‘Go Opposite’ to Solve Your Toughest Challenges, Part I

We decided to look for a way to turn the situation on its head.

“We’re asking them for money to help us solve our problems,” I suggested. “What if instead, we ask them to give us their problems?”

Kids are loaded with creativity. The problem is, if that creativity is not focused on something constructive, it can get them into trouble. These schools had hundreds of creative kids whose creativity wasn’t focused on anything in particular. What if we took some big real-world problems and gave them to these kids to see if they could come up with some creative solutions? What would motivate them to try? We could tell them, “Hey, we’re adults, and we don’t have the answers!”

We found a municipality that was struggling with a major waste disposal problem that they were about to turn over to an expensive New York firm. Instead, they gave the problem to all the students in a local school district. Sure enough, the kids came up with an idea that worked and solved the problem. The municipality paid the school a lot less than they would have had to pay the consulting firm, yet to the school district, it was a major windfall.

A shrinking budget problem

I met recently with the dean of a school of engineering at a major California university. We had only about 20 minutes to talk, so we got right down to business. He had a problem. The governor of California had recently established a 10 percent budget cut for all education, across the board.

“This is huge,” he said. “We’ve got a good 30 percent more engineering students coming in next semester, yet somehow I have to cut our budget by 10 percent. And what can I cut? We can’t reduce the fixed costs of campus and facilities. The only thing we can really cut is staff. So we’re looking at a 30 percent increase in the student body, with a 10 percent decrease in our teaching staff. How can this possibly work?”

This was a big problem, indeed. It occurred to me that the opposite of cutting staff is hiring staff, so I asked him how much the average engineering faculty member made. He told me the average salary figure. Then I asked, “How much does each faculty member bring in to the school, on average, in research moneys and grants?” This latter figure turned out to be about twice the average engineering faculty salary.

“That could be the answer right there,” I pointed out. “You need to be hiring, not firing. The only way I can think of for you to handle that 10 percent budget cut is to hire more engineering professors.”

Opposites work better.

The dean went to the chancellor with his exciting idea, which, not surprisingly, was immediately shot down. He could see the visible future, but his boss could not. He called me up and told me what had happened.

“But you know what?” he added. “I’m going to do it anyway. I’m hiring ten new people. I’m sure I’ll get my hand slapped, but because we’ll bring in more money than we’re spending to hire them, it’ll all work out.”

Creating a million-dollar ad

In the world of American sports, there are many contests, many arenas and then there’s the Super Bowl. In American advertising, there are millions of opportunities to promote a product, but there is only one ultimate ad slot: The Super Bowl ad. The single most heavily watched American television broadcast, this is the most expensive ad slot in the calendar, costing as much as $100,000 per second of airtime. The big consumer goods companies typically throw their biggest advertising budgets and top PR talents at these tiny peepholes of super-concentrated public exposure.

For years, Frito-Lay had heavily advertised its Doritos brand during the Super Bowl; spending millions upon millions of dollars. In preparation for the 2007 event, they decided to do the opposite. “Instead of hiring the very best pros and paying them millions,” they said, “let’s hire complete amateurs and pay them nothing!”

Sound crazy? Crazy like a fox. Because of the explosion in processing power, storage, and bandwidth, the ordinary consumer had the capacity to make a high-quality television-ready ad on their desktop and Frito-Lay knew it. Instead of passive ads, they went opposite, getting their target audience engaged and, by making the ad itself newsworthy, they also got valuable free media exposure.

They launched a contest called “Crash the Super Bowl” for consumers to create their own Doritos commercials. The public would vote on the best ad, and they would run the winning ad during the Super Bowl. The vote was so close that they ended up running not one but two of the consumer-created ads. The ads were so good that they ranked fifth in a Nielsen survey of most popular Super Bowl ads that year. One of the ads cost just $200 to make.

Much to Frito-Lay’s surprise, consumers got so engaged they continued submitting their ads long after the Super Bowl. Two years later Frito-Lay ran the contest again. This time the winning commercial was ranked by USA Today’s Super Bowl Ad Meter as the year’s best ad. It also won the two unemployed brothers who created it a cash prize of $1 million.

Look for Part II of Dan’s article on Friday, August 19th.

Daniel Burrus is considered one of the world’s leading technology forecasters and business strategists, and is the founder and CEO of Burrus Research, a research and consulting firm that monitors global advancements in technology driven trends to help clients better understand how technological, social and business forces are converging to create enormous, untapped opportunities. He is the author of six books, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal best seller Flash Foresight: How To See the Invisible and Do the Impossible as well as the highly acclaimed Technotrends.