Updated: Oct 30, 2021
Creeping close, a shadow stretches across my keyboard. The shadow sways before swelling and then splitting into two silhouettes. From between swaying shadows, sunlight slips. Now, fully distracted, I save my file and look up to find two frowns floating above an almost tidy desk.
The frowns top off slender bodies; each with arms crossed, each with legs astride.
Turning from one to the other, I deliver a smile to my two workmates, “Good morning, Kevin. Good morning, Colleen.” Recognizing two of the firm’s top problem-solvers rarely cast shadows, I lean into uncertainty, “I am guessing this very moment the three of us are now enjoying is gonna be the best part of my work day because something tells me you’re about to serve me a big ‘ol spoonful of poop soup.”
Colleen, our Media Director, leans forward and places both hands on my desk. Tips of tobacco stained-fingers hide behind a French manicure, “If the best part of your day is the moment right before you get slapped like a donkey balancing on a high wire without a net, then you’re right; this is the best part of your f-ing day.”
My eyebrows drift up toward an invisible donkey as Kevin, the Senior Account Director running our largest Midwestern lottery account, clears his throat, “We just got a call from Lottery. It looks like we’re the next domino to fall in the recession.” In a move practiced over two decades of client craftsmanship, Kevin raises his right hand, adjusts the cuff of his jacket, and slicks back polished black hair. He juts a George Clooney-worthy chin before speaking in his native Chicago accent, “With the layoffs across the Great Lakes, Lottery has decided to cut their monthly media spend by ‘a minimum’ (delivered with air quotes) of 50%. Beginning now.”
Numbers march through my head. Minimum of 50% equates to a minimum cut of $500k in monthly media buys. With 20%-25% of media spend translating into services such as strategy, media buying, creative, studio work, web dev, and account service, a minimum of 50% means I will be laying off many before month’s end.
Colleen weighs in, “I have media in flight so there’s no f*cking way they can do this! We have placement with a sh!t ton of value-add I can’t just pull back. They can’t waive their magic wand and….”
I interrupt my friend. “Please, Colleen, let’s hold on for a moment.” I turn to Kevin, “Kev, you know what to do. Let’s get the account team together so we can work this, do our research, and come up with options for our client.” I look around the floor, scanning scores of coworkers, “The lottery supports lots of people – across the state and within this room – so let’s work with facts.”
Colleen turns away, “I need a smoke.” The click clacks of heels accompany her toward the door.
Two hours later, we’re sitting in an over-heated conference room filled with the Lottery account team. Kevin rubs his face before calling the group to order. He slicks back hair, adjusts crisp cuffs, and walks the team through the situation, “Based on the manufacturing meltdown and the state’s reported jump in unemployment, Lottery’s been told to cut media a ‘minimum 50%.’ (again, delivered with air quotes). The questions are what to do and what to cut?”
Around the table, faces grow pale as the same numbers recently marching through my head find footing in neighboring brains.
Colleen, pushes back from the table. “We’re officially over-the-banister, royally …”
I cut off my friend, “Forget the banister, Colleen. Please. We know the drill, right?” Around the table heads nod. “We do what we always do; we research. We gather facts. And we follow the facts toward a defendable insight.”
From the corner of the room, Cathy, a second year Associate Account Manager, raises her hand, “I understand Lottery’s motivation, but what’s the source telling Lottery to cut their spend so drastically … I mean, is there research or data showing they should be cutting media like this?”
At the head of the table, Kevin purses lips before slicking back hair with both hands. With three kids soon seeking to follow his footsteps to Ohio State, those marching numbers weigh heavily.
Before Kevin detonates, I turn to Cathy, “You’re asking the right question Cathy, so thank you. That’s an assumption we need to check.” I look from face to face, offering a modest shrug, “Is unemployment related to lottery sales? Does anyone know if that’s true?”
Kevin lets out a long slow breath. The scent of coffee drifts past my nose as he speaks, “I’ve been serving lotteries for over a decade and when there’s a downturn, media usually takes a hit. It’s what we do. So, the source is pretty obvious; it’s a combination of experience and common sense.” He looks from me to the corner of the room, “Right?”
Cathy flushes red.
And seeing the flush of my coworker’s cheeks, I drift away from present day 2017 to recall the power of her one word question.
The power of that word was hammered into my skull during a 1980s debate in Lowell, Massachusetts when, as a Reagan Republican in a room full of Tip O’Neill Democrats, I argued the merits of Reagan’s militaristic foreign policy. I opened the debate by stridently sharing beliefs regarding the effectiveness of US-armed mujahedeen in Afghanistan and Contras in Nicaragua. I rattled off a stream of generalized figures posing as facts.
And in response to my opening salvo, the audience wailed as one, “Source?”
“Source?” I stammered.
To my left, an opponent smiled, “Yes. ‘Source?’ What source do you offer in support of your claims? There’s a big difference between beliefs and facts. Facts are defended with sourced material.”
For the rest of the evening, I stumbled through responses based on beliefs as opposed to researched and defendable sources. With each response, I was greeted with a one word question, “Source?”
