Too big. Too slow. Too much noise. Choose to collaborate & create rather than efficiently manage

Too big. Too slow. Too much noise.

Choose to collaborate & create rather than efficiently manage

I had a good discussion over the weekend about the future alignment of big agencies and big brands. The debate focused on three core issues

  • How we need to test more things out to meet the changing needs of customers
  • How much quicker everything has to be
  • If the big agencies are geared up for such fast turnaround & innovations

Really the debate was around the final question – I know they are trying to change but not always succeeding. Time is running out. I believe that this current downturn will cause fundamental changes to the relationship between clients, brands, agencies and consumers. The pressures that will force this tipping point are both from clients and from within the agencies and, specifically, their top talent.

The proliferation of specialist agencies that started 20+ years ago with media separating from creative, relationship marketing execution separating from advertising, identity studios involving into brand consultancies, the rise of digital specialist beyond web developers and online advertising and the formation of a few places that are more generalist idea not execution offerings has left clients dealing with too many agency contacts, all great at some things but not everything. During the same period, the Management Consultants have proliferated exponentially inside many of the same clients. It’s no wonder senior clients feel time starved, over advised and generally frustrated.

Even though many of the Holding Companies have been successful in pitching a “one-stop-answer” for Billion Dollar businesses, these pitches are so in the sights of procurement that the decision is only over lowest price and how many people (sorry, FTE’s – full time equivalent people) are involved in the deal. Therefore the focus is driven by a combination of efficiency (to make the deal profitable) and management (to ensure consistency of service) as much less on delivering better creative ideas. Consumers and customers (and indeed staff) need to be understood, connected too, delighted and heard, which are driven by creativity, insights, cut through and smarts = better creative ideas.

Sure, the Holding Company has a number of specialist agencies who are geared up to deliver their specialism brilliantly – and they do. A lot of clients form their own rosters of specialist agencies who are world class at their specialism. There is great talent in these agencies – but too much overlap and duplication stops the talent performing at their best for the brands.

The overlap takes the form of big teams with too many different disciplines working apart and only occasionally meeting. A big brand may have between 5-7 agency teams working on it. These teams usually work in different agencies or on different floors within big agency groups. All teams have roles that are specific to the agency and not for the client. They are assigned by a basic billing model that allocates a percentage of time per task.

Too many agencies still have first-point-of-contact people who represent the agency to client rather than create things or provide insight. Many of these traditional roles are replicated across each of the client’s agencies – whether from the same holding company or not. Too many account managers or project managers or junior this and still-in-training-for-that. Important internal roles, less important external roles, but all the roles are accounted for, paid for and in each process from each discipline & in each agency. Clients also have proliferated roles to look after executional disciplines and follow the process to execute things with too many levels and with a niche focus aimed inside a company rather than in gaining real insight with their consumers outside,  in order to provide meaningful, rewarding experiences that is demanded of 21st Century Branding.

We hear a lot about noise from a consumer’s perspective with millions of messages in too many channels – ironically there is an internal noise in these agencies that can be distracting for both clients & negates the very reason they may have hired agencies in the first place – namely to create and improve brands and their relationships with consumers, customers and staff -  but also the noise affects the top talent inside agencies. The ‘noise’ takes to form of

  • Running an agency – reporting, communicating, managing, meetings, meetings
  • Reporting to the holding company
  • Internal processes (often to update people for not at client meetings)
  • Being allocated to other clients (it’s not uncommon to add the FTE percentages so that people are allocated 3 months for every one month of time)
  • New business gathering
  • Training younger people – or use them as blockers.
  • Meetings, meetings, meetings, politics, politics, politics

This noise not only distracts the top talent away from building brands, it frustrates them. Everything slows down the processes of creativity. The talent spends less & less time with the client and at the client and/or in the world learning – it has a big knock on frustration at the client too. The frustration has always been there, but today, the holding companies are so pervasive, a lot of options for clients and agency talent can seem to be out of the frying pan & into the fire.

Their clients need talent to succeed in getting new ideas our more quickly but are getting increasingly frustrated when the good ideas are slowed by over burdensome process & models and or in forms that are difficult to test – these days testing has to be done in real markets not in real market conditions or focus groups and be small enough to fit on a model of “do, learn, do again, do different.” This includes having dialogue with consumers on a weekly basis not in annually or for a big launch.

