30 April 2013

Learning Never Stops

Yesterday was the first of three days I’m devoting to helping train account management people at our agency.  Three days?  Yes, it’s that important.  Especially after I opined loudly on the subject back in November.

Two instructors present material and we apply it in a series of mock meetings where some senior account people, including me, pretend to be clients, and the account people portray themselves.

Today’s curriculum, starting in the right place with something foundational, focused on what the instructors called Immersion (doing your homework) and Discovery (having done it well enough to ask smart questions).

Learning Is Day-to-Day

An important point made in the classroom was that both Immersion and Discovery are ongoing.  We talked about them first, not because they are the first stages in a process, but because you can only do your job well if you do them first – and continually.

In other words, you have to learn, and keep learning, your client’s business.  Not just the facts and figures on your own dashboard but the overall industry in which the client competes, the state of their business overall, and of course their marketing.

To learn the client’s business, however, you also have to learn your client; to establish a relationship with them based on your genuine commitment to their business success.  That relationship permits you to keep learning.

Advertising has so many new specialties and disciplines that we've written often about specialists and generalists.  None of that tradecraft matters, however, if you lack an understanding of what the client needs from you.

Learning Is Year-to-Year

Do the above lessons sound basic or obvious?  If so, it doesn’t make them wrong.  In fact it makes them all the more important.  I don’t mind admitting that I gained a lot from reviewing them in my role as a trainer.

Learning never stops.  Reviewing the basics always helps me refresh what I do instinctively, and thus do it better.

26 April 2013

Book Review: Work Like A Spy

Work Like A Spy: Business Tips from a Former CIA Officer
By J.C. Carleson
Portfolio/Penguin, 192 pages

There’s an industry blog called Agency Spy that purports to be “deep inside” your agency.  

They’ve got nothing on the CIA.

Work Like A Spy explains how CIA practices might work in the business world.  It’s been reviewed on that general premise (here and here) so this post concentrates on how practices at “The Agency” might work at your agency.  In what ways are secret agents and advertising agents similar?

What’s It Like to Work Like A Spy?

J.C. Carleson (a pseudonym, of course) was both a CIA case officer and a corporate executive.  If you’re squeamish about taking advice from the CIA, start by reading the last two pages of the book, which summarize her advice – and her ethical standards.  Her advice in one sentence is that getting information important to your business “is a matter of asking the right people the right questions in the right way.”  Is that “right way” ethical?  According to Carleson, “It is possible to use clandestine techniques to get ahead in the corporate world while still maintaining your integrity.”  If you don’t believe her, then put down the book. 

Those who press on will get Carleson’s advice in three parts:  an introduction to the clandestine world; how to apply clandestine techniques internally; how to apply them externally.  Sprinkled throughout are CIA stories generally less exciting than James Bond – but one of her main themes is that typical CIA work resembles typical corporate work more than it resembles the typical Hollywood treatment.

It’s important to point out that, like any book by former CIA employees, Work Like A Spy had to be vetted by “The Agency”.  This may account for generally bland tonality, occasionally ham-handed editing, and overly-obvious appeals to ethics.  On the other hand, this book is virtually free of business jargon.

It’s also a relatively short book, worth one airplane ride to the client.

Secret Agents and Advertising Agents

Here are the passages most applicable to the advertising world.

Hiring People (pages 89-98).  Advertising depends on the right people on the right teams, so we might derive some lessons from the government agency with the disproportionately largest budget for recruiting and hiring.  One amusing line is that the ideal CIA candidate is “a Boy Scout with a latent dark side” – admit it, you work with some of those.  Some of the strategies ring true for agencies:  encourage frequent rotation, make room for lone wolves, etc.  Others sound obvious, but do we really practice them?  For example, mixing groups that don’t normally interact could be done more regularly in large agencies.

Keeping Clients (pages 185-189).  As clients continue to stray from the AOR model, bringing in multiple agencies on the same brand, agencies will feel freer to poach each other’s business.  Carleson’s advice is to study the competition’s M.O., exploit their major changes (we all have them these days), and fight back against their attempts to spy on you.  Not everyone in this business is ethical (ha!) and you can be sure some skullduggery is afoot.  Earlier, in Chapter 3, Carleson gives good advice on protecting your agency’s secrets – doubly important because these are often also your client’s secrets.

Winning Business (pages 144-156).  The author knows something about “Making a Sale” (the name of this chapter) given that her job was to convince someone to betray their own country – with really bad consequences if they got caught.  There is a ton of great advice; each one of the eight techniques listed merits some consideration.  Taking a step back, though, the real value of this section is that it reminds you we are in a relationship business.


A key theme of this book is “elicitation”:  You gain information and insight not by dirty tricks, not by interrogation, and not even by direct questions.  Think about consumer research.  Don’t you love focus group questions like “Just why do you like this layout better than that one?”  The idea is that you can get the answers you need from listening and patience. 

Indeed, these are also the foundations of good relationships.  “A good CIA officer,” Carleson writes, “is charismatic without being flashy, inquisitive without being nosy, friendly without being boisterous, smart without being pedantic, and confident without seeming arrogant.  Above all, a good spy is a great listener.”  

That sounds like the kind of person I’d like to work with in an ad agency.  As long as they’re on my side, of course.

14 April 2013

50 Excellent Ad Agency Blogs Worth Reading

Ad Majorem is #7

Recently, MonetizePros.com published a list of 50 Excellent Ad Agency Blogs Worth Reading.  Astoundingly, Ad Majorem was #7.

