How the best digital professionals are like MacGyver
The highest performing digital pros share common traits of scrappiness, can succeed with the absolute basics and are comfortable solving problems in tight situations ...just like our guy, Mac
"The best way to beat a problem is to make it work for you."
Unless you slept through the 80′s and early 90′s you’ve heard of MacGyver – the resourceful, scrappy agent for the fictional Phoenix Foundation in Los Angeles on the TV show bearing his name. MacGyver was unlike secret agents in other television series and films because instead of relying on high-tech weapons and sophisticated tools, he relied on his brain and creative problem solving to outsmart enemies. Typically with only his Swiss Army Knife and whatever else was around he was able to fashion a solution to the problem at hand. If you’re too young to have enjoyed this as a kid, it’s well worth watching now and holds up as a fine piece of Americana.
The show was a pop-culture phenomenon, leading to the popularization of the phrase “to MacGyver something” the meaning of which is implied. While the character was of course fictional his approach to problem solving is pretty critical for digital professionals of all variety. His ethos is a strong way to live your life and think about when hiring and building team culture.
Ability to get results with the bare minimum
Just like MacGyver was able to work his way out of any situation with the simplest of tools, the best marketers don’t need a whole lot to work with to achieve results. For example, the best social media and SEO professionals don’t really need expensive monitoring solutions or bloated apps. They can work with just the bare minimum (perhaps simply Basecamp to stay organized, WordPress to publish, Google Analytics to track and Google Docs to plan: basically Excel + a web browser) and dominate. Of course the mix of tools will vary based on initiative – but the point is that MacGyver was able to creatively work with less to accomplish more. Notice great digital pros aren’t always chasing new tools anyway because they don’t need to. If a new tool is that good, it will definitely find them.
Further, it’s not about tools or technology, it’s about ideas and creative application. Simpler here is nearly always better from both a tool and strategy standpoint. And anyway, if you can’t fly the Cessna, you’re definitely crashing the 747.
Undaunted by any situation, able to put together solutions fast, under pressure
MacGyver wasn’t daunted by any situation, no matter how implausible success seemed. He was able to rationally think through each challenge and piece together a solution bit by bit. He formulated a strategy even if it just was the first few steps and didn’t ask permission – just got it done, while ensuring to continue planning as he went.
In digital marketing and for young startups, this isn’t much different. Many situations seem impossible – you can’t get your technical team to execute, your asks are deemed low priority. No one has time to contribute to the blog, not a priority - too busy. The C-suite won’t fund your new bold program, too audacious. The point is these are your problems: solve them. Can’t get traction for a new initiative? No problem, test it on your own and report back results of a pilot campaign making a case to scale it up with data. Can’t get an expensive monitoring tool? Start with Google Alerts and some freemium software like Sparktoro to fill the gap (and make a case to upgrade when needed). Dev team won’t prioritize your technical SEO asks? Get access to your site and do it yourself (or bring in a contractor if truly beyond your skillset/ability to search if you need help). No one available to launch a new landing page you need for a short term event sprung on you last minute? Get scrappy and simply use a quick and dirty Google Form (it just works and you can brand it with a short URL if needed same as your website).
You need to be able to piece together solutions within the limits of what you have to work with (team members, budgets, time, etc.). This is actually a good thing as it forces constraints (creativity without boundaries is pure abstraction where nothing gets accomplished) and a focus on the essentials. I am calling BS on your excuses because I’ve seen teams with less than you (really, teams of one) dominate many categories and ship work that some believe would have required a large organization. If you say you can’t do it – I’d say you’re lazy or just don’t care (hey and if you don’t, that’s fine, it’s a signal you should find a new role). But I promise you can solve nearly all problems if you choose to. Be smart, not afraid and if you need help, just ask. Saying “I need help” is a sign of strength and self-awareness, not weakness.
The “go to” person for both strategy and tactics
Throughout the show, many high-ranking officials called upon MacGyver to help architect a plan. Concurrently, MacGyver was thrown into situations where he had to make it up as he want along and execute, execute, execute. The point was he was equal parts strategist and tactician (and skilled at both).
As a digital marketer it is also vital you can play the role of both strategist and tactician. The two go together. It is essential to stay active at the edge in order to keep your skills sharp and experiment enough on your own to understand modern, relevant digital strategies, audiences, popular trends, etc. Digital marketers who leave the front lines are going to find their approaches less relevant every day. The web moves fast and now culture moves right along with it (and the culture part matters far more than tech changes for marketers, always).
Teacher, mentor, leader – but also student
One of the recurring themes in MacGyver was the fact that he was a teacher, mentor and ultimately leader to others within the show. He would get into situations where it was a requisite to have someone else help him out (and in many cases that person was unmotivated). However MacGyver persevered and found an angle to reach even the most unwilling of students. Concurrently, in many episodes this was flipped and the student ended up teaching MacGyver something too leaving him impressed, and ultimately inspired. Real leadership is a requisite, as is humbleness and being open to new ideas.
In digital and for MacGyver, brains trump budget
While enemies in MacGyver always had a significant technological advantage MacGyver generally was working with purely his intellect. This is the essence of well executed organic marketing: that a brand with a smaller budget but A-list team can now run circles around larger companies with massive budgets. They can be more agile with execution and take far more ambitious risk. Larger teams always bias to a more conservative nature and so this is nearly always a potent vector of attack.
Further, MacGyver never used guns (he didn’t believe in them). This can be analogous to internet marketing if we consider guns similar to advertising. Yes, you can pull the trigger on a gun to take down an enemy, just like you can pull the trigger on ad campaigns and flood your site with traffic. I’m not arguing that both can’t be effective – they can.
But there is something elegant about outsmarting your enemy and using non-violent means to bring them down. The results of this generally don’t involve anyone being hurt and instead, being brought to justice. Similarly, there is something elegant about an digital strategy that trends conversions, subscribers and community up over time via organic tactics. It may take more careful planning and longer time horizon, but offers increasing returns -they compound. To note, don’t neglect digital ads: when used right, they’re extremely potent (just like a professionally handled firearm, and hey there was even an episode or two when MacGyver used guns - mostly in creative ways - but still to accomplish his goals).
While the character of MacGyver was fictional: I’d say some of the best digital professionals of all variety possess many of the skills the character portrayed in the show. Those who ship, win. And my guy MacGyver will always be one of the greatest of all time “just get it done” legends.
And for your moment of Zen…here’s the MacGyver theme song for some 80s/90s nostalgia.
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