"We are the things we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."Aristotle
"We are the things we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."Aristotle
A few days ago, a former member of my department asked for a little help developing a management style. I suck at blogging these days, so I'll use this opportunity to steal those email thoughts and make them a bloggy thing. I'll pick up after the niceties.
The shortish bit though, I think it's really important to think in principles first. That's more of an all encompassing philosophy for me, but it's particularly important here because you’re dealing with lots of different individual personalities. And many of those won’t work or think like you do. If you're pretty clear on the big picture, it's easier to figure out how to adjust on the fly day to day.
So a couple different things to think about - one is how they work, and the other is about the work itself.
The first thing on how they work - do they give a shit? Some people are willing to let things be just okay as long as they can get out of the office. Those people usually get written off pretty quick. But you'll notice how many times I talk about that though. Mostly just to make clear what the expectations are. As in, this isn't about me - but you taking ownership of making yourself better. That means learning and expanding your thinking on your own, and not expecting others to do it for you. Some people will talk a lot about how to motivate, but I sort of think my time is better spent finding motivated people than getting unmotivated people to work harder. That being said, clearing out all the typical agency crap that can be demotivating is still really important.
Second is empathy. Not only putting yourself in the shoes of the client or whoever you're trying to reach, but to think about what other people you work with need from you. If you spend 5 minutes thinking over what everybody wants, you can take care of those parts and gain a huge amount of latitude to get done what you need to get done. For a young strategist, that usually means worrying about the details. Pay attention to spelling, don't be late, do stuff on time, be considerate, that sort of thing.
Third is acting and looking like a pro. The way we frame our thinking or ideas is half the battle if you want anything good to get a listen. No reason to get stuff kicked back because you wrapped an interesting core thought or idea in an uninspired argument or a document that looks like hell. If it looks sloppy, most people will assume the thinking is sloppy too. The more your work is joy to follow, the more credit you'll get for the thinking. Sort of related to the last point.
Fourth is staying opportunistic - which is essentially to say, don't be passive. The highest goal is the quality of the end product, so don’t wait for people to tell you what to do. Look for opportunities to improve what that thing is and don't make excuses or blame other departments when something sucks.
For younger planners, if you can get those things right, it makes talking about the work itself that much easier.
Then for projects - I'm generally watching the story or the argument. When you boil down all the big stuff, what is the larger thing we're building to. That's difficult usually for younger planners. It’s way easier to collect lots of stuff than it is to make it say something. So it’ll often be your job to show them how that collection of things can turn into an argument or a direction when re-assembled in the right order and positioned in the right way. That's what the 30 second pitch framework was all about - making sure everyone was thinking about how pieces become a whole.
After that, it’s staying connected to what makes a brand interesting above anything else. Which basically means thinking about what people give a shit about and matching that with how a brand can relate to that thing. So most new planners start with a selling statement - our cars are the fastest, our pencils have lead that doesn't break. Bla bla bla. But 90% of the time, that's not what makes that brand interesting to people. It does happen, but we’re usually something close to functional parity and we’re influencing along other dimensions. So as you’re discussing an approach or an argument, that’s consistently asking questions about what people care about, or why they care, or what people do with the brand, or where the brand comes from, or how a brand got big in the first place. That's all stuff that can be windows in to a overall more interesting story.
Then last thing is giving people space to gets things done in a way that suits their personality. Some people think more visually, some people more in stories, some people in numbers, some people like writing stuff out. Then some people want to spend lots of time in groups, some like to do most their thinking on their own. I think the crappier managers will impose their way as the only approach that works, but if you try to get someone who is a little quieter to constantly do all their thinking out loud, you won’t get the best work and that person will likely flame out. Now that being said, strategists in particular need to do some shapeshifitng, so it’s good to get people uncomfortable from time to time - whether that’s how they work or the type of work, but you’d still want the bulk of their time on projects where they’ll naturally be more proficient.
Sooooo - I think that's my big principles. Obviously, you make calls as you go, and you change around the edges depending on what that particular person needs, but I think you'll be better equipped to direct them if you start with what you want them to be and how you think the work works best. Then it’s asking the right questions, giving them good inputs, funneling the right work to the right people, that sort of thing.
It’s a mess out there. Proven channels are delivering diminishing returns year after year. Everyone says engagement is important, but that usually means another coupon or promotion that inevitably forces you to lose profit for likes. The line between marketing and operations is getting murkier.
