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Recognize the Signs of Contagion

by Paul Barsch  |  
May 24, 2010

Think back to January 2008. Was your company prepared for the coming financial crisis that would happen later that year with Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers collapsing? Even better, look further back to April 2, 2007 when New Century Financial (one of the biggest body shops for sub-prime mortgages) filed for bankruptcy. Did you see the warning signs?

Now if you didn’t, please don’t feel too bad. Most economists also missed the signs of contagion.

What is contagion? Some dictionaries call contagion the “spread and transmission of disease, ideas, influence and emotions.” Other financial dictionaries cite contagion as “the likelihood of significant economic changes in one country spreading to other countries.”

What the dictionary definitions omit, however, is the rapid speed of transmission in contagion.

With today’s global economy tightly linked by capital, labor, and information flows at the speed of light, it’s not uncommon for bad news, nervousness, or outright panic to spill across borders and disrupt even the most stable of companies and industries. Indeed, everything’s connected, and sometimes in ways that we can’t quite see under the surface.

With just a few recent examples, the concept of contagion is quite prevalent in today’s periodicals:

• A European official recently compared the growing European debt crisis to the Ebola virus.
• To stop the debt crisis contagion, Eurozone finance ministers rolled out a rescue package designed to “shock and awe” investors with a whopping “$644B emergency facility to protect the Euro area from potential disaster.”
• Researchers at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University have found that if your neighbor strategically defaults on their home mortgage, the odds increase that you will choose to do the same.
• The Financial Times writes regarding Kyrgyzstan, “When demonstrators took to the streets … few, if any, foresaw that what started as a protest against a rise in electricity prices in the remote copper and gold belt of Kyrgyzstan would develop into a full-blown revolution that toppled a central Asian government.”

Whether it’s financial default of countries, companies or persons, government upheaval, or the decision to walk away from a mortgage because “everyone’s doing it,” small ripples of contagion tend to cause big waves elsewhere. And once those waves start rolling, it’s hard for marketing executives with their best laid plans to get out of the way.

The warning signs aren’t really hard to spot. In fact, they’re everywhere. What’s difficult to extrapolate is whether a rock thrown in the pond lands with a thud, or causes a full-blown title wave. And that’s the difficult part of understanding contagion, because in complex systems the next crisis could come from the smallest of beginnings.

With this in mind, how can a marketer separate signal from noise?

The first step is to read and listen. Pay close attention to global media for disruptions, trending topics, and events gaining critical mass. Reach out to peers for their perspective on today’s events (the more cross-industry perspective the better). Also, talk to customers for their point of view.

Second, watch your own company key performance indicators. In times like these, a strong analytical infrastructure with near real-time data feeds can help alert you to coming challenges. Use analytics to identify variances, strengths, softness, and project trend lines.

Third, leverage internal and external expertise to help distinguish matter from mania. Providing you have access to or have already hired the smartest brains, learn from PIMCO on how they hold weekly meetings to “square off in hours-long debates that are a cross between Socratic dialogue and bare-knuckled slugfest.” Challenge, debate, and try to project outcomes from today’s events.

The next crisis could come from left field, right field or drop from the sky. However, armed with the above processes, the probability of being blindsided is greatly reduced.

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Paul Barsch directs services marketing programs for Teradata, the world's largest data warehousing and analytics company. Previously, Paul was marketing director for HP Enterprise Services $1.3 billion healthcare industry and a senior marketing manager at global consultancy, BearingPoint. Paul is a senior contributor to MarketingProfs, a frequent columnist for MarketingProfs DailyFix, and has published over fifteen articles in marketing, management, technology and healthcare publications. Paul earned his Bachelors of Science in Business Administration from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He and his family reside in San Diego, CA.

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  • by Claire Ratushny Tue May 25, 2010 via blog

    Hi Paul,

    Provocative post, as always. Recognizing signs is very important. Signs can cut both ways. They can portend problems and give us ample time to respond and mitigate; they can also signal potential opportunities if we recognize them in time and capitalize. As for looking for current signs that may bloom into full-blown crises, take a look at the current financial meltdown in Greece due to bloated government budgets and spending. That contagion is hitting most of Western Europe. Shouldn't we take this as a warning and cut our own spending given the precariousness of a global economy?

  • by Neil Anuskiewicz Tue May 25, 2010 via blog

    @ Paul - I'd add to that, pay attention to your gut.

    During the dot-com boom I remember having an ongoing conversation with a friend and we were constantly asking when is this bubble going to pop. Same conversation during the real estate bubble: this can't possibly go on forever.

    There must be a lot of people who have an uneasy feeling when something seems too good to be true. Perhaps a healthy dose of skepticism and caution is in order. We'd all be better off.

  • by Paul Barsch Tue May 25, 2010 via blog

    Claire, love your POV that in contagion there is not only oppty to manage risk, but also oppty to seize advantage. The financial contagion happening in EU is what I had in mind in writing this post, but contagion also comes in all different kinds of forms (rumor, panic etc...)

    One of the points I wanted to make with this column is that contagion often spills over into markets, economies and in quite unpredictable ways. Where in the past, cceans once separated us and telecommunications were slow we had hours or days to react. Not anymore.

    Marketers need to understand how contagion works so that we can better prepare our marketing strategies and tactics to adjust to a world that changes literally at the speed of light.

  • by Paul Barsch Tue May 25, 2010 via blog

    Neil, you bring up a terrific point on paying attention to your gut. This is very important. However, I believe more important than paying attention to your instincts is the ability to act upon your instincts and analysis.

    Example; how many saw the warning signs of financial contagion (starting in 2007) and did nothing. Sadly, I bet that % is higher than we'd like to believe.

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