Never Underestimate the Advantage of Being an Early Adopter

Written by: George Cooper

One of my favorite movie scenes of all time is the boardroom scene in Margin Call. 

For what it’s worth I think the film is a must-watch for anyone in our industry. In case you haven’t seen it, it’s an all-star cast drama set in an unnamed Wall Street bank in the opening moments of the financial crisis. 

In the early hours of the morning, a junior analyst in the risk department discovers an unfathomably large liability in the bank’s mortgage book. A hole so large that could bring the entire firm down.  

It’s a highly technical story that sadly became known, in some form, all over the world in the years after 07/08.

Once the assumptions about volatility began to be tested, it was clear that the bank was sitting on a liability greater than the market cap of the whole institution. 

Later, the bank’s top brass assembled in the boardroom to decide how to avert the impending crisis. The chairman of the bank, brilliantly played by Jeremy Irons, memorably says:

“There are three ways to make a living in this business, be smarter, be first or cheat.”

From there, they decide to offload almost their entire mortgage book and CDOs to other institutions at bargain prices, all in the hope to be the first to dump their liability. And it worked (at least in the film). 

Now of course, I doubt anyone reading this is deciding whether to offload billions of dollars of investments, but the lesson about the importance of being smarter, first or cheating is still an interesting one, I think.

Let’s assume cheating is off the table, of course.

What if you were just… first? 

I’ve seen this a lot in marketing. 

Back in the late 90s, marketers would regularly get a 90% CTR (click-through rate) on email campaigns (I’m not joking). 

Today 3-4% is decent. 

And worse, this decline in engagement is seen almost universally across all marketing channels. 

I remember first using LinkedIn direct messages for prospecting years ago. It worked outrageously well - upwards of 50% of people would reply, as very few people were using this channel as a marketing tool. 

Here again we now see a return to the mean. People are using LinkedIn automation all over the place, spamming people with messages left, right and center. The decline to low engagement has well and truly set in, we’re probably at a 5-10% reply rate now.  

The point of these examples is to show that no matter how intricate and genius your strategy, sometimes you can never beat the edge of being first

It saddens me to admit it, but arguably the best marketing strategy over the past few years was to adopt new channels and methods faster than anyone else. Certainly in B2C. 

Or in other words speed may outwit genius more than we think. 

How does this apply to advisors? 

Don’t be frightened to experiment with new tools and channels. Sending postcards to encourage referrals, using SMS to book meetings, sending a cuddly toy in the mail when a client has a newborn. It doesn’t matter, don’t be frightened to be first. 

And this goes deeper than marketing...

I think the takeaway is this: with the advice and planning world in a period of huge change and technological disruption, never underestimate the advantage of being an early adopter. 

There’s only one caveat - don’t assume that advantage is locked in for the long term. You might simply be enjoying that first-mover advantage.

Related: Toasters and Technological Disruption