Suffice it to say, the well-researched Dems wiped the floor with me for the rest of the night. My ass was thoroughly kicked; however, I pocketed a lesson. From that evening on, I approached discussions with sourced material and asked others about the sources of their insights, beliefs, and theories.
Over the years, I learned more than I shared.
And over the years, sourced material saved me from attempted maulings at early-career Bank loan presentations when sharp-clawed bankers sought to make coworkers cry. And sourced material defended me from attack during strategy classes as hardcore MBA classmates with deep work experience debated case studies. And sourced material supported the needs of countless clients during strategy discussions in which facts and third party research became accepted and expected currency.
The lesson drifts above our conference room table.
The buzz of arguing workmates returns me to the meeting regarding our present day Lottery issue.
I lean forward, “Hey, we owe it to Lottery – and ourselves – to come back to the table with more than our hard earned experience and common sense. That’s certainly important and it provides powerful context but let’s add research and defendable insights. We can do that, right?”
Kevin tugs at cuffs before rubbing hands together, “OK, so let’s add facts to our experience and let’s see if we can keep our jobs.” He tips an imaginary hat toward the corner of the room, “We have to answer Cathy’s ‘source?’ question if we’re gonna define a plan we can defend.” He stands tall, “We’ll meet here in 24 hours. In the meantime, I’ll call Lottery and let ‘em know we’re coming up with next steps based on facts.”
With Colleen at the head of the column, the team leaves the room.
24 hours later we’re back in the same conference room. Today, the room is not nearly as stuffy as yesterday. The air though is thick, viscous.
Cutting through tension, Kevin calls the meeting to order, “I’ll start.” He proceeds to walk us through historical media spends and budget cuts correlated with economic shocks and downturns. He finishes with a dramatic wave of his hand, “Media drops when there’s a downturn but here’s the weird thing; over our entire contract with Lottery, sales have gone up regardless of unemployment rate.”
Colleen leans back, “Our own budget numbers aren’t exactly a killer source, but it’s an interesting fact.” Taking the floor, Colleen walks the team through a PowerPoint detailing audience demographics, aspirations, and preferences. Much has been shared before, however, she’s dug deep into her research and served up a platter of audience pearls.
“Source?” asks Kevin.
Colleen presses into her laptop, “I listed sources at the bottom of each slide; MRI. Experian. Nielsen. I’ll email it to you.” Around the table, keyboards clatter. Workmates whisper and jot notes.
I stop my scribbling, “Thank you, Colleen. Your research aligns with what we noted in our initial briefs; lottery players display a strong sense of ‘hope’ and ‘hopefulness’, even when faced with the unlikely odds of winning.”
“Source?” smirks Kevin.
“An IGT whitepaper. I know it may be biased, but it rings true. It just came out.”
Kevin rubs hands together as he scans the room, “OK. This is getting good. What else we got?”
From an apparently favored position in the corner, Cathy raises a hand.
Kevin nods toward the Associate Account Manager.
“Well, I found a 2016 research report that shows a large, positive, and significant relationship between unemployment rate and draw lottery sales.’ It says, when unemployment goes up people buy jackpot tickets. I’m guessing that’s when the hope we were just talking about kicks in, huh?”
Kevin raises eyebrows, “Data’s from 2016?”
Cathy nods, “Yup, less than a year ago.”
I raise hands to the ceiling and howl, “Savage!”
Kevin ignores my dramatic response and stares into Cathy, “Source?”
Cathy reads from her laptop, “US Federal Reserve.”
Again, I throw my hands high, “What else did you find, Ms. Brainiac?”
Cathy continues reading, “Here’s what the report says; ‘A one percent increase in the unemployment rate tends to increase draw lottery sales in a zip code by 4.7 percent. There is no corresponding increase in instant lottery sales, suggesting that the recently unemployed are drawn to the larger jackpots of the draw game.’ They appear to be looking for a big win when they aren’t bringing home a paycheck. It’s pretty interesting stuff, don’t you think?”
Kevin let’s slip a smile, “Jesus, they’re swinging for the fences, aren’t they? That is interesting. And that is one solid source.” He slicks back hair, perhaps thinking of future Buckeye tuition bills he may now be able to pay, “Thank you, Cathy.”
Over the next week, we continue our research. We argue, debate, and share sourced ideas. Satisfied with our emerging insights, we build a plan backed by defendable data.
The following week, our Lottery contact presents a footnoted and sourced media reallocation plan to the Lottery Commission. For an hour the Commission grills our contact. But, she’s well-armed and able to address questions with fully-sourced and justifiable positions. Unlike my ass-kicking in Lowell many years ago, our colleague weathers the onslaught.
The Commission agrees with her proposed reallocation.
There is no halving of media.
There are no layoffs.
Before year end, Kevin advocates for and then sponsors, Cathy’s successful promotion.
Following the release of annual sales numbers, our Lottery contact is promoted.
And from years ago, in a city far away, a one word question echoes loudly.
Photo Credit: US State Department