When Arthur Hiller, senior vice-president of Millennium, addressed the Fordham Leadership Forum, he told the MBA students that attitude is more important than facts, money, or what happened in the past. The remarkable thing is that we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we'll embrace for that day. We can't change our pasts. We can't change the fact that people act in a certain way. We can't change the inevitable. As Hiller so eloquently put it, "the only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that's our attitude."
I agree. The most important activity going on in any given situation is what's happening inside your head. You may lose today, but there is always tomorrow and next week and next month. If you are willing to tolerate the discomfort of rejection, the fear, loss, and loneliness, there is always another possibility. The first time your head tells you to quit and you don't is the hardest. But if you can push through that and then do it again and again, you begin to create a new habit, a new history.Case in point: In 1988, when I was named CEO of Robert A. Becker, the healthcare advertising agency was on a downward trend, and I was chosen to turn things around. Neither the recruiter nor I had been told that Becker was about to lose its two biggest sources of income and what was left of its credibility in the industry. Merck and Sandoz (now Novartis) were about to walk away. By the time I came on, they were gone and so was 60 percent of Becker's income. Down to 40 people, with only one substantial piece of business left (Bristol-Myers), things looked grim.
When I began to call on clients they refused to see me. They told me that Becker was over and that I'd be better served to save my reputation and go elsewhere. I never learned how to quit, however, so I didn't. Instead, I instilled the "culture of persistence" into the 40 people left in the agency. I told them that one day we would have the top products in the pharmaceutical industry and that we would do it by being the smartest strategic agency in the business. I told them that they had an opportunity to prove themselves. We formed the "Becker Brain Busters," and "Never call a client without a big idea" became our mantra.
Whenever we called on a client, we came with a new strategic idea. We became relentlessly creative about getting our ideas to clients despite their initial resistance when they heard our name. This work takes courage. I told my people to leave their egos at home and focus on ideas. In time, this became liberating. We were living like an entrepreneurial start-up, and we loved it.
Our turning point came when Bristol-Myers did not invite us to repitch the business for Buspar, an anti-anxiety drug we helped launch years before. After several phone calls and detailed letters chock-full of ideas, Don Hayden, then product director, invited us in to repitch as the underdog competing against the three top global agencies at the time. Hayden saw through the negative perception and believed in the strategy we were proposing. We wound up winning the business because we came up with the industry's first compliance program.