Does your marketing need skunk works?

Every job becomes mundane and routine if you do it long enough – marketing is no exception.

The problem is, marketing is about disruption. Standing out in a crowded field by zigging when everyone zags. In marketing, settling for the same-old-same-old is the kiss of death.

Breaking out of lockstep, however, can be challenging – especially for larger, more systematized marketers.  You need a truly remarkable tool to not only shake up thinking, but to protect new ideas from risk-averse overseers who would happily quash them because, well, they’re uncomfortable and haven’t been run through the research-o-matic shredder.

I was working for one of Procter & Gamble’s ad agencies on the Mr. Clean account when I was introduced to the ultimate tool for disrupting – and protecting – new ideas. The skunk works. Here’s the story.

Our New York head office had given the Toronto agency where I worked the Mr. Clean account at a pivotal moment. The venerable brand was known by all, loved by all…but bought by few.  There were rumours of an impending sale. It was a great challenge, and time for a Hail Mary pass.

Luckily, we were blessed with some adventurous spirits on Procter’s Mr. Clean marketing team. Their hunch was that pairing the brand with new technology would enable them to disrupt the market without having to build new trust with consumers – heck, everyone knew and trusted Mr. Clean already.

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The only problem was, Procter’s rigid process would make it virtually impossible to communicate the new technology in a new way. Their formula for marketing inevitably turned every commercial into a cringeworthy side-by-side demo.

What the marketers did, with a wink from their boss, was move the entire Mr. Clean brand team (us, PR, events, online, packaging, product dev, everyone) into a cinderblock building offsite, where we could work without running into bureaucrats.

Over the course of a summer, we developed the creative to launch Mr. Clean AutoDry, the first product that took Mr. Clean out of the home and into the garage. Pushed to take our ideas further, we developed work that otherwise would never have seen the light of day.

The launch was a success, on all fronts. Mr. Clean appeared at Nascar races and movie premieres, our ads got the attention the brand needed, packaging and store display were stellar. Mr. Clean became Procter’s worldwide turnaround of the year.

The cherry on top? The process was terrifically fun and motivating. Under Procter’s new AG Lafley regime, it became an example of the new normal – throwing off the shackles of tradition and convention to do great work, quickly.

the origin of skunk works

In 1943, the Allies needed a jet fighter – fast. The Germans already had their jets flying over Europe, threatening to tip the scales of the war. The US War Department hired Lockheed to build a working jet fighter prototype in 180 days.

Lockheed brought in 33 year old Clarence ‘Kelly’ Johnson, a brilliant maverick. He was given an incredibly steep challenge: not only did the prototype need to be done on an insane timeline, but it had to fly 600 miles per hour, 200 mph faster than the current Lockheed P-38 prop plane.

Oh, one more thing. Lockheed was out of floorspace, as the entire complex was devoted to 24/7 production of current planes.

Kelly decided to leverage the space constraint. He broke away from the Lockheed main operation, taking a crack squad of design engineers and mechanics with him, and set up camp in a rented circus tent next to a foul-smelling plastics factory. He figured the smell would keep away nosy naysayers.

The whole setup reminded people of Al Capp’s L’il Abner comic strip, and the Skonk Works, a dilapidated factory on the remote outskirts of Capp’s fictional backwoods town, Dogpatch. In the comic, scores of Dogpatch locals were done in every year by the toxic fumes of concentrated skonk oil brewed and barrelled by grinding dead skunks and worn shoes. The place was shrouded in mystery – and bad smell.

One day a designer at Kelly’s circus tent picked up a ringing phone and answered it ironically with Skonk Works. The name stuck.

Fast forward 143 days (37 days ahead of schedule). Kelly’s secret team rolled out the prototype for the P-80 Shooting Star jet fighter. The skunk works worked.

Lockheed management agreed to let Kelly keep his elite design and development team running as long as it didn’t interfere in any way with Kelly’s primary duties as Lockheed’s Chief Engineer, and was kept on a shoestring budget. Kelly hand-selected a few of the brightest designers and moved into a building known only as Building 82. Over the next 15 years, Skonk Works became part of the Lockheed lexicon.

Thus was born the de facto standard for running top secret projects among the world’s most innovative companies. Among them,  Steve Jobs’ launch of the original Macintosh.

what your skunk works needs

The skunk works is, by its nature, a rule-breaking enterprise. But there are a few must-haves. They include:

  1. Tight timelines and budget – Great ideas are like diamonds. They only form under pressure. There needs to be urgency – and accountability to deliver.
  2. Distance from bureaucracy – Naysayers can’t be allowed to review and critique the skunk works’ ideas. That means you can’t simply grab a boardroom everyone can snoop in on – you need to pick a room (preferably secret) across town. And access needs to be viciously guarded.
  3. A small team – The bigger the team, the greater the need for momentum-killing meetings and ‘cc:all’ memos. Decide which skills you need at the table, and take only enough people to fill those roles. 10% the number of people you’d have on a ‘normal’ team is about right. If you can fit everyone around a picnic table, perfect.
  4. No inside-the-jar thinkers – The longer you stay with a company, the more indoctrinated you become with all the reasons why new ideas won’t work. Good skunkworks team members shouldn’t be VP’s, managers or lifers.
  5. The project leader needs a direct line to the president – Skunk works ideas need strong advocates. VP’s afraid of ‘crossing the boss’ can’t be chosen as champions. Money, and support, needs to come from the top.
  6. The leader needs to trust – The company president may provide money and support, but can’t be involved in the day-to-day. Otherwise pleasing the boss becomes more important than making greatness happen. Adjunct to this rule – the boss needs to commit to pushing the new ideas into production if s/he approves them. They can’t be allowed to die by a thousand cuts once they’re brought to life.
  7. Listen more than talk – The people at the table are there because they’re good, and need to be trusted. A skunk works with one loudmouth running the show is counterproductive.
  8. Don’t file the edge off ideas – If an idea works, pursue it without compromise. If it doesn’t, kill it. Taking the edge off ideas to make them palatable is what bureaucrats do.
  9. Brief the challenge, not the solution – Tell the team you need to design a jet that can fly 600 miles per hour. Don’t tell them the number of engines or the location of fuel tanks.
  10. Most important of all, only take projects you believe in to the skunk works – Your skunk works team is going to bleed for you. Make sure you don’t present them with challenges a bureaucrat could solve. Dream big.

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