When my brother was born, I’m told that he was to be named Mickey. Upon being informed of this, my response was “don’t be silly – Mickey is on television.” The “Mickey” in question, of course, was Mickey Mouse, and I was an avid viewer of his afternoon club. TV Mickey was very real to me. Brother Mickey was renamed Michael.
I’m sharing that story because it speaks to the power of myths that have become real. You might think that business is the last place we would find such things, but you’d be wrong. Most prominent in my mind, of course, is the shared myth that drives billions of dollars of media spending: Nielsen ratings. Putting aside the obvious issues with sample error and lack of reporting from out of home viewing, read any ratings book and Nielsen will tell you that what’s inside is only accurate within certain limits. They are a shared myth, one that allows both sides of the advertising transaction to negotiate against some standard, even if it’s dead wrong.
The ratings field is instructive because some folks finally decided to challenge the myth by providing another, more accurate look at audiences. It’s having a double effect – Nielsen is improving their service and there is a second “currency” that can be used in negotiating ad placements (sometimes you would rather buy in Swiss Francs than dollars). Someone challenged the myth and both they and business is better for them having done so.
Another example: a taxi medallion in NYC is worth lots of money. Uber challenged the myth by making every car owner a potential taxi service, and Google and others are challenging it even further by negating the need for drivers at all. Until recently, a car needing a driver was a shared myth, and when we can simply call for a driverless car, day or night (no drivers means no sleep needed!), the nature of car ownership changes as well. How will car dealers and resellers be impacted in 20 years? I suspect the myth of fossil fuels will be blown up in the next decade too.
The point is this. Nodding one’s head at myths that have the force of reality instead of seeing them for what they are can impede progress and obscure opportunity. Sometimes the emperor really is naked and you need to be that kid saying so. It won’t make you popular, but it just might make you very profitable. Any myth busters out there?