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Allen Adamson

Co-Founder & Managing Partner

Former Landor Chairman/Brand Strategy Guru

Would You Like to Play a Game?

I’m lucky to have been able to attend CES over the years, the Consumer Technology Association’s annual technology and media conference. And this year, while like everyone else, I attended virtually, I still came away with some thought-provoking lessons. As in past conferences, most speakers launched into how their company’s greatest new “thing” would forever change the world, the “thing” being anything from an ingenious gadget to 5G applications to cloud improvements to AI innovations. From experience, we know that while some of these nifty things have the potential to change the world, others fade into obscurity soon after they’re introduced.

When Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith launched into his presentation, I assumed he would follow this familiar formula, talking about Microsoft’s emerging technologies and introducing the shiny new objects on its drawing board. But I knew something of a different nature was about to unfold when the visual on the screen behind him was a simple question:  “Shall we play a game?”

For those too young to remember, this is the memorable line spoken by the computer (password “Joshua”) in the 1983 movie WarGames, a white knuckle thriller about looming Armageddon. It’s a deceptively simple story about a high school student, David Lightman (played by 21-year old Matthew Broderick), a digitally proficient goofball who wants to play an unreleased computer game and, by so doing, impress the pretty girl next door (Ally Sheedy). To do this, he does something most of us didn’t have a word for back then: He starts hacking, completely unaware that the “computer company” he’s hacked into is actually a military installation running a missile-command supercomputer. After prompting Joshua to play a game of Global Thermonuclear War, Lightman leads the supercomputer to activate the nation’s nuclear arsenal in response to his simulated threat, taking the side of the Soviet Union. (I’m not going to spoil it. Watch the movie.)

It was immediately obvious that Smith chose to begin his presentation with his simple visual verbal cue in order to talk about the vital issue of cybersecurity. As a provocative way of getting into the topic, he told the story about Ronald Reagan’s reaction to WarGames, after watching it during a customary family “movie night” at Camp David with his wife, Nancy. Shaken by the, then, science-fictional plot, Reagan asked the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Could something like this really happen? Could someone break into our most sensitive computers?” The answer he received led to a significant revamp of our U.S. computer security system.

Unquestionably, cybersecurity is an issue that dwarfs whether your home theater TV screen has 100 pixels or a million, whether your kitchen appliances can talk, or your car can drive itself. It’s an issue that touches all of us and transcends the traditional world of CES gadgetry. Smith’s presentation was outstanding because it addressed something that was both ubiquitous and of such significant importance that it needed to be raised to a level far above and beyond what new products or technologies you could see while walking the floors at CES. Smith did a brilliant job of dramatically shifting the attendees’ attention to the fact that while the latest gadgetry may be cool and a fun thing to have, cybersecurity is not a cool thing to have, it’s a must thing to have. It is not only critical to anyone thinking about the security of their credit card information or their Facebook messages but, specifying the Russian hack that occurred right before CES, Smith made clear that cybersecurity is essential to our safety as a nation – and a planet. Something that can literally change the world.

Thinking about Smith’s presentation and its indisputably game changing implications, there was another lesson I took away from the story about Reagan and his customary movie nights at Camp David, this one from my marketer’s point of view: If you are in any fast-moving industry, it is critically important to stay connected to what’s going on in the wider world.  In order for any business or organization to navigate and succeed in a world of rapidly accelerating change you have to pay attention to what’s going on outside your bubble. You are far more likely to be able to see and understand what’s going on, and to react in a timely and effective manner, if you zoom out. Be it Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Main Street, Washington, D.C. – or Hollywood - the only way to see and seize the opportunities required for success in tomorrow’s world is to expand your world view today. Perspective and peripheral vision are essential to being able to shift ahead of competitive forces, wherever they may be, or in whatever category. This is especially true in the realm of technology, where change is faster and more relentless than, perhaps, anywhere else. To lead an organization through accelerated change in the market you can’t look at the curb, you must look at the horizon.

Reagan, albeit an actor accustomed to movie-going and other cultural endeavors, intuitively grasped that being myopic was not an option, especially when dealing with issues of global proportions. It is something I also learned, on a much, much smaller stage, when I was an account executive in the field of marketing. One of my former bosses, Ken Roman who was Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather, would counsel us that to best help our clients we needed to be their eyes and ears, taking in and processing everything going on around us, from movies to books to political punditry. To shift ahead of the competition it was essential for us to zoom out and look at the landscape from as broad a perspective as possible.

As I said, I always learn something important from the CES conferences. And this year was no different. However, it was not the information about the latest 5G or AI products that people will soon be lining up for that most powerfully stuck with me. It was the lessons reinforced so boldly by Brad Smith and a nerdy kid in a sci-fi thriller:

First and foremost, cybersecurity is a greater priority for any of us than any smart phone ever could be. And second, for any business to succeed in a world of accelerated change, it is imperative to take a worldview.

I can only imagine what would have happened if David Lightman had opted for the “nice game of chess” suggested by Joshua. Reagan would not have been motivated to take such dramatic action on an issue of immense technological importance, and the world as we know it may have been significantly changed forever.

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