The change has begun. Some of the clients are early adaptors. Much agency talent are leaving to collaborate with other talent to create new models, to choose to work on projects they want too, or with other talent they respect. The freelance model of choice. Smaller creative boutiques are happy to recognise they don’t know everything but know enough talent outside to mean the client can get access to the best talent. Clients are picking specific teams from their agencies to work directly with together rather than via each individual agency. Virtual networks, collaborative villages used to be the prerogative and vernacular of tech start ups.

Hence the rise of “open source collaboration” – whether within smaller, more fleet of foot, agencies set up to keep that way or choose to work as an individual or dynamic team to focus on creating & making things. Clients want to work with the best creative and strategic talent. They are rarely all in the same agency. And they are always the most sought after in the agency. Holding Companies don’t always give top talent the freedom of choice or the full freedom to create. Clients themselves  have too many balls to juggle to stand still.

Creative collaboration direct with clients and consumers is one way of ensuring that breakthrough ideas are tested quickly in order to build growth back into a clients business. At the same time, it breathes passion back into creative people – right and left brained brand builders who want to make a difference  – who are not turned on by efficiency and management process that they are increasingly frustrated with.

Smaller, faster, focused creativity is like adrenaline to the best agency talent – not managing efficiently. It’s choosing to give your all to a project or a brand. The same at the client. The same for consumers. The effect is positively infectious. Of course there are times when it still happens at big agencies and big brands. At pitches and launches – in times of crisis management. The trick is to make these acute one off periods more regular, more often. Otherwise what will happen is that creative brand projects will be worked on by a creative collective – to deliver a powerful impact to a consumer’s experience or a meaningful role for a company’s staff on the customer journey.

These collectives will not be retained to work beyond the agreed project. Another project could follow but not immediately with the same brand. The teams will mix and match themselves over time to complement each other to drive each solution and then move on to choose another. As this process developed, creative talent & innovators will merge with other advisors in the management consulting field. Choosing to collaborate, whatever the fee or reward is for the collective or the client will be based on short term shared goals and outcomes. This form of collaboration provides the opportunity  for each person, client or creative, to keep being curious,  right or left brained, to make an impact, to be a part of a wider community, to solve difficult or interesting problems quickly and feel increased self worth, beyond the measure of a salaried job with the accompanying processes and management responsibilities.

So yes, it was an interesting debate on Saturday night. An optimistic one too, because these are times of change, where action will trump inertia, and fear fuelled doom mongers do not have to be right. The debate happened at a charity ball for Mencap’s Grove Cottage. The power to do good by many for a few was apparent, in our little community.




Digital changes everything and nothing. Brands still need emotional connection.

Digital changes everything and nothing. Brands still need emotional connection.

I met Tor Myhren, President and Chief Creative Officer, Grey New York a couple of years back. The agency he leads has been transformed from the one I used to work with 10 years ago. Grey NY is the only ad agency to get in Fast Company’s most innovating firms. Grey was the bastion of account management led agencies. Tor’s background is as a Creative & that’s central to Grey’s turnaround.

In this little movie, Tor shows himself to be a great storyteller and charmingly shows how the customer journey has changed over the time of the digital revolution.

While the tech-driven media channel has turned so much upside down in terms of speed, access, influence, participation, user experience and the other traits that a  21st Century Brand must address – Tor’s real insight is that Brand storytellers still must connect emotionally to consumers. Understanding them allows the story to be heard.

Creativity remains the brand’s best friend and proves that all brand advisors have a future as long as creativity is at its heart.

Unilever Global CEO Paul Polman: The agenda of 21st Century Business model

Unilever Global CEO Paul Polman: The agenda of 21st Century Business model

Really powerful talk by Paul Polman to the Annual One Young World Summit about sustainability and the challenges this raises. He is clear of the role of business and the role of brand in 21st Century.

He says, as boss of this massive global firm (170,000 staff, 2 Billion consumers in 150+ countries) , he is not accountable to shareholders. He is not driven by simply raising profits and cutting costs.

He is accountable to his consumers, his staff and to their communities. Accountable to the sustainability of the world. For companies such as his, he wants them to stop using technology to reduce the negative impact on communities and move Unilever to actively making a positive contribution to society,

Unilver wants to grow of course, but Paul says he wants to decouple growth form the environmental impact on the world. Unilver wants to actively improve the health and wellbeing of 1 Billion consumers.

