Have You Identified the DNA of Your Company?Published: December 15, 2004 in Knowledge@Emory
It takes moxie to address a group of academics gathered to discuss competitive advantage and state, “I don’t believe in competition.” But that is exactly what BrightHouse “Thinker and CEO” Joey Reiman did. “To find your central ethos, to find your central fire; you need that more than strategies,” added Reiman, the head of the world’s first “Ideation Company.” Ten years ago, Joey Reiman closed his $100 million advertising agency and founded BrightHouse.
Besides running a consultancy, Reiman is also an accomplished author, having penned several books including Thinking for a Living; Success, The Original Handbook; and The Best Year of Your Life...Make it Happen Now! Reiman recently served as a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University School of Medicine, and in the fall of 2001, began teaching a course on “Ideation” as an adjunct professor at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School.
Reiman believes you can be a prophet and make a profit. Given that corporations have paid him a million dollars to come up with what he calls, “the master idea,” he’s living proof of that philosophy.
This past summer, several dozen academics from around the globe gathered in Atlanta for the inaugural Atlanta Competitive Advantage Conference (ACAC), presented by Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, Georgia Tech, Georgia State University and sponsored by BrightHouse. For three days, professors discussed cutting edge research on how competitive advantage is achieved and sustained. But Reiman wanted ACAC attendees to consider something more: the master idea.
What is the master idea? According to Reiman, it’s the big idea, the central fire, the impelling force that moves a company into the great arena of possibility. To discover or uncover the master idea, Reiman encourages company leaders to ask themselves this question: “If your company were gone tomorrow, what would the world lose?”
Ten years ago, Reiman, then the head of a successful advertising agency, asked himself the same question and concluded that advertising no longer delivered a competitive advantage; that advertising agencies were producing so much clutter they couldn’t communicate ideas. So he closed the agency and founded BrightHouse.
“I don’t mean to demean strategy, but there is something much bigger and much more forceful and that excavates the spirit and souls of our companies. It’s the human asset. While we strategize, we forget the ideas that give the world its Promethean fires,” Reiman told the audience. “There is a DNA, a holy grail, a central fire in every single company.”
Reiman turned to the story of media mogul Ted Turner to illustrate his point. When Turner announced that he was launching a 24-hour news channel, scores of strategists scoffed at the idea. They said it would never happen. But Turner believed in his idea, fought for it, and ultimately changed the broadcast news landscape. “The consultants said Turner’s idea would never work,” Reiman said. “More consultancies need to be fired.”
A few years ago, MetLife called on BrightHouse to help the company “be big,” according to Reiman. A team of BrightHouse “thinkers,” “luminaries in residence” and other hired guns, including the man who discovered the remains of the Titanic, were brought in to uncover MetLife’s big idea.
“We look for divergent thinkers outside of the domain [of the company],” said Reiman, whose team of thinkers has included Nobel Prize winners. Along with MetLife higher ups, BrightHouse thinkers reviewed MetLife’s 135-year history for keys to its future. The slogan, “Have you met life today?” emerged from those efforts.
“They wanted to rebuild the organization so that people could feel significant,” said Reiman. The MetLife website states the company’s big idea: “We focus on ‘life’ in MetLife to mean more than life insurance—it's about the celebration of life, beginnings and the financial freedom that leads to life significance.”
ACAC Conference chair and Goizueta professor of organization & management Richard Makadok believes Reiman is “insightful in really deep ways.” Makadok said, “Reiman challenges us by saying that it’s not competitive advantage that matters, but distinctive advantage.”
For instance, Reiman believes that being different is more important than being better. Makadok’s take on that? “If you aim to be better than your rivals (based on the same metrics), then even if you succeed, you’ll still have competition,” Makadok said. “Be different, and you may carve out a niche where you have NO competition.”
Reiman wants company leaders to understand that the master idea will impact all company strategies and all company operations. By having a master idea, Reiman argues, a company’s ideas, values and objectives will align. “The master idea instructs and affirms,” said Reiman. “Ideas are bigger than the executive. If you find the right ones, people will follow in the truth’s footstep,” Reiman added.
“What matters is authenticity,” translated Makadok. “It’s the centerpiece of the master idea, of ethos—what makes you unique and distinct. If competitive advantage emerges from being distinctive, then great.”
BrightHouse worked with the restaurant chain Red Lobster to help it become “more of who they are.” With over 650 restaurants in the United States and Canada, Red Lobster is the number one seafood restaurant in the world. Reiman notes that the company’s ethos was “entrenched in the sea,” but because of possible backlash from organizations like Greenpeace, the company was reluctant to mention the word “sea” in its advertising. Reiman introduced Red Lobster executives to the phrase, “Serve the Sea,” and helped the company find its central fire. “[That phrase] said that Red Lobster was in business for a reason; it had a reason for being,” said Reiman.
On the Red Lobster’s website under the heading “Our Company,” the topic “Giving Back to the Sea” is listed above Frequently Asked Questions. The restaurant’s parent company, Darden Restaurants, founded the Darden Environmental Trust to ensure that the company gives back as much as it takes. Finding the right balance between feeding the growing population and preserving nature is the Trust's primary goal. “It’s more than just a bottom line social strategy,” said Reiman. “They want a legacy.”
By recalling why the company was in business in the first place, Red Lobster was able to differentiate itself from the rest—to be distinctive. “What Reiman is telling us is that it can be counter-productive to focus on trying to establish an advantage relative only to the competition,” said Makadok. “Competitive advantage may not be the whole point—being different may be more important than being better.”