The importance of substance

I used to work for a small marketing consultancy run by an entrepreneur called Tony. The man had a confidence quite out of proportion to his ability and had an ego that needed constant feeding.

“Do you remember the conference I went to the other day?” he told his fellow director, Philip. “They loved me. You should have heard the applause,” he said without any hint of irony.

It was true that he was a good speaker. He managed to give real weight to what he was saying, somehow. But for him to say so himself was remarkably obtuse.

“You know, it was nothing really,” he went on. “Just a few thoughts I’d had about where the industry is going. Just common sense. But they loved it. You should have heard the applause at the end!”

The speech had actually been written by Philip. And it had taken a lot of work – interviewing people in the sector, working late to make sure it was polished, neat and coherent. And now Tony had taken ownership of it. With no word of thanks to the author.

Tony was a salesman in the second-hand car sense of the word. He had real presentational skills, managing to make everything sound bigger and cleverer than it was, regardless of the ‘content’. Luckily for him, he had someone on his team who was very good at supplying quality material – Philip.

The two skills sets should have been complementary, but the two men couldn’t stand each other.

Tony didn’t value ‘content’. If the conference had gone well, it must have been down to him. In his view, analysts were ten a penny and were all replaceable, including his director. What was difficult, what was rare and what therefore justified the real money were the presentation skills.

He dismissed Philip as a perfectionist who overcomplicated things, who was too intellectual and who needed a bit more ‘commercial nous’. He spent too much time thinking things through, when he should just get on with it. All these things added to the costs and were the enemy of profitability.

Tony was the doer, and ultimately, life was about getting things done, he had always thought.

Philip thought his boss was a bullshitter and that his ‘all mouth and no trousers’ approach was holding the company back. He thought the approach was too opportunistic and that the company needed more structure; that it needed a strategy, in fact. Companies eventually outgrew the entrepreneurial, ‘get stuff done’ approach and then needed more focus. At a certain point you had to take out the entrepreneur and shoot him, metaphorically speaking.

Our company had reached that point some time before. Everyone seemed to realise that except for the man himself.

This was the tension that ran through the business. The relationship between the two men was becoming steadily more acrimonious, lurching from one bad tempered disagreement to another.

Eventually, it reached boiling point, the two had a major falling out and Philip was asked to leave. It was all very dramatic and very stressful for everyone concerned.


There is a theme at the heart of Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, about the divide between the introverted, careful thinkers and the overconfident doers, and how society seems to favour the latter and that society should do more to encourage and support the former. I think there is something to that, but in this case it was the thinkers who ultimately triumphed.

With the money from his redundancy, Philip set up his own small consultancy in direct competition with his former employer, and a couple of good people left to join him. They had a hard time to begin with and had a couple of scares, partly because they lacked the sales firepower. But gradually things started to look up. Once one client had made the move across to the new company, word spread about the quality of his work and about the sharp drop in quality from Tony, and one by one clients migrated from one to the other. The company went from strength to strength while Tony’s business withered on the vine. As I speak, it is still just about going but the company is now a fraction of its original size and has a terrible reputation.

In this one instance, it was not just that substance won over presentation, but that Tony’s approach proved to be a liability, that had been holding Philip back until he managed to free himself from his boss’s clutches.  

Note: photo from Romain V on Unsplash

Published by Peter Runkel

"Work hard and be nice to people." Anthony Burrill

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