In Praise of Mr. Avis

“If you’re serious about biting the postman’s backside, stop barking at every passing car”
may be a better way of saying “focus on your main business opportunity” – but only if it’s equally understandable and easier to remember.

Robert Townsend wasn’t the author of that phrase and might have put it better. He was the “grand-author”, since ardent fans of his book, “Up the Organisation” do risk sounding a bit sub-Townsendian themselves. The book was so popular, and is now so old, that he’s probably the great- and the great-great- grandauthor of thousands of aphorisms.

Reading “Up The Organisation”
It’s easy to misunderstand his book. Those of the stuffed-shirt tendency who are upset by the jokey style miss the point. So do those who love it only as a collection of anecdotes.

Robert Townsend deserves serious attention. At Avis he commissioned the “We Try Harder” advertising campaign, one of the most successful of all time. Before reading “Up the Organisation”, you might assume the book is authoritative because of the superb understanding of advertising he must have had to approve that campaign. Listen to what he says about how the concept was received:

Ninety days later Bill Bernbach came out to show Avis his recommended ads. He said he was sorry but the only honest things they could say were that the company was the second largest and that the people were trying harder.

Bernbach said his own research department had advised against the ads, that he didn’t like them very much himself – but it was all they had so he was recommending them. We didn’t like them much at Avis either…

How was it that, despite themselves, they went with something that turned out to be brilliant? To answer that, you have to wind the story back. Townsend had taken advice from Bill Bernbach and used it to specify exactly what Avis wanted and how decisions would be made. The “Avis Rent A Car Advertising Philosophy” (the book quotes it in full) was the cause of their “fall into the pit of success”.

Naturally he finishes up with: “Moral: Don’t hire a master to paint you a masterpiece and then assign a roomful of schoolboy-artists to look over his shoulder and suggest improvements.”

Using It
Principles from this chapter of the book can be applied to choosing and working with any kind of consultant. Other chapters are only a page or two long but usually just as profound and helpful.

His style doesn’t detract, it’s a lesson in itself. Sturgeon’s Law implies that, as a manager or business owner, you’ll be presented with an unending stream of under-cooked ideas. It’s your duty to be unimpressed and to think clearly – which is what Robert Townsend excelled at.

To keep their families fed, some may occasionally spool out meaningless jargon to people who like that kind of thing. We should not be quick to condemn them, but if you see it happen regularly in your workplace, think about whether you want to spend your life in such an environment. As Townsend says:

“If you don’t do it excellently, don’t do it at all. Because if it’s not excellent it won’t be profitable or fun, and if you’re not in business for fun or profit, what the hell are you doing here?”

It’s true that Townsend’s one-liners can’t be taken literally in all situations and in any company, however large or small. He adjusted his approach over the years. That’s why you should buy the 2007 commemorative version (linked above), where Warren Bennis adds some of Townsend’s more nuanced thinking and brings the original up to date.

“To the making of books there is no end” as Ecclesiastes has it. At the time it was written, the Business Books genre hadn’t even been invented (although perhaps there really is a cuneiform copy of “My Huge Success in Ziggurat Marketing – How You Can Be Like Me” buried in the sands next to Ozymandias’s statue). You could spend your whole life reading business books and most of them are a waste of time, but “Up the Organisation” is different.

Buy it and read it.

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