there is no “safe” any more

I’m not sure there ever was a time when you could play it “safe.” Maybe back in those dreamy, good-old days…whenever that was for you. But today, playing it “safe” cannot be an option you consider. In fact, playing it safe is the riskiest thing you can do. Pepsi has me thinking about risks, safety and criticism.

You’ve probably heard about Pepsi’s Refresh Project. Basically, Pepsi took the $20 million they would have typically spent on Super Bowl promotion and developed a Social Media driven campaign to donate many of those dollars to nonprofits. The key to the strategy was a voting mechanism to get people involved and aware. You can read the details yourself.

The campaign has come under criticism. I won’t try to outline all of the flack, but first for some consumer created videos that were a bit over the top. Some church-people weren’t too happy to see Doritos and Pepsi as part of a communion service. I wouldn’t be wild about that either, but it seemed more in poor taste than blasphemy. Anyway, there was turbulence. (You can find the videos by searching online for them–the videos have been pulled down or aren’t linkable at this point).

Now the campaign has been hit by more criticism. Allegations have surfaced that some of the finalists have been helped by a 3rd party who, some say, helped gather votes for pay. I have to say that I love that at the center of the possible “pay-for-votes” scandal is a mysterious Mr. Magic. Gotta love that name for someone who delivers votes, income and publicity. But that’s beside the point.

Here’s what I would like you to think about. If Pepsi had played it safe they would have bought a boat load of Super Bowl ads and probably the only negative publicity they would have received would have been if their TV spots didn’t rank very high in the rankings. And no one would be talking about the campaign nearly a year later.

At this point, by almost every measure, Pepsi’s Refresh Project is successful. They (and all of us watching) have learned a lot about how to use crowdsourcing, social media and all this digital-stuff in new ways.

I admire whoever pushed Pepsi to not play it safe with the same old Super Bowl ads. I know the way the world works and so it’s probably been a little tense for the guys and gals who came up with the idea. New ideas don’t always get a good hearing.

You’ve been in the same meetings I’ve been in, when a bold, risky, visionary, wild, slightly-scary idea is on the table and the “what-if” question comes up. Imagined criticisms are imagined. The hand-wringing and head-rubbing begins. And the tide begins to turn because of what might happen.

When that happens, do everyone a favor and point out that the biggest risk is in playing it safe. The world and everything around us are changing so fast (and so completely) that without the courage to innovate (and possibly fail) you’ll die. Sorry. That’s just the reality. Speak clearly and this is a great time for solid eye-contact.

Point out the risks of sitting and waiting.

Point out that problems can be addressed.

Point out that failure isn’t terminal (usually).

Point out that many, many of the tried and true strategies today started out as scary, wild-eyed ideas.

Point out that there is great freedom, joy and reward for taking calculated, wise risks.

And then look the fearful people in the eye and say: “I have it.” Then keep it covered. That may be what they really want to hear. Maybe what they need is for you to step up in confidence, faith and skill.

Jump in. Playing it safe isn’t safe. Nor is it much fun.

DISCLAIMERS: I’m not talking about stupid, high-risk, unwise strategies. I’m not talking about putting everything on an untested idea. I’m not talking about risk without guardrails or boundaries. You know what I’m talking about.

So what do you think about taking calculated risks? Can you play it safe today? When have you taken a risk that was worth it? I’d love to hear what you’re thinking.

Steve Thomas
Partner, Oneicity

(photo credit:

Steve Thomas

Steve Thomas

4 thoughts on “there is no “safe” any more”

  1. “…great freedom and joy…” Glad you didn’t forget to mention that taking calculated risks is FUN! Risk and joy are not always mentioned together, but it is true. Doing the usual, the expected, is not positively correlated to feeling really alive. Your post makes me want to do something daring.

  2. @Deborah — I know you well and you are always about fun and daring. More importantly, you inspire the rest of us to daring. Thank you for that.

    So what are you going to do that is daring (that you can share)?

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