The Riskiest Choice: Playing it Safe

TightropeIf you’ve ever watched a sporting event, you or someone else with you probably have said “they’re not trying to win…they’re just trying not to lose.”  For me, there’s almost nothing more frustrating than seeing this approach take place, especially since it doesn’t need to be that way to succeed. And so is the case with oh-so-many companies who say one thing (i.e. we’re here to win) but act entirely differently. If you’ve spent any time in business meetings, from small companies to Fortune 100 as I have, you’ve heard gems like: “We’re not quite ready to take that step yet,” or “I just don’t know,” (reeking of indecisiveness) or my favorite “Let’s not go there just yet.” In short, these are all about the safe bet and not having the courage to step out and be different.

Speaking from experience, these verbal roadblocks are generally erected by people who have no involvement in the sales or marketing of the company. People who haven’t actually spoken to someone at the street-level (branch, store, dealership, etc.) in forever, and so what they “know” comes from what others may have told them or what they unfoundedly believe without any support.  These folks aren’t in the business of finding and pursuing new growth opportunities. Instead they’re the “glass half empty types.”

What I don’t get is how CMO’s and other executives in the marketing department allow the idea of “playing it safe” to become part of how the company does business. Playing it safe means trying to figure out how to please all the people all of the time (and protect one’s own butt in the process). It’s what happened to companies we once knew as solid brands and money makers…Radio Shack, Borders, and others. They became complacent with disregard (maybe arrogance) to the changing marketplace. From office politics (i.e., give the boss what he wants) to running the same ad month after month after month.  Wearing the clothing of “play it safe” doesn’t lead to standing out in a crowd. Nope, it’s more like being part of the herd.  You’ve heard the old saying: “safe bets never bring in the big money.”  You see it in Las Vegas.  When the odds are low, there’s not much money to be made. When the odds are high…well, that’s when the payout is high.  In business, it’s pretty much the same. If you play it safe you’ll probably make some money; but it’s those who are willing to venture out where the naysayers can’t be found who are more likely to come out on top again and again.

Let’s be clear, I’m not at all advocating throwing smarts and due diligence out the window. We’ve seen dumb risky moves played out day after day, from reckless over-expansion in a turbulent marketplace to not taking cover in a tornado and finding that person a county over.   What we don’t see are news headlines that say, “Astonishingly risk-adverse solar panel company on verge of collapse.” Or, “Stunningly conservative business approach pushes technology company to the brink of failure.” Or “Manager retires after a run-of-the-mill career and regrets never having pushed the envelope to see what was possible.”  The dangers of playing it safe aren’t immediate, evident, and spectacular. They’re not headline makers. They develop slowly over time and are almost impossible to pinpoint. This makes them more dangerous than the prominent screw-ups that get written about because they’re like a nail in a tire that causes a slow leak and you don’t readily notice it as you go about your business on a daily basis. You only come to realize what’s going on when stuck and you’re not really sure how it happened. The dangers of playing it safe are hidden, silent killers.

I’m convinced that too many people put too much energy into playing it safe. There’s a fear that they might do something that everyone won’t like and as a result they’ll possibly lose customers (when instead they should be putting as more energy into getting more customers).  I get it…playing it safe, while dangerous in the long term, just feels better in the short term.  And so people naturally gravitate towards playing it safe. But I’m here to tell you that’s wrong because it leads to boring marketing and, last I checked, boring leads to ignoring.

The reason boring is something you company should avoid like the plague is because you don’t see the underlying harm it causes. You never see the customers who don’t show up. You have no idea of the business that you’re not getting because your marketing isn’t memorable or passed along person-to-person. It’s not fascinating or captivating. Now it’s easy to convince yourself or others throughout the organization that the problem is there’s too much competition, or that prospects are focusing on something else or that people have a short attention span. And while maybe some of that is true, it’s just easier to point the finger at others or other reasons to explain the lack of success you’re having.  So you see, playing it safe doesn’t keep you safe, and in fact, it’s the riskiest thing you can do.

I’ll leave you with a quote by the advertising legend, Bill Bernbach, who said: “The truth isn’t the truth until people believe you, and they can’t believe you if they don’t know what you’re saying, and they can’t know what you’re saying if they don’t listen to you, and they won’t listen to you if you’re not interesting, and you won’t be interesting until you say and do things imaginatively, originally, freshly.” To bring this home a bit more, insert that name of your company each time you come to the word “you.”

C’mon, life’s just too short to settle for “blah.” .


Rolf Gutknecht is vice president, director of account services for LA ads. To discuss your thoughts with Rolf on this blog or any marketing matters, email via this link, or visit  You can also connect with Rolf on LinkedIn.


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