He says the world needs leadership but says he serves his company not leads it. He is a leader and one that inspires. Well worth a look, but more importantly, well worth learning from…is your brand giving back?

Brand advocates are the most important salesmen a product has.

Brand advocates are the most important salesmen a product has.

Graphic courtesy of The Times & Bain

Personal recommendations ensure brand preference, even in the toughest of times.

A survey of 6000 shoppers by Bain reveals that consumers are more likely to “treat themselves” by spending more on premium and luxury brands during these tough economic times. Bain note that consumers recognise the there is an emotional pull by these brands, who are deriving reassurance of quality in their purchases.

In tough circumstances, consumers are cutting back on big ticket purchases (think Best Buy & Comet issues), are holidaying at home (BA reports another drop in passenger numbers) and in terms of homes, they are either holding on and not moving (stagnant housing market) or can’t get mortgages to get on the housing ladder and will continue (or even restart) to rent (today’s Grainger report indicates up to 50% of Brits will soon be renting).

While these are understandable indicators of such hard economic times, many consumers want to afford themselves to the occasional “treat”. When they do, in a surprisingly wide range of categories – including fragrances, restaurants and personal technology – they look to brand-influenced decisions. What is interesting in the Bain study, is the confirmation that

  • advertising continues to  diminish as an influence on 2st Century brand choice
  •  personal recommendations are the most important influence
  • online activity is important but not as important as the massive shifts in marketing expenditure to internet expenditure suggests.

As Bain says ‘Companies overestimate the importance of online and are underestimating the importance of advocacy.  A lot of companies have spent a lot of money on the internet but they should be spending more on getting people to be influenced by their friends and family”.

Brands can succeed next year despite the gloom and doom, by creating advocates, by listening to and creating dialogue with these consumers and by recognising that by doing so, consumers imbue these brands with quality associations, beyond the basic product attributes. Brands that do this understand the new customer journey has many touchpoints that require new thinking and smaller, consistent actions that reinforce the expectations of the brand promise.

21st Century Brands need a purpose to stay relevant

21st Century Brands need a purpose to stay relevant

Umair Haque of Havas Media neatly sums up what 21st Century Brands have to have in order to succeed

Where 20th Century branding was fixated on differentiation in a competitive positioning based battlefield. But in the hyper-connected 21st Century world the focus is on customer involvement.

The shift equates, says Haque, involves moving from differentiating to actually making a real difference to the customer – in human terms. Positive, optimistic, real differences will count.

Having a purpose.

Earning a role.

Living up to that role.

Recent research undertaken by Havas Media into Meaningful Brands shows that gobal customers are happy enough to dump 80% of the brands they use without much of a second thought.

That’s 80% of the brands they actually use not the hundreds of similar ones clamouring to be used.

It also shows that those brands that have a purpose – one that improves the lives of the customer or their communities or their/the world resonate strongly. This is more apparent in the emerging markets – which is where the future growth for all brands is coming from…

The analysis suggests that the next generation of brands will come from emerging economies. People in fast growing economies, such as Asian and Latin American markets, record a stronger and healthier relationship with brands. The proportion of brands making a notable positive contribution to our lives increases to around 30% in Latin America, compared to 8% in European markets, where people tend to be more sceptical and less engaged with brands. In the US it’s 5%.”

21st Century Branding is moving on. Is your brand ready, willing & able?


Best Buy – an avoidable failure.

Best Buy – an avoidable failure.

Best Buy UK’s closing down of their 11 Big Box outlets is being touted today in the broadsheet newspapers as a failure due to a combination of “naivety & arrogance” which was compounded by the sharp economic downturn. While the UK story has abruptly collapsed to these poor headlines, the partnership between Best Buy and Carphone Warehouse hasn’t been a disaster and both strong brands remain strong in their markets.

Best Buy’s US brand is a very resilient and they are out making a Superbowl commercial ( for only their second time using a weird father/son duo of Ozzy Osborne & Justin Beiber!). Their in-store experience consistent and rewarding not least through their Geek Squad sub brand. Their UK partner, Carphone Warehouse has a similarly strong brand and consistent experience.

The JV’s European management is strong with Messers Dunstone and Harrison well versed in branding and retail. Indeed, with Best Buy taking up the successful US partnership and buying out Carphone Warehouse, there is considerable financial upside for Carphone and the European JV partnership will continue – but in outlets that will represent Carphone Stores rather than Best Buy with a strong Telco focus.

