The “Good” and the “Great” are NOT Enemies

Everyone knows the saying “the good is the enemy of the great”. And everyone knows the type of person who says it – an international-type marketeer, a planner with a British Colonial accent, an intellectual who believes he or she knows more than you do. It’s usually said with a bit of a “tut-tut” and a sneer, as if, “how could you try to sneak a ‘good’ idea past us? You know we all demand greatness, don’t we?” I used to hear it all the time a number of years ago when I ran the Unilever account. And it struck me as wrong then. But it’s now that the idiom’s wrongheadedness has really proven itself. It’s time to put that saying aside forever.

1) It’s always been used as a crutch, as a defense to not do anything.

The easiest thing to do is to criticize other ideas – and not take a stand yourself. Taking a stand requires conviction and risk. The risk that one could be wrong. Fearful and controlling people take this approach. But, as Lou Gerstner said, “Watch the turtle. He only moves forward by sticking his neck out.” The same goes for people. And brands.

I worked on Ragu many years ago. We had been struggling to develop a new campaign to re-launch the brand after many years of decline. The clients were “demanding”. The work had been so-so. And then we came up with a great idea, borne around a promotion. The clients really liked it, but said “it’s a good promotional idea. We need a great brand idea.” We said that we could evolve it into one over time – just let us take this big first step.  They said “let’s wait for something great”. Ragu is still waiting. The brand never got that big idea. It’s a dusty, 1970’s brand that will never really re-charge itself. I feel like it missed its chance by waiting for “greatness”.

2) I defy anyone to REALLY KNOW what is great.

Sorry, but any arbiter of greatness, from the best creative director to Millward-Brown to the CMO, is only guessing. It may look great, it may smell great, it may feel great, but until it’s been fleshed out, developed cross-channels, and built into a consumer-focused program that can be executed, it’s impossible to know just how good or great it is. Period.

3) It’s only great if it works.

Here’s another fact. If it doesn’t work, then it ain’t great. Yes, there are tons of things beyond the control of the communications program – and many campaigns fail due to in-market dynamics that a) couldn’t be predicted, and b) are way beyond its purview. Nevertheless, calling campaigns that don’t achieve their goals “great” is just an apology.

4) And, most importantly, most of the time “great” takes some to nurture and develop.

Most things in life start good, and develop over time. Either by gaining momentum, by learning from experience, or simply by growing the storyline and growing the depth and breadth of the message. So, as General Patton said, “a good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”

One campaign that I feel has begun to grow over time is the Allstate “Mayhem” campaign. I initially was unsure about it – but it seems to be growing, getting better, more interesting, more compelling. There’s a concept behind it that they can continue to develop and nurture for the brand. And there’s definitely more they can do with it – it’s not even present on their website. I’m interested in where it’s headed. But had they said “it’s good, but not great”, they might have chosen not to move forward with it.

So the next time someone tells you “the good is the enemy of the great”, tell them they’re wrong. That the good and the great are actual good friends. It’s just that the good is more punctual. And the great usually follows him later.


  1. It is funny. Advertising is the only arena where a shitty cliche framing a false dilemma can be seen as useful wisdom. This is such a good blog post. Paul Westerberg said that great Rock and Roll is giving yourself permission to let your mistakes work for you. I find both as a fan and practitioner of the creative arts, seeking perfection (read, “great”) is the quickest way to kill creativity. Loving this blog. It reminds me why I counted you a friend when we worked together. Keep writing please.

  2. Well done. I am amazed at how the most quixotic ideas can be labelled “great” while some of most effective block and tackle, get-it-done, approaches are dismissed by “deciders.” I like the 80% rule: if it’s mostly right, it’s progress that starts to solve the problem. Keep this up MB!

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