The HiPPO Is Not Always Right
Published in Nov-Dec 2021
Big mouth, small ears, sharp eyes – and periodically submerges and emerges. This is a story set in most boardrooms around the world and not in a semi-aquatic marshy location. The HiPPO we are studying today is the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion.
It was Avinash Kaushik who popularised the term in 2006; a term later used to perpetuate a data-driven, decision-making culture. Microsoft distributed thousands of Hippo-shaped stress toys as reminders that it is data that should drive decisions, and not the HiPPO. HiPPO culture exists in companies across industries – and the result is groupthink. Although the term is relatively new, as early as 1972, Irving Janis, a Yale psychologist, pointed out that outcomes such as Pearl Harbour and the Vietnam War were the result of groupthink.
Everyone wanted to agree with the boss and so everyone was reluctant to speak up and share their doubts. Much like the governing principles of Donald Trump’s presidential style: “surround yourself with yes-sayers”.
Since 2006, the tech industries have been working at developing frameworks aimed at discouraging HiPPO and relying instead on data-based decision-making. The creative and marketing functions, however, are still deciding which train to board – and it is particularly hard in a country like Pakistan (where we are still debating the results and authenticity of the national census) to come to any sort of consensus related to how decisions should be made. Like the dragonfly that provided the idea for a helicopter, we should take a leaf from the tech industry’s book and write our own manual. Let’s begin with the first chapter and start with definitions and explanations.
Is HiPPO Good or Bad?
The word may be new, but you will find it implied in the minutes of many meetings. “The client wants XYZ”, “the agency head wants ABC” and “the seth demands 123”. These seem to be the justifications given whenever decisions have to be made – and they tend to become the final word even if they are bad ones. HiPPO is usually not a bad thing if used meaningfully. Of course, the responsibility of the project rests with the highest-paid person as he is usually the decision-maker. Many people in a position to be the HiPPO, got there by delivering success. They developed and delivered successful products and services and helped grow the business. Hence their opinion carries the weight of their wisdom and of the years spent in the business.
However, the problem arises when the HiPPO doesn’t understand the implications of his or her decisions and misreads their team’s pandering as affirmations. We have seen it happen often enough. A senior leader is present and no one says much until the senior leader does. People then fall over themselves to state, in different ways, what the senior leader has just said. Groupthink kicks into overdrive and anyone with a different take quickly buries it, along with their pride.
Amazon’s $170 million loss for the unsold inventory of the Fire Phone is a good example of HiPPO failures. Four years in the making, this was Amazon’s big push into consumer electronics. The Fire Phone was going up against Apple’s iPhone with the goal of not only competing with it, but ultimately standing on an equal aspirational brand footing as Apple. The phone failed to sell and within weeks the project was killed. When the tech press poked around for the reasons behind the failure, a consistent thread surfaced. When asked why certain design choices were made or why the phone worked in a particular way, the answer was always the same: “We poured surreal amounts of money into it, yet we all thought it had no value for the customer, which was the biggest irony. Whenever anyone asked why we were doing this, the answer was, ‘Because Jeff wants it.’ No one thought the feature justified the cost to the project. No one. Absolutely no one.” (source: Fast Company)
Taming the HiPPO
Advertising is a business of opinions; therefore, the opinion of the HiPPOs as well as the opinion of anyone else on how a product/idea should be designed and developed – is just that – an opinion. It is a hypothesis. It is their best guess about how to solve a problem or a brief. It can be a really good guess. It can be an educated guess, backed up with data and insight, but it is still a guess. It is the team’s job to test and prove that one hypothesis is more valid than the others under consideration.
The HiPPO Needs To Be Aware If you are the HiPPO in the room, do not speak first. Give every team member the chance to speak. Many great leaders on the client and agency side do this as a practice. The most junior members of the team give their opinion first. My favourite organisational psychologist, Adam Grant, had an even better suggestion. His advice is that everyone in the room should share their views first. This can be effective if (as the leader) you have established a baseline of trust. You also must have demonstrated that you value other people’s opinions and that you will welcome and not condemn an opposing point of view, and reward the contributions made by everyone.
Yes, it can be hard to push back on an executive or stakeholder when they are sharing their opinion with the team. They are in a position of power and expect a level of respect for their ideas. Even if the HiPPO is aware, they may forget and should be respectfully reminded, that in the absence of a quick A&B testing of the strategic ideas or big ideas, it is the objectives that are the North Star, and that opinions will cease to be subjective when the larger objective is kept in sight. Dearly beloved, we have gathered in this meeting room to increase sales in Sukkur and not to fulfil your long-life dream of working with a celebrity, is a quick and effective way of getting the HiPPO back in line (This is true for both agency and clients.) However, there are instances when the HiPPO does prove to be the best course of action. Take the South-West Airlines chicken salad story as a good example of valuing the HiPPO, when it is aligned with the company’s objectives. As the story goes, the marketing department recommended that the airline should offer chicken salad (remember the company’s objective was to remain ‘the low fare airline’). When asked to decide, the co-founder and longest-running CEO of the company, Herb Kelleher, asked ‘will adding a chicken salad to the menu make us the low-fare airline from Houston to Las Vegas? Because if it doesn’t, then we are not serving any damn chicken salad.”
To conclude, given that advertising and marketing is a business of opinion, you cannot expect there not to be conflicting and diverse opinions. It would be like going to KFC and getting angry at them for having different types of chicken. This is their business model and who wants a plain old Zinger every day. After reading this article, you may be frustrated because you will not be able to tame the HiPPOs around you. However, you can promise yourself that when you earn the title of the HiPPO, you will be far more aware of the need to allow diverse opinions, consider objectives and not subjective pandering, and in so doing, make your boardroom a place where everyone can agree to disagree.
Atiya Zaidi is MD & ECD, BBDO Pakistan and co-Founder, Shero Space. firstname.lastname@example.org. The views in this article are her own and do not reflect the views of any organisation.
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