be effective in crisis and operate under stressful conditions.
  • Companies with cultures of permission and personalization place high value on these partnerships. Fox-like agency output however is difficult to assign value to in traditional metric-driven ways. And internal to company hedgehogs can bristle at fox-like modalities.

Foxy Outcomes

Research establishes that higher level thinking and the complexity of reconciling divergent theory is the superior way to solve problems. (P.E. Tetlock) The fox produces generative thinking and impacts quality of problem solving in ways the hedgehog cannot. Whether welcome on the team from inside or outside the organization, the fox calibrates constantly, a skill set that is centric to marketing in an era of participatory branding.

We counsel clients seeking to hire advertising agencies to look at overall organizational culture and alignment as the best model for team building; marketing leaders can go one step further and use the hedgehog vs the fox analysis to work effectively within their companies. They can apply this understanding when they partner with suppliers. They will need to decide however decide whether it’s more important to have a shared common orientation to deliver the efficiencies of working well together or whether they can tolerate the friction, and reap the gain that come from the duality of hedgehog and fox models activated together.

The complexity of human beings and their modes of thinking, feeling and working probably defy the simplicity of choice between the fox or the hedgehog. Yet any tool that allows us to see the other point of view has value if increases our understanding and receptivity.

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