Gladwell illustrates business transformation at The Art of Marketing

Three examples of business leaders who fought for change

Malcolm Gladwell is not a marketer. His books, however, are cited so frequently by marketers that one could be forgiven for forgetting he’s not one of the tribe.

Knowing the audience was full of marketing experts Wednesday at The Art of Marketing in Toronto, Gladwell elected not to talk about ad land. “Why would I talk to you about something you know more about than I do?” he asked.

Instead, Gladwell told stories about transformation, a subject he figured marketers would relate to given the “once in a lifetime” change social media and data brought to the industry.

To help marketers ride the wave of change instead of being swallowed by it, he shared these three lessons about transformation.


To lead the way to change, you’ll need to butt a couple heads. Transformation is never easy and people will always resist it – often vehemently.

To illustrate this point, Gladwell told the story of Malcolm McLean, the American entrepreneur who popularized the shipping container in the 1950s – a development Gladwell said “reinvented the modern world.”

When McLean first proposed cargo move directly from trucks to ships without unpacking, few thought the idea had validity. He fought endlessly with unions, was ostracized by the owners of other shipping companies and booed off stage by a European shipping association.

Still, he persisted, and today the method he advocated for is the global standard. “He was the kind of guy who doesn’t need the approval of his peers to do what he thinks is best for his business,” Gladwell said.

To lead a transformation in business, you need to, “have good ideas, carry them through and do it through hostility and criticism,” he said.


When the business you’re in changes, you need to change the way you think about it. Great innovators who lead the way to change do so by shifting the conversation about the business they’re in.

Gladwell listed David Sarnoff, the man behind the world’s first live sports broadcast as an example of this (the anecdote originally appeared in Gladwell’s 2000 debut, The Tipping Point). Sarnoff, who went on to be the CEO of RCA, was first to suggest that radio broadcast live sports – specially a World Heavyweight Championship boxing match that took place on July 2, 1921.

Before that night, radio’s primary use was news and RCA had trouble getting consumers to lay down a month’s pay on what they could get on the cheap in the newspaper. After Sarnoff ran the first sports broadcast, radio took off.

What Sarnoff did, Gladwell said, was re-frame the conversation about radio. It wasn’t just a tool for getting the news, but a way to bring the most important sports event of the year into your living room.


In times of transformation, speed is everything. If you don’t take your idea to market fast, someone else will.

Consider Steve Jobs. The idea for the computer mouse came from Xerox, but it ended up attached to Jobs’ Macintosh because he acted fast.

In a retelling of a feature story he wrote for The New Yorker in 2011, Gladwell explained that Jobs first saw the mouse on a tour of Xerox PARC, a development lab, and returned immediately to tell his team to start working on one.

The way the mouse interacted with the Macintosh interface, an idea that came from Xerox, helped bring personal computing the masses – and made Apple a household name.

“Why is it Apple that went on to dominate the market and not Xerox?” Gladwell asked. “[Jobs] is in a hurry. He’s urgent. He drove back to his company and told them to drop everything and do this now.”

It was this attitude that made Jobs a great innovator and kept Apple on the leading edge of the evolution of personal computing – a massive social transformation.

“The ability to transform your world isn’t just about what you know, it’s about what you are,” Gladwell said.

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