Before mobile phones, all calls were made from landlines or phone boxes.
If you didn’t have enough money you dialled the operator and, in the UK, asked if you could "reverse the charges" or, in the US, asked if you could "call collect".
The operator dialled the number and if they agreed to pay for it, the call went through.
In the US, AT&T had a virtual monopoly – it owned the market.
But in 1993, a company called MCI decided the market-share opportunity was people aged 18-23, young people going away to college.
They’d be calling their parents long-distance and, like all students, wouldn’t have money to spend on phone calls.
Their parents would just tell them to reverse the charges (call collect).
But calling collect via AT&T was expensive, because it involved paying an operator to make the connection.
MCI introduced an automatic service – you dialled a prefix, then the number and bypassed the operator, so it was cheaper.
The prefix MCI used was 1-800-COLLECT, then your number.
This was so successful that MCI’s market share went up from 14% to 20%.
In the same period, AT&T’s market share fell from 66% to 60%.
So AT&T quickly introduced its own direct-dial collect call service.
It told customers to use the prefix 1-800-OPERATOR, followed by the number.
For me, this is where MCI’s real creative brilliance came in.
MCI knew that Americans aren’t very good at spelling.
They knew lots of them would remember the word OPERATOR, but spell it OPERATER.
Now, the word itself was simply a mnemonic.
It was actually just a number: 673-72867.
All MCI had to do was buy the number 673-72837 (changing the 6 to a 3 changed "O" to "E’").
So every time someone mis-spelled OPERATOR as OPERATER, they’d get put through to MCI long-distance instead of AT&T.
It worked brilliantly: every time AT&T advertised its 1-800-OPERATOR prefix, lots of people dialled 1-800-OPERATER and MCI’s business went up.
All this time, MCI never mentioned the fact that it had hijacked AT&T’s prefix – MCI just let AT&T do its advertising for it.
Why not: MCI was spending $150m, but AT&T was spending $1.4bn.
Eventually AT&T discovered MCI’s decoy and cancelled its 1-800-OPERATOR prefix.
It then had to spend millions more dollars telling customers NOT to use it.
What I love is that MCI never said a word about this – it kept it absolutely quiet.
Because MCI didn’t have its thinking restricted by experts with MBAs who couldn’t think any further than what they’d learned from marketing textbooks.
MCI’s thinking and its growth, in revenue and share, came from understanding that it’d have to think beyond marketing textbooks.
MCI’s advantage was that it wasn’t restricted by conventional wisdom.
By thinking about the real world with REAL people, it was able to leave the competition flat-footed.
AT&T did its job according to the way conventional wisdom said consumers behave.
MCI did its job according to the way real people really actually behave.
And you won’t learn that from marketing textbooks.
In the real world, there are so many more opportunities for real creative thinking.
Dave Trott is the author of Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three