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Hustlers, Upstarts, and Top Guns: The Tempo Dimension

  |  August 28, 2002   |  Comments

Speed, agility, and rapid reactive/analytic cycles win wars, chess games... and customers. Combine information and speed -- and wait for the competition to blink.

Decades ago, chess hustlers plied their trade in Washington Square in the heart of New York's Greenwich Village. With a chessboard resting on an upturned packing crate or wobbly folding table, they baited passers-by with a $10-a-game challenge. Once they hooked a fish, they quickly reeled it in. Speed was the edge.

No grandmasters, the hustlers knew a handful of basic strategies. Rapidly firing attacks, threats, and feints, they forced opponents into a reactive posture from the outset and quickly pushed their own pieces into proper deployment. Speed was also a defense. Never allowing opponents any time to put their own plans into action, the hustlers' speed made their opponents' plans unimportant.

Speed is a principle of maneuver warfare first elucidated by Sun-Tzu. It crops up today in marketing situations such as MCI's early ad attacks against AT&T. Newcomer MCI knew every new long-distance customer would come by definition from the one-time monopoly. It aimed an unrelenting barrage to lure them away. Equally important, MCI's creative constantly changed. Speed in getting out fresh creative was meant to counterbalance AT&T's much larger resources. Tactically, agile MCI's control of its own content and fast tempo gave it some power over the content and pacing of the larger contest.

Speed has a role in making the Internet an important communications channel between companies and their customers. It's taking the form of cycle time. At the risk of stating the obvious, one distinctive attribute of the Internet as a communications channel is its return path: the ability to get back a response (R) to a stimulus (S). Of course, the Internet can reduce the interval between S and R to an instant. Short-interval S/R loops are important because they can be tightly sequenced into data-guided and data-generating conversations where each cycle is evermore revealing, accurate, relevant, and effective.

The military equivalent of this potential is the decision-making cycle called the OODA Loop (for observation, orientation, decision, and action), also called the Boyd Cycle, after Col. John R. Boyd USAF (Ret.). Observing fighter combat in the Korean War, Col. Boyd saw U.S. pilots consistently defeat enemy pilots, despite the fact enemy planes outperformed U.S. planes in speed, climb, and turning ability.

Boyd saw American planes were better in two ways: The cockpits offered a wider field of vision, and the hydraulic controls allowed faster transitions from one maneuver to another. American pilots, he discovered, could more rapidly observe and orient to the tactical situation moment to moment, gaining a time advantage with each pass, until the enemy's increasingly off-the-pace reactions left him outmaneuvered -- described as "as if he was flying in slow motion" and "as if you were playing both sides of the game" -- until finally shot down.

Boyd's tactical formula has since evolved, in part thanks to his own stewardship, into a central strategic theory. The premise that changes in the OODA Loop can change what you see or how you see it is intriguing, especially for those whose business it is to understand and anticipate where their target customers are going next.

Speed, tempo, Boyd Cycles, and other flavors of the time dimension would benefit the tasks of managing the messages, media, and meter of our marketing, sales, and customer communications:

  • Greater tempo control would help direct marketing, groaning under a surfeit of new one-to-one channels, to orchestrate multichannel customer contact streams.

  • An explosion of rapid-cycle testing, from product-concept testing to sales forecasting, might transform marketing's entire research scope into listening and company-customer coevolution.

  • For people managing brand experiences, well-timed cycles of industrial strength S/R loops -- mediated by copywriters, art directors, and other practitioners of the persuasive arts -- could create the responsiveness and attentiveness consumers say they want from the companies they favor.

Two decades ago, the Japanese used various combinations of information and speed to revolutionize the manufacturing sector with capabilities such as just-in-time inventory, agile manufacturing, and mass customization. Devising and applying novel combinations of information and speed to improve marketing communications should be on the drawing board of every Internet marketer and every Internet consultant.

Speed, tempo, and cycle times make up a dimension in which the Internet is distinctively strong. It's an intangible dimension of virtual reality and real-world marketing that's entirely up for grabs.


Len Ellis Until recently, Len Ellis was executive vice president at Wunderman, where he charted the course in data-based and technology-enabled marketing communications, including the firm's strategic alliances and worldwide interactive strategy. Earlier, he was managing director, interactive integration at Y&R 2.1, a Young & Rubicam start-up consulting unit. He joined Y&R Group as managing director, interactive services at Burson-Marsteller. Len led interactive services at Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer EuroRSCG, and started and led the information industry practice at Fleishman-Hillard. Len's book of essays on marketing, based in part on this column, is "Marketing in the In-Between: A Post-Modern Turn on Madison Avenue." He received his Ph.D. from Columbia and reads informational and mathematical theory for fun.

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