There are more opportunities than ever, but it’s only gotten harder to determine if or how they make a difference to your business.
Media channels have disintegrated into an increasingly complex network of possibilities. Broadcast television is noticeably suffering as Netflix, DVRs, and a hundred cable channels divide audiences.
Mobile is already upending the way the Internet works and altering how all of us shop, eat, read, drive, and communicate. The cost of attention has skyrocketed. It takes more time and more money to break through. Decades of paying for eyeballs has made the challenge of earned engagement that much more difficult. The good old days are gone.
The challenge of advertising was never a matter of making things. There was no app that helped you manage your shopping experience. We didn’t consider what happened after a click.
There was no expectation for the viewer to do much of anything. Agencies were left to do one thing really well—create a spark between a brand and a customer. Products were made more profitable through this inherently intangible notion.
After the screams of the death of advertising, the need to stop telling great stories and get on with making great utilities, our conversations changed. We spent less time on the spark and more time on where this or that button should go. We worried more about functionality and less about emotion.
It is the difficulty of doing. We are easily wooed by the rationality of the tangible, often at the expense of the spark.
Whether we are creating apps or status updates, you should expect advertising and marketing to do what it was always meant to do—add intrigue, emotion, thoughtfulness, story, surprise, magic—in ways that make you more noticeable. The biggest wins will always be when we use these new tools not just to make peoples’ lives easier, but to add the stuff of advertising at its best.
“Integrated” can’t just mean campaigns that happen to cross channels. That’s table stakes. We’re meant to create conversations. To use data we didn’t have 10 years ago. To understand organizations, incorporate customer service, and invent new products. We’re meant to operate like publishing houses, pushing content on a daily basis and receiving judgment immediately through the tweets and likes of fans.
It also can’t mean that every potential need you might have will be executed within our walls. Sometimes you’ll need specialists, and it’s not realistic to trade expertise for practicality.
Advertising and marketing are not statements of a product we make, but of our purpose. We make products easy to like. We make them more famous, more attractive, and more familiar. Truly integrated agencies are those that keep this purpose central while remaining effective with new partners, in new places, and different methods. We will still create magic, but that magic will only sustain itself if we are repeatedly and ruthlessly committed to it.
I'll start by saying - I have much respect for Teehan + Lax. Most of what they do makes me insanely jealous. Same goes for Eric. Super smart human. But I was a bit perturbed by their depiction of big strategy as being necessarily wrong-headed, wasteful and exclusive. Strategy at its core is simply defining where you are, where you want to be, how you'll get there and how you'll measure your progress. If you spend 3 months crafting a strategy for a single tactical output, that's probably wasteful assuming you have good inputs and clear objectives. But combining all instances of strategy into that one bucket undervalues what strategy can be when done and applied properly.
Eric characterizers "big strategy" through this idea.
"They dutifully comb through consumer research and reports, hoping to uncover some magical insight that will unlock some door. For instance, they might discover that there is a statistically significant percentage of 16-24 year olds in Missouri who like kitten GIFs. So they recommend that their tortilla client sponsors a Facebook kitten GIF contest. Maybe they’ll even create a microsite for it. They will spend months planning and conceiving a campaign, cross their fingers and pray that it will ultimately deliver results."
So here's the thing. If that's your job, you are not doing big strategy. You are doing bad strategy. It's not all that hard to use 'big strategy' as a punching bag if you characterize it as chasing after inconsequential stats such as who likes gifs the most. When you actually need strategy, you should not be looking for one magical consumer insight to drive a single communication or platform, but a deeper understanding of the organizational inner workings, the competitive landscape and the marketplace that will uncover opportunities for new growth.
In big organizations with complex problems and complex marketplaces, creating a strategy helps to build commitment from the broader spectrum of the company. It helps us to consider the implications of what we do, both internally and externally. It helps us to get outside of our own assumptions and create a more nuanced understanding of those we need to reach. It helps us think more broadly about the business result of the outputs. When you leap too quickly into the product without working out some of those bits first, you are relying entirely on the generally limited knowledge that exists in the room. Again, sometimes that's okay. But not always.
