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It’s not the economy, stupid

4 min read


This is the first in a monthly column called When Growth Stalls that will look at why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the president of McKee Wallwork + Co., an advertising agency that specializes in working with stalled, stuck and stale brands. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”

There’s no question that conditions continue to be somewhat anemic out there. The recovery has been more resuscitation than resurgence and it’s hard to run fast when your breathing is shallow. That said, ‘It’s the economy, stupid” is too-easy of a refrain we may use to shirk responsibility for our results. Even if it is the economy, it’s not really the economy. It’s us.

I believe there’s a clear but unappreciated distinction between using an unfortunate marketplace dynamic (the state of the economy included) as an excuse versus leveraging it as a strategy. The former is a failure of leadership. The latter can be a masterstroke.

It is now the stuff of political legend that when Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, he won in large part by maintaining relentless focus on the poorly performing U.S. economy. The Clinton team assessed the conditions, recognized a strategy by which they could leverage those conditions, and executed relentlessly. Campaign strategist James Carville is credited with coining the phrase “it’s the economy, stupid” as a way of keeping staff on task. The slogan somehow got out, took on a life of its own, and helped propel Clinton into the White House.

If the Clinton team hadn’t focused on the economy, of course, they would have had to find something else. But they recognized the conditions not as an excuse but as an opportunity to hang a millstone around their opponent’s neck. The reason “it’s the economy, stupid” worked for Clinton wasn’t because the conditions were poor; that was simply the context. The reason it worked was because it was an intelligent, disciplined response to those conditions.

Since the Clinton years the U.S. has seen a number of economic ups and downs, with one particularly big “down” beginning in late 2007 from which we still haven’t fully recovered. It’s tempting to invoke that now-famous quip when there’s still plenty of bad news to go around. But that would be a mistake. Saying “It’s the economy, stupid” today is, in many cases, a misunderstanding of its context and misappropriation of its meaning.

Conditions are never perfect — if it’s not unemployment, it’s inflation; if it’s not competition, it’s regulation; if it’s not a weak dollar, it’s a trade deficit. When times are good and the race is fast, it may be more about elbowing for position; when times are tough and the slog is on, it’s more about attitude and endurance. But whether the race is on an Olympic track or a sandy beach, the more disciplined runner usually wins.

So no, it’s not the economy, stupid. It’s clear-headedness, smart strategy and focused execution — in good times and bad — that makes companies (not to mention politicians) succeed. Effective leaders must adapt to changing conditions and adjust their strategy accordingly. They must make sure their teams understand the why behind the what and focus on execution. And they must incessantly peer around the corner to see how conditions are evolving and continually consider the strategic implications.

The economy may very well indeed be holding your company back. While it’s OK to admit that to yourself as you look in the mirror each morning, when you get to your desk make sure your focus is on the strategy that will enable you to win regardless of the conditions.