What went wrong in the UK? The economic times were clearly a bad backdrop, but the failure seems to be down to 2 key reasons, which should have shown up in early planning and could have been avoided. The focus on big out of town outlets and the disappointing brand experience

Best Buy UK had just 11 big stores. Out of Town sites are expensive (particularly in UK compared to France & Germany and even more so than in the US). Planning permission is tortuous. Regular visitors to the parks are usually only to supermarkets. Visitors looking for Big Box electronics and Home improvements and the like are now less than once a year or so. Their established competitors had hundreds and hundreds of stores and were eager to compete against the US invader.

Their Best Buy brand was launched with big ambitions – National Advertising and big price discounts promised. The assumed poor service of their competitors improved and customers were able to browse Best Buy & walk across to Comet or Dixons and browse/compare based on product and pricing at which Best Buy weren’t clear winners. Customers would have done this online too and may have only gone into Best Buy as it was a new experience. To succeed, the Best Buy experience needed to beat expectations, expectations they themselves were setting.

Was it a good experience? The range of products inside were disappointing – often significantly less than their competitors. The discounts were either short lived or only premium products. The Geek Squad failed to live up to the hype (the US Squad rocks!). The advertising didn’t differentiate. Why was it so American? Where was the humour for the UK marketplace? Too many customers in research assumed that Best Buy was an American grocery outlet.

The economic times didn’t help. Indeed Best Buy should have entered the UK much earlier. Today, there isn’t room for 3 competitors for such an infrequent expensive purchase. But to go in with an all singing, all dancing BIG brand promise missed the mark. A smaller test, via a single store say, to hone the right offer, the right experience and the right brand for the UK market which can then be heralded more overtly and growth taken slowly, 21st century brands need to be tested and nurtured with their customers. Too many assumptions seemed to have been taken and then wrongly accounted for in planning.

A shame as the Best Buy US experience is a very good one. As is the Carphone Warehouse experience. But they are different and were always likely to be.


Jaime Oliver – a 21st Century Brand

Jaime Oliver – a 21st Century Brand

Really interesting biography in today’s Times by Alex Renton , which poses the question is Jaime the Elizabeth David of our times?

He questions the place Jaime has in the history of British cooks and the influence of his legacy of Food. Really interestingly, Alex Renton makes the observation that Jaime Oliver has become “one of Britain’s best brands.”

In the 12 years since TV’s Naked Chef, Jaime has become so much broader than a “Chef” – and as we entered the 21st Century Jamie’s fame grew – as did many more Ramsey, Rhodes et al – but Jaime moved on from offering good/great practical food through to social projects like Fifteen and School Meals.

What Jaime Oliver has done is built his brand on his core strengths and then, importantly, taken its influence into society to make a difference. His audience understand him. He has a relationship with them. His competition respects him. He stays true. He inspires.

A 21st Century Brand is all about having a role with customers and Jaime gets that. It’s about innovating, which Jaime is unafraid of doing. It’s about being a positive force, taking small useful actions.

He takes risks – he mortgaged his house for Fifteen. He compromises – the Sainsbury spokesman role was a good source of funding but led him into conflict and criticism. He has always brought his brand core – his blokey charm and determination added to food and cookery – to bear on as wide an audience as he can. He speaks at the UN and battles Governments to just do good.

Comparing him to TV Chef’s and Great British Cooks misses the point. He’s more comparable to Branson and Botham in Britain, but Britain seems too small for his brand.

His place in history is still to be established.

Conscious commerce is a vital strand for 21st Century Brands not a CSR initiative

Conscious commerce is a vital strand for 21st Century Brands not a CSR initiative

Read Dean Crutchfield’s smart post today on the goals for the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Dean quotes Peter Drucker’s quote “If you find someone focusing on CSR, fire him, and fire him fast.” While Dean disagrees with Drucker, I’m not so sure. We all see many examples of CSR programmes being totally at odds with the DNA of a company or their customers. This is evident in companies where the brand is left in the realm of Marketing Communications – very 20th Century thinking. CSR is oft the prerogative of those in the C-Suite who are not marketers and serve different goals to that of the brand on the customer journey. These CSR programmes are the ones I think Drucker means.

