Category Archives: Inspiration

The underrated art of pragmatism in business…

As a naive 22 year old coming out of college, the world was at my feet. I had in-demand skills, an interesting job and plenty of opportunity to learn new things.

I was full of confidence, and above all, idealistic about how business worked.

But nothing you do in college prepares you for the real world. Enclosed in your nice cosy classroom with nothing to worry about except your next night out and passing a few end of year exams, you feel prepared for the realities of the business world described in  your textbooks.

Yet as the famous quote goes…

“The map is not the terrain”

The real world is much different, and one of the most important skills I’ve learned in my 20s is pragmatism.One of the things that they don’t teach you in college is that business is inherently messy. You’re fighting against bigger, better prepared rivals with more resources. You’re dealing with imperfect scenarios with no one right answer. You’re dealing with imperfect people that you may not see eye to eye with.

Thus, realism and navigational skills are incredibly important. It’s about ultimately finding a way to get things done no matter the obstacles.

In the real world, it’s not always the ‘A’ students who get on well. Grit and determination are far more important character traits in most businesses than academic knowledge.

In the real world, pragmatism wins.

An even break…

I’ve spoken before about judo strategy, and pragmatism is a related theme. Great business leaders don’t take no for an answer, they don’t get downbeat, they just find a way to win. Like great boxers, they dodge and weave, probing for weakness and eventually capitalising on it.

The great myth of life is that Goliath always beats David.

On an even playing field, 99 times out of 100 Goliath wins.

So it’s up to David to make the playing field uneven. To make his opponent uncomfortable. The phrase ‘never give a sucker an even break’ comes to mind, but that’s what the best small companies do. They grasp their even break.

The great myth of history is that most wars are an arm wrestle, head to head combat won by the most powerful, skilled and well supported army. It’s a dramatic, courageous and also plain wrong notion. In his book ‘The Obstacle is The Way’, Ryan Holiday tells of how, in a study of 280 major conflicts from ancient to modern history, a startling discovery was made.

Across all the campaigns, in only 6, or 2% did the decisive blow come as a result of a direct attack on an enemy’s main army. 

Most victories don’t come from long, drawn out, pitched battles, but from outflanking or outfoxing your opponents. Often, victory comes via lateral thinking.

We can all learn from that.

Pragmatism in praxis

In the past few months, two brilliant, inspiring examples of pragmatism prevailing have made headline sports news.

In February, mighty Chelsea, marching towards the Premier League title and with billions in the bank, went north to face lowly Burnley. Burnley, an unfashionable side from a Lancashire mining town, were expected to roll over for the Londoners, as most of the other teams in the league have done for Chelsea this year.

On paper, there was no competition.

In the end, Chelsea were delighted with a draw.

Burnley manager Sean Dyche is a fascinating thinker on this topic. His interview after the game epitomises the power of pragmatism.

“We are underdogs but we don’t do blind faith. We try everything we can to see what works. They are a good side and they have some good individuals. There is always a ‘but’ though. Why do underdogs beat favourites? Because ways are found for that to happen. Our job is to find a way even against teams where pundits are telling me that they don’t have a weakness. We have to find a way.”

He continued…

“I want to play a brand of football that wins. I have to design the team so we can win games by playing a different way when we need to. If we went into the Premier League and did what everyone else does, we wouldn’t do it as well as them. So we do things that are awkward and different and strange. The brand of football I want to play is one that wins.”

No pretension. No rigidity. No fooling himself or his team. Just flexibility and smarts.

“Find a way to win”
“Try everything we can to see what works”
“Be awkward and different and strange”

Brilliant. Just like a scrappy startup that pivots into a new business model. Or a guerrilla army that chooses not to fight head on.

Last month, the Italian rugby team gave another great example.

Fresh from a huge defeat to Ireland, the Italians were beaten, humiliated and facing a daunting trip to London. New coach Conor O’Shea, less than 6 games into his tenure, was facing calls for Italy to be relegated out of the 6 Nations competition altogether.

If he sent his side out to go toe to toe with England, the defeat would likely have been by 60 points or more. So O’Shea and his team decided to make the fight a little fairer.