Even the military photo introducing the post is wrongheadedly dismissive to the impact of strategy. Military organizations use strategy and planning more extensively than any other organization on the planet, precisely because they are dealing with incredibly complex challenges that require a nuanced understanding of the people they may affect. What you will see from the military is a model more like the one I endorse; understand the problem, get agreement on the end state, define the decision making frameworks and measures that'll help you know whether or not you're progressing, then finally - make sure everyone knows and understands that direction so you can decentralize decision making to the highest degree without losing effectiveness. But frankly, you can't do that last part without understanding those before it.
Eric goes on to say.
"This is the main source of digital marketing landfill – countless microsites that were never visited, mobile apps that nobody used, contests that only had 20 entries, and tweets that were never read. They are the unfortunate result of an approach that attempts to predict a positive outcome in a world that resists these types of predictions."
Frankly, that's just wrong. The idea that the digital marketing landfill is a product of big strategy is ridiculous. It's usually matter of total marketing myopia where everyone in the room doesn't question whether anyone would actual use the thing. A good strategist will help bring a customer or segment to life in a way that externalizes the team's thinking. That's a really really good cure to bullshit microsites.
"Big Strategy" helps us define the right problems to solve precisely so we can break old dogma and forge into unexplored territories while remaining rooted in the realities of the outside world. I would ask:
If you are not equipped to tackle these kinds of questions, it doesn't mean that they won't be asked and answered. It just means that it will happen without you. We are screaming towards a time when digital shops will either need to diversify and move up the chain or focus and act more like technology companies than marketing agencies. Both will exist. Both will probably thrive. But it is a choice.
So I guess all I'm really saying is that you can't throw all strategy into one big bucket and call it a waste of time. You can rail against misapplied strategy, bad strategy or non-inclusive strategy that assumes it is only the purview of intellectuals, but it remains an effective tool in sustaining growth across a series of tactics when done at the right time and in the right way.
"The great virtue of thought and analysis is that they free us from the necessity of following recipes, and helps us deal with the unexpected, including the imagination to try something new."
Harold McGee on Food and Cooking
Photo credit: Carmen Marchena
Only some ideas are big - big enough to cross boundaries of media, partnerships, screens, and audiences. Big enough to spin off 1,000 smaller ideas that can all work together in a cohesive way.
So let's take an example. What if you had the idea to chop up every Schwarzeneggar movie scream and put it into one video. That would be super. So someone did it.
But then you took that idea to a community manager, an offline agency, a media company, the client, the fans - what do they do with that idea? It's limited. You can take the video and place it in pre-roll. You can share it. You can talk about it in a status update maybe. But there's not all that much to add.
But what if you had expressed that idea one level up? The Supercuts meme takes movies and television shows down to their essential ridiculousness to expose the cliches or shared techniques that exist within them. When you frame it that way, everyone gets to play. You could get this.
That's often the difference between big, integrated ideas and stuff that just does a single job. One gives everyone the freedom to create, the other does not.
So - let's talk examples.
American Express - Create a Black Friday for Small Business
You can think of these ideas as gardens. They define both boundaries and fertile territory where other ideas can grow. American Express could have just made the small business tools and Levi's could have just made the tv spot about a fictional steel town getting back to work. And that may have done a job, but it probably wouldn't have spurred as much participation or conversation either.
Even when we do stay solely within the digital space - more often than not, things tend to work better when it's big enough to become a banner ad, a series of social updates, an influencer program, a website, a video and on and on. If all you can do in each of those spaces is tell people that this other thing exists somewhere else, your idea will limit the content teams, social media teams, bloggers and whoever else wants to help it spread.
This isn't always about good ideas or bad ideas. Sometimes our ideas need to be big, programatic, expansive, and sometimes they need to be very specific. But it's important that you understand the difference because even the smaller ones should be additive at the core.
So putting it together - go for ideas that give room for others to play. Infuse them with borrowed elements from music, art, tv, film, fashion, books, memes and magazines to gain attention and make them feel familiar for the audience. Marvel at how awesome you are.
Working Out the Big Idea
Pull out a sheet of paper. On the top - write "The idea." In a few words, write down the basics of the idea.
Below that - you could write this:
Facebook status update:
Then beside each one (and feel free to add other channels) - write down a related idea that would fit with the big idea at the top. If the only thing you can think to do is to tell people about the big idea or you have a slew of hackneyed, unworkable nonsense - might be time to think bigger.