Melania Trump’s speech last evening at the GOP convention, and today’s subsequent media uproar and fiasco, is symbolic of several things in my view. Summarizing my themes here: Competence, Theft, and Ideas (or lack of them).
I’ll take flack for writing this post, but understand, this is not about politics. It involves politics — but my comments have more to do with creativity and innovation. As most of you know, my interests are in those areas, so, I’m looking at recent events with that lens. Not as a lefty, not as a righty. I’m looking at this with the green tinted shades of the artist and the black and white lens of a professional innovator.
Trump’s campaign, by all accounts, does things their own way. They are spending less money, hiring less staff, are relying on media and not on a “ground game” in their run for the Presidency. It’s a bold experiment in innovating how a campaign is conducted. He’s leveraging brand and marketing and media skill in order to do this all on the cheap. It worked in the primaries.If it works in November we’ll look back at this shift in campaign strategy as a sea change, yes, as true innovation.
The Trump campaign, clearly, has competency in some areas, but it would appear, is lacking them in others. This could make all the difference in November. They might be making history, or, they might be showing us exactly how Not to do it.
The Speech Eff Up (Lack of Domain Knowledge)
It’s hard to believe they made this mistake with Melania’s speech. A competent speech writer would have “borrowed” ideas from Michelle Obama’s speech, but not directly lifted whole phrases, sentences and paragraphs. Make no mistake, despite the denial, this was direct plagiarism. Somebody should be fired, this is a Big Mistake. I don’t blame Melania Trump, I blame those working for her and The Donald. She did not write this speech, it was written for her to read. She read it well, even very well, especially considering English is her second or third language. It would have been perfect except for the plagiarism. No, the blame for the SNAFU goes to the campaign organization. Trump is, in my view, running with a team of people who do not have domain knowledge and skill about how elections work, how this should be done. Domain knowledge is under-rated in innovation, but actually knowing your field matters a great deal. Yes, breaking rules can be innovative; but I would argue that you need to know the rules very well before you strategically choose to break them. Otherwise, you’re innovation is an accident, and, highly unlikely to work.
The Kennedy’s would never have made this particular mistake — because they knew politics up and down. They were politics wonks from day one, they talked it over at dinner every night. The Donald is a Real Estate wonk — this is the domain he knows. The Kennedy’s had teams of people around them who were brilliant specialists. They knew enough to hire the exact right people to hire to write speeches. Trump’s team needs a conservative Ted Sorenson. The Kennedy’s had extensive domain knowledge — they would never be beat because they didn’t know the system, the people, the rules of the game. Trump’s team screwed the pooch on this one, and that is not innovation, it’s incompetence, plain and simple. Innovation often fails at the implementation stage, often due to a lack of domain knowledge. Trump needs real political operatives that have that domain knowledge, in my view. It might also be arrogance in the sense they think they can get away with anything without even disguising it. Or by simply denying factual things that have happened. Which takes me to my second theme, Theft.
Stealing ideas from others is highly creative. And if done properly, it’s not wrong or unethical. In copyright law they say “you can’t protect an idea, you can only protect the implementation of an idea.” The trick, as my old copy writing teacher Jerry Galvin once said, is to “steal smart.” When I was a senior at the College Conservatory of Music (University of Cincinnati) Jerry talked about his challenges writing and designing for his ad agency. He said when he was really stuck for an idea he would look at old catalogs of winning ads and borrow concepts. Stealing smart was looking at catalogs from 15 years ago, AND, not doing a direct copy, but to one-off it and make it just different enough to call it your own. This is what Melania Trump’s speechwriter did not do. He (or she) stole stupid. Stealing an idea is okay, IF you re-do the implementation. Which brings me to my final point, Ideas.
Where were the fresh ideas in the talk? Where was something brand new, or at least refurbished, that could put a cool new Melania stamp on things? I didn’t hear any did you? I understand her dress was original! One of the shortfalls in the Trump campaign staff is simply fresh ideas. There is The Wall, okay, there’s one big idea (that by all accounts is not implementable). I’ve not heard anything else new. It might be possible to win by pandering, innuendo, name calling, or by creating an atmosphere of fear, and through racial and class divide. Maybe. I tend to think that a few of those fence-sitting independents are going to look at actual ideas and see if Trump or HRC has something they can believe in. But I could be wrong about that.
So, to sum up, hello Trump Campaign. If you want to win, you’ll need to learn to steal smart.