21st Century brands put customers and staff at the centre of their brand and their offer.  The thinking is that the brand owner is the customer and their individual experiences count most. Many of these experiences are shared with peers – mostly via social networks. If you dig deeper to understand the customer’s hopes and fears, in addition to their specific use of your product or service, companies will know that there is a growing thread of giving back to communities; to the poorer sections of society or the world or to just trying to make a difference. This is not lip service, especially to people born after the greedy 1980’s of Gordon Gekko’s Wall Street.

This Halloween the world is a scary, gloomy place– especially as influenced by media and politicians. Those who followed the Baby Boomer generation have become more disillusioned than anyone.  They’re used to having a voice and the OWS movement is a natural result for the protest of the smart as well as the disgruntled. Interestingly, there is real empathy and support of the OWS and of those in St Pauls in London. Although the messages from these peace camps are often confused, they are calling for capitalism to give back. There is a real feeling of optimism behind the messages of frustration. The collective view is spreading across the Western world.

As Dean reminds us, conscious commerce is not new. Making profit while giving back is behind some successful initiatives in the past few years – think Product (Red). In these tough times, brand choice is a conscious decision by many customers, one that is less influenced by price (everything seems discounted at the moment) and more by how it touches their emotions. This will not be accomplished by advertising trying to tug at the heartstrings, nor will it be in small and  overhyped CSR initiatives that try to  please some nameless stakeholders.

Giving back is being demanded by a growing and vocal minority. As their voices increase and influence more and more, will companies and their brands recognise this new 21st Century business model?

Double Dip Marketing … 3 (of 3)

Double Dip Marketing … 3 (of 3)

Yesterday we looked at the seismic shifts in brand thinking since the last Double Dip recession – firstly, brand is legitimate currency in the boardroom and in the sharp gaze of the CFO and financial analysts and secondly, the digital impact in 21st Century has meant that branding skills are lagging behind the needs of today’s brand.  21st Century brands belong to the customer not the company and the result of the Double Dip contagion of fear has caused inertia.

Here are 3 types of action that can help break that inertia quickly.

Change how you do what you do

  • organise around customer needs not your organisation’s needs
  • Celebrate the highs on your customer journeys – create small customer focussed teams from across the silos to reward customer experience
  • If you have too many agencies, all overlapping yet individual, pick a top team from across them to work with you directly & then let them manage the rest of their teams  – and pick only top talent (it’s unlikely they all work in same agency).
  • Have a “non exec member” on both teams – as your brand or customer’s eyes & ears.
  • Focus  – agree on 3 things you can do now and prioritise your effort there – don’t shave a little off all budgets so rendering them all ineffectual or spend too little of your time and try to do everything – be brutal in just 3, the 3 things that can ignite your loyal customer experience.

Recreate your brand story

  • Understand the customer’s view of your strengths – be concise to avoid misunderstanding & miscommunication – write it in a line, a paragraph & a page. That’s it. No more.
  • Not as an advertising idea or a website landing page…it needs to be a song of praise to your staff and customers – sung by your exuberant CEO
  • If fear is contagious, optimism is infectious – find the positive. Make a little movie for your intranet. Live up to the story.
  • Say it out loud a lot inside your company– spread the word to get it sharp – feed it into the top team from those agencies you’ve formed and let it seep out in your communications
  • Over-focus on the customers you have and not on your competitors. Communicate your strengths not their weaknesses. Don’t be defensive – that’s so last century. .
  • Stop debating and start that dialogue with your core customers and be crystal clear and open – publish the conversation and invite more to join in and engage.

Innovate at warp speed

  • Only use small learning environments and teams. Pick a small project to keep the learning close. Don’t put all your efforts into making one big bang.
  • Test out swiftly – digital allows you to innovate & tweak & measure & test & learn & move on again.
  • Use your new team(s) to spread the word internally and at the agencies about new ideas and trials so they feed in as well as spread the word – be optimistic as that can spread even more quickly than fear!
  • Crowd source ideas with your customers on a project. Open up a channel which shows them it’s their brand not yours.
  • Share regular updates  to your staff and your customers  – start your own public lab of ideas on a new website

There are many more actions you can take to break out of the inertia brought on by fear. Taking a few small, smart actions around your brand will unleash positive, creative energy inside your company and importantly with your customers.  Fast and frequent should guide you.

As Dale Carnegie says, go out and get busy.