Italy came out with a tactic that most in the rugby world had never seen before. They decided to not compete at the ruck, and use a law loophole which meant they could stand offside at every breakdown. England were flabbergasted. Their leaders were reeling.

They had never seen anything likes this before.

Just like O’Shea dreamed it up.

For 60 minutes, Italy actually stood neck and neck with England, eventually going down to a late cavalry charge.

Like the Fosbury Flop, Italy’s tactics were ridiculed by the media, mainly because they made life inconvenient for the sport’s governing body and its biggest team.

But anyone with half a brain saw the genius in their chaos tactics.

Both Italy and Burnley chose to not lie down. They decided to use a pressure point strategy that probed for weakness and didn’t play into the hands of their illustrious opponents.

In life, in business, in war, in sport, pragmatism is a beautiful, underrated approach that can lead to some wonderfully bizarre, lateral and effective strategies.

It’s a brilliant lesson to learn.


The smartest ideas can often be incredibly simple…

Sometimes, us advertisers overcomplicate things. We search to solve problems that don’t exist. We pump budget into half baked ideas. We forget about the fundamentals of our job – to grow sales and build businesses.

One of the smartest, most effective pieces of marketing that I’ve seen over the last year is not very sophisticated at all.

It hasn’t won any awards.

It’s not a new digital innovation or a huge TV advert.

It probably didn’t cost the brand much.

It’s the type of thing that a child could come up with.

In fact, it’s a piece of branded plastic containing a commodity product that we spit out after 10 minutes.

It’s the Wrigley’s Extra in-car chewing gum holder.

Crazy right? But sometimes the best ideas can be the most simple ones, and this is objectively a brilliant idea.

We know that brands grow by…

  • driving mental and physical availability (remaining top of mind and easy to buy/consume)
  • owning distribution channels
  • being present for and owning usage occasions (think Dominos Pizza on a Saturday night or Snickers when you’re hungry)

By creating something boring and utilitarian, Extra has managed to carve itself a permanent niche inside a person’s car, where we spend hours every week. It has managed to position itself the default brand choice in a commodity market through a simple piece of ‘ambient’ marketing.

Gum is the second most consumed product in cars after drinks, and Extra has also found a way to increase product consumption, by keeping themselves close to hand.

The best thing about it is that, in this world of low attention span and intrusive, annoying marketing, it’s a tangible branded product that people actually want to have in their vicinity. It’s offline ‘pull marketing’.

Plus, it’s also created a free in car media channel for the brand. Imagine how many people get into a taxi every year. Now imagine that every time they get in, they get reminded of Extra.

Often, we think of simple, basic ideas in a pejorative sense. Dave Trott talks about how marketing sometimes suffers from an over-intellectualism. But using an ‘Occam’s razor’ approach and simplifying to first principles would provide better results.

This idea wouldn’t have got through most brainstorm meetings. It’s the type of thing that many brands would leave on the cutting room floor, or at best bolt onto another campaign. Yet Wrigley saw the opportunity and has instead made the holder the star of TV and outdoor campaigns.

Genius doesn’t always have to be a complex, new idea.

Sometimes, simple, tried & tested is the best route to take.


The Second Captains paywall – A smart, calculated experiment in new media models…

Full disclosure before we kick off – as you can see below, I’m a huge Second Captains fan. I’ve got the mugs and yearbooks. I know all the quotes, I’ve seen the TV show and I’ve followed the lads since they were fledglings on Newstalk.

And I’m also an avid media watcher, meaning this week’s announcement that Second Captains is moving from its cushy nest in Irish Times towers towards the wilds of a paywalled, community funded model from next Monday made me irrationally excited.

Maracana with the lads

A photo posted by Shane O Leary (@shaneoleary1) on

The Captains have decide to offer fans a ‘metered paywall’ model, in the guise of a New York Times or Irish Times, and will begin charging users €5 a month for a new ‘World Service’ edition.

The show will be kept ad free, and two free shows on Monday will remain, but in place of Thursday’s double bill, they will instead put out one daily podcast between Tuesday and Friday.

Mark, Ciaran, Ken, Simon and Eoin have shown plenty of balls in their media career. They’ve backed themselves to move from Newstalk, set up their own podcast against the backdrop of some scepticism, pitched and their own TV show, and won a new audience through their summer stand-in slot on RTE Radio 1.

