One of my favorite movies happens to be about business: The 1994 Warner Bros. film, The Hudsucker Proxy, starring Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Newman, Bill Cobbs, Bruce Campbell, John Mahoney, and Charles Durning, not to mention a cameo by then bombshell Anna Nicole Smith, and a short bit by Steve Buscemi.
This fun, but under-appreciated Coen Brothers film is told as a fable about the rat race, skewering the ethics of American business, setting up a likeable, but clueless, everyman as the underdog hero, lovingly paying tribute to older gems like The Lady Eve (and anything by Preston Sturges), and His Girl Friday, all coated with a frosting of Looney Tunes comic sensibility. I highly recommend it.
Hudsucker’s amusing take on big business, nevertheless, offers a few clever tips for real businesses, too, some of them almost unconsciously. Like Mad Men, Hudsucker is set in the period of the late Fifties. And like that more consciously stylish television show, Hudsucker’s got something to say to the 21st Century. The Hudsucker Industries slogan is “The Future is Now,” so here are five lessons from Hudsucker that will stand the test of time.
- Good ideas come from unexpected places. When Norville Barnes (Robbins) stumbles from the Muncie College of Business Administration into the mailroom at the Hud, it’s easy to see why Sidney J. Mussburger (Newman) thinks he’s found just the dipstick he needs to destroy the firm’s reputation overnight. And yet, despite himself, and with all the forces of the universe seemingly arrayed against him, Norville is a man with a sweet baby of a plan that’s going to put the Hud on the map. The lesson: If you give new ideas a chance to bubble up from the ranks, and compete in the marketplace, you may be pleasantly surprised at the results.
- Keep it simple. Norville’s big idea – “You know – for kids” – may not look like much when he pulls it out of the shoe where he’s been keeping it, but history shows that in real life, his extruded plastic dingus was a game changer for the American toy industry. The design could not have been more simple, but it ignited the imagination of its target audience, as Norville knew it would. The lesson: know what your market needs, and give it to them. It’s that simple
- Promote from within. Sure, sure, the Hud’s board of directors has ulterior motives, but bringing Norville out of the mailroom and plopping him into the newly-vacated top job on the 45th floor (counting the mezzanine) turns out to be a good thing. Admittedly, Norville hasn’t been within the Hudsucker organization long, but he is invested, emotionally speaking. Sometimes the best leadership comes from a nationwide search, but as Norville proves, you never want to underestimate the dedicated talent pool you already have. The lesson: Is there someone in your organization who just needs a shot, just one good opportunity, to make fortune and glory rain down on your company?
- Stick to your principles. When the hero of The Hudsucker Proxy starts worrying more about how things look than he does about doing the right thing, everything begins to go downhill for him. It’s at that moment, when Norville is reminded of the high ideals he stands for, that he pulls the Hud back from the brink of the moral abyss. When he returns to doing what’s right “for kids,” he has his next breakthrough and goes on to rule the company in wisdom. The lesson: abandoning your principles for the sake of profit or public opinion will invariably lead to brand destruction and ruin.
- The public? Fickle. Amazing how fast in Hudsucker people go from lionizing Norville Barnes to threatening him with mob violence. When you’re up, they celebrate you as an innovator, an idea man (or woman), a genius. When you’re down, they’re chasing you through the icy streets of New York. At least that’s how it played out in Hudsucker. And the vicissitudes of public opinion will not necessarily depend on whether you follow lesson number 4 above. So when it happens, if you’re still doing good business at least, you’ve got to circle the wagons and wait for your swing back into favor. The lesson: changing public opinion doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing something wrong, although it’s good to give some weight to the voice of the people. There’s a balancing act between points 1 and 5.
Now, those who know the film might think I’m missing a few choice points about circles of life, and double-stitching, and being wary of girls from Muncie. Some people might say I’m just retrofitting all these business lessons into The Hudsucker Proxy. But I’ll let you be the judge. Sometime before you “merge with the infinite,” watch Hudsucker, and tell me what you think. Long Live the Hud!