We're in good company.  The list includes blogs published by global agencies, boutique agencies, and -- importantly -- PR agencies.

They missed some good ones, which you can see by looking at our blogroll in the right-hand column.

08 April 2013

Advertising People Must Be Both: Fox and Hedgehog

Are you a fox or a hedgehog?  What would your client say you are?

This question has come to mind a couple of times after reading The Signal and The Noise by predictive science guru Nate Silver (here was my review of his book).  According to Silver, there are two types of prognosticators.  Hedgehogs believe “in governing principles about the world that behave as though they were physical laws.”  Foxes “are scrappy creatures who believe in a plethora of little ideas and in taking a multitude of approaches toward a problem.”
It’s not a new idea.  The Greek poet Archilochus wrote:  “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”  Western Civilization kind of ran with the concept; it appears in literature a number of times over the centuries.  Foxes:  Aristotle, Shakespeare, Pushkin.  Hedgehogs:  Plato, Dante, Dostoevsky.  If you ever read business books, James Collins, who wrote Good To Great, is clearly a hedgehog.  Silver is a fox.

In fact, Silver believes it’s better to be a fox, at least when it comes to making predictions, because there are really no hedgehog-like governing principles that lead to a sure thing.

Fox, Hedgehog & Associates

What about when it comes to making advertising?

Hedgehogs like big, enduring ideas, governing principles they can cite time and again.  Despite all the changes in advertising, some of these principles endure.  For example, “Nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising” is doubly true in an era when word of mouth travels faster than ever.  Plus, given all the uncertainty we all face, it’s kind of comforting to know some truths are constant.

But not all principles survive the test of time.  For example, “Good advertising is written always from one person to another.”  I thought this old Fairfax Cone idea would not only survive, but thrive in the digital era where marketers and consumers connect with each other directly.  I had an epiphany at Hyper Island, however, leading me to realize that networks of people are the base unit of communication.

That’s where foxes come in.  Foxes don’t just know “many things” but they are always open to learning new things.  They embrace, not ignore, new information that conflicts with what they already believed.  This doesn’t describe the so-called “open mind,” accepting everything as true, but a critical mind, willing to think through new information and see how it applies.  That’s especially valuable in advertising.

Personalities are part of the profile, too.  Silver’s discussion in the book started with pundits you see on U.S. political talk shows like The McLaughlin Group.  In his view, they’re all hedgehogs, because big, bold, proclamations make fantastic television, even (especially?) when they turn out wrong.  Foxes are boring because they analyze various probabilities.

Similarly, hedgehogs make meetings spectacular; bold and daring.  They draw you in with simple messages.  They sell.  This is how Hollywood dramatizes our business and it has a grain of truth to it.  Foxes – well, I won’t say they are a buzz kill, but their thoughtful approach is usually more restrained.

Clients Need Both

Advertising today – and it’s all advertising – needs both foxes and hedgehogs.  Foxes help us get to the right answer; hedgehogs see it through.

It's possible for any one of us to be both a fox and a hedgehog. The fox in you should have good peripheral vision, seeking new ways to move business forward. Your inner hedgehog should compare these new inputs to larger principles, and act accordingly.

Clients, too, will want a fox to help them sort through the complexity of modern marketing – and a hedgehog to seek simplicity and propel things forward, fast.

02 April 2013

Disintermediation III

“Disintermediation” is a fancy word that means “cutting out the middleman.”  The actual economics definition is “the removal of intermediaries in a supply chain.”  No matter what words you use, it’s a concern for agency leaders – more so in recent years.

Not-So-Secret-Agent Man

Uh, sorry -- which one of my
agencies do you represent?
If you think about it, the very concept of an agency is that of a middleman.  The word “agent” literally means “a person who acts on behalf of another.”  That’s how ad agencies began, as purveyors of media space on behalf of their clients.  Creative development became part of the bargain.  During the 20th Century the business evolved into more of a partnership, the best agencies working hard to move their clients’ businesses forward.

Not far into the 21st Century, however, we’re losing sight of how to move our clients’ businesses forward, and clients are responding. 

Relationships are Too Transactional

Yes, agency-client relationships are shorter.  That’s not news.  Now they’re shallower.  Clients juggle an array of resources at any given time, and not just additional agencies.  They hire content creators, data scientists, startups and even agency people as in-house resources.  Some of this results from a need to connect with consumers in ways that only newer, specialist agencies can deliver.  But there’s a more fundamental reason.

Clients eschew the AOR model because agencies made it easy for them.  Labor-based compensation focused agencies on making the ad, shelf talker or website, distracting from the need to bring business-building ideas.  The relationship got more transactional.  Clients can hire almost anyone to get “fresh thinking”.  Monogamy is dead.  Is there any wonder someone started an agency search consultancy named “Madam”?

Agencies Can Cope In a Couple of Ways

One is to respect reality.  Rather than just walking on eggshells, do the best work you can for existing clients.  Bring them business-building ideas, which is something different and something more than delivering the scope of work.  It builds trust with a client who will think twice about straying from an agency that proves how much it cares about the business.

The other is to approach prospective clients with the same attitude:  How do we solve your business problems?  You’ll start to turn the tide, at least in your corner of the world.

What not to do:  Chase all the services your client is buying from other agencies or suppliers.  If it’s something you’re good at doing, then by all means sell it.  If you think you can develop it as a core competency, keep at it.  Even then, however, it means little if you don’t also bring business-building ideas.  Without those, you’ll be disintermediated.  (According to spell check, I just made up that word.)

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