Be or Beware the Disruptor

Blog Posts - Nov 11, 2016

David Lazarenko
Leadership & Culture

At Think Shift, a large percentage of our clientele call the agriculture industry home. These companies range from domestic seed producers to global supply chain powerhouses. And while their industry may be described as traditional, all of the organizations we work with are progressively developing the products and services that will drive the production of the world’s food supply for years to come.

Much like other traditional industries, agriculture is not new to major industry changes. Great examples of this would be the recent global restructuring of Cargill and M&As such as Bayer’s current bid to purchase Monsanto.

That said, even though these changes will definitely be felt throughout the industry, I posit that agriculture, like many other traditional industries, has not yet felt the revolutionary, forever-changing impact of true digital disruption.

As those in industries who have been disrupted would attest (i.e. personal transportation services and consumer retail), digital disruption creates more significant, industry-altering change than large restructurings, M&As and major product advancements that used to be the common drivers for industry evolution. This is primarily due to digital’s ability to change the structure of the industry’s entire supply chain – or at least a significant portion of it. For example, Uber eliminated the owned physical infrastructure required for personal transportation services, while Amazon dis-intermediated both the wholesaler and retailer links in the consumer retail supply chain.

In order to be or beware the digital disruptor, it’s important to first recognize who the disruptor may be and why they are able to cause such disruption.

If you look closely at the new market leaders in digitally-disrupted industries, an interesting trend starts to emerge: very few of them were part of the industry before the disruption. This is not to say that the individuals at the helm of the new market-leading organizations were not deeply involved in the industry, but the organizations themselves weren’t. For example, Uber wasn’t a taxi company before it launched its online transportation network service and Amazon didn’t have any physical retail stores before it started selling online.

So, why are these outsiders able to deeply alter industries that have been led and evolved by some of the largest organizations in the world?

If you believe in “out-of-the-box” thinking, I believe they were never truly “in the box” to start with and therefore had little to no mental constraints in place to think of a better solution. They were able to think beyond the evolutionary tools existing industry organizations relied on (i.e. restructurings and M&As) and instead pursued completely new and revolutionary ways of servicing customer needs.

For traditional industries already affected and those to come, this means that one of their (and your) greatest strengths will essentially become your greatest threat.

Depth and breadth of experience is what makes traditional industry stalwarts so strong. The extent that these organizations have embedded themselves into the many facets of their industries will only fortify the walls of the box in which they think. While I have led many clients through iterations of SWOT analyses (from the traditional SWOT to the SO/WT to the SO/ST/WO/WT) whenever the Strength to Threat discussion occurs, it is primarily optimistic and experience-based (i.e. we will use our strength of experience to overcome the threat of change). In the face of digital disruption, this optimistic, inside-the-box thinking may actually speed up your demise (i.e. we will invest more in the physical retail spaces we have to counter the threat of e-commerce).

This is not to say that existing industry inhabitants are all doomed, it just means that the ways of thinking and acting need to change. For example:

  • Embrace the Newcomer – While there may be a strong desire to seek those with experience in the industry, seek out and listen to those who have not yet developed the “experience baggage” that will limit their thinking.
  • Embrace the “What Ifs” – These are the very ideas that drive the digital disruptors but are so frequently dismissed by those already in the industry. What if we sold direct to the customer? What if anyone could give someone a ride? If the “What If” you are thinking of would make things much simpler for the customer, there’s a very good chance this will be where a disruptor strikes first.
  • Question the “We Can’ts” – This may be the biggest and most risky hurdle. “We can’t bypass the retailer” is based on a very real risk of disenfranchising a significant part of your supply chain but the risk of someone else doing so, and succeeding, is even greater.

As an agency partner, it can be argued that our primary role is to play the part of the newcomer and to drive the “What If” and “We Can’t” discussions. While this has essentially been the case for years (i.e. bringing on an agency for out-of-the-box thinking) the biggest difference today is that it’s no longer enough for us to just challenge your brand, creative and execution. In the age of digital, we must now know your organization and industry well enough to challenge the very structure of both, to have the digital savviness to rethink better solutions and to have (and share) the conviction of the disruptor.

For more information on the state of digital in agriculture, read our eBook on Agriculture and the Digital Revolution.


In his Working Wisdom series, David Lazarenko shares insights and inspiration gathered throughout his 15-year agency career. Through real-life examples and an analysis of industry trends, he offers up practical advice and actionable strategies for marketers.