In all of this, their fans have followed them.

But this is a different kettle of fish. Asking people to pay 5 quid a month is where the rubber hits the road.

Niche or enormous, there’s no middle

I’ve spoken before on this blog about how media is fragmenting and new models are emerging. Essentially, to succeed in modern media, there are two choices.

On the one hand, you can strive for enormous scale and hope that pays off. Try to make money by monetising your readers through display, print or paywall subscriptions, try to speak to everyone and cast the net as wide as possible. This requires experimentation and a reliance on distribution platforms, since most of us consume our media through social feeds now (and also leads to clickbait). Buzzfeed is probably the best example, but most daily papers play this game too.

On the other hand, you can be really, really valuable to a small cohort of people and hope that they love your work enough to provide enough income. Often, this requires a heavier paywall and ancillary revenue streams like events, merchandise etc. You can see this in effect across media, in places like The Economist, The Farmers Journal, The Information, Skift and in podcasts like ‘The Anfield Wrap’ and Marc Maron. In a similar vein, individuals like Tim Ferriss have created their own mini media empires too. It requires that you understand your fans, are very close to them and relies on you continually creating lots of value for them.

There’s very little middle ground between these two options, and media companies without serious scale or serious relevance are getting squeezed badly.

With the Second Captains paywall, the lads have chosen the latter route.

‘1000 True Fans’

They might not have heard of it,  but the way Second Captains as a brand has grown takes a lot from the ‘1000 True Fans’ approach, first coined by Kevin Kelly. According to Kelly, because of the lowering distribution costs on the internet, it’s now much easier to reach the people who really love what you do. The 1000 figure is just an arbitrary number, but the essence to his point is that if you can find a certain number of people who will buy anything that you put out, who really get huge amounts of value from what you do, and then service them directly without intermediaries,  you’re in business. It’s a theory that’s still very relevant in 2017, as the lads will attempt to prove.

If you lived in any of the 2 million small towns on Earth you might be the only one in your town to crave death metal music, or get turned on by whispering, or want a left-handed fishing reel. Before the web you’d never be able to satisfy that desire. You’d be alone in your fascination. But now satisfaction is only one click away. Whatever your interests as a creator are, your 1,000 true fans are one click from you.

The way Second Captains has grown its following has been both methodical and masterful. This move to paywall hasn’t come all of a sudden. They haven’t just started asking people for money, their growth has been staged, they’ve built slowly and smartly creating products and events, branching out into other media and even building their own brands through journalism.

With the new model, they’ll likely be ramping up these extra revenue streams, but critically fans are already used to paying. According to producer Mark Horgan, speaking in the Indo this week, “The way our audience has developed is interesting. Many are the same people who listen every week and they want more. They’ve been dedicated since the beginning. It’s also rolling the dice in some ways, but it’s perfect for this type of journalism. At our last event, in December, we sold out in hours. Part of the deal with the new membership subscription is that members will get first call on tickets.”

The benefit of radio and podcasting is that it also really lends itself to creating strong relationships with fans, since your in their ear for 4-5 hours every week. It seems the lads are now ready to monetise all the work they’ve put in to these relationships.


So what are the economics like? From the outside, this seems like a gamble. Why move from under the brand of a large media group (The Irish Times) that can offer you distribution and fame?

But Killian Woods put out this interesting set of tweets during the week, and, even with back of fag packet sums, the money part seems to make sense.

When you really analyse it, the risk here is small and calculated. The lads have a hugely valuable brand. That won’t be going away. They own their own channels too, which is crucial.

And even if this goes wrong, the worst case scenario is they go back to usual podcasts and sell advertising. I’m also pretty sure that another media company would come calling very quickly. But it won’t go wrong. They’ve done the sums, they know how much their fans love them and they’ve seen other models in media make money this way. This is never going to be an explosive growth business, but I’d be pretty bullish that it’s a smart decision.

Irish people are willing to pay small recurring amounts in subscriptions for a high value service, particularly in sport, and particularly if it’s a company with a strong value offering that you can’t get anywhere else.

Best of luck Second Captains, and congrats on a ballsy call that should show the way for the rest of Irish media.

They never go home those boys.