Five Relationship Questions to Apply to Fix the Client-Agency Dynamic
Kim Walker, Strategy Partner at Harbour, October 21, 2021, ADWEEK #Relationships #Client #Communication #Radicalism #Specialism #Brief
When it comes to the client briefing process, we are in a place where, according to the IPA, one partner in the client-agency relationship thinks they’re getting it right 80% of the time and the other partner thinks they’re getting it right … only 10% of the time.
In romantic relationships, that sort of imbalance would surely lead to divorce. Or at least a good few ding dongs. I might be so bold as to suggest that, in adland, it points to a default transactional or even dictatorial relationship pattern, being repeated over and over again across the world.
Having written clients’ briefs as a planner client-side and creative briefs as a strategist agency-side; I can see the view from both sides of the fence. I am a strategic Switzerland, if you will. And I believe that, with a little lateral thinking instead of finger-wagging, we might find new solutions.
When the latest data suggests that our relationships are in such dire straits, maybe we all need a bit of relationship counselling to get things back on track. I’ve applied five questions to the client-agency relationship that are typically posed by romantic relationship counsellors:
How do you both want to communicate?
This dialogue is the cornerstone of a healthy relationship. And if communications agencies can’t communicate, well … Of course, there would be no healthy tension if clients and agencies agreed all the time. No one wants to live in a working world with that level of dull consensus.
So work out together how you want to deal with moments of tension in the briefing process. To turn that friction into focus, so your brief is ever sharper and … well … brief.
Do you share the same life goals? Are you heading in the same direction on the big stuff?
In a romantic relationship, these are the biggies: do you want to get married, have kids, where do you want to live, are you in this for a long time or a good time? Be crystal clear on what success is going to look like for both client and agency teams and make sure you’re aligned on that. Super importantly, make sure your whole team on both sides are aligned with that, not just the senior execs.
Leveraging brand Britain in a post-Covid world
Kevin Chesters, Strategy Partner at Harbour, October 18, 2021, The Drum #Radicalism #Britain #Brandbritain #Covid #Postcovid #Leverage
In a fast-changing world, it can be tough to know how to apply ‘brand Britain’, says Kev Chesters, strategy partner at Harbour Collective, who writes as part of The Drum’s Globalization Deep Dive.
One of the biggest challenges of globalization when it comes to taking British brands out to the four corners of the world is that “Britain” is something of an amorphous and ambiguous concept.
Having been proud to be responsible for helping brands as different as Sipsmith Gin and British Airways with their global brand presence in the last few years, I’ve learned a thing or two. I’ve also recently been an advisor to the GREAT campaign, and the UK luxury body Walpole, on how to represent British brands outside of the UK.
The challenge one faces when taking ‘Brand Britain’ outside of these shores is to decide which “Britain” you want to represent. Everyone from Tommy Robinson to Stormzy, Katie Hopkins to Emma Raducanu, Jacob Rees-Mogg to Mo Farah has been held up in various corners of social media as a representation of “British values”.
Whose Britain? What Britain? What is “British?” What values are we lauding? And who oversees them or agrees them?
Well, to a large extent we all do (or can be). It’s about deciding which bit of Britain you want to stand up for and represent. The key is to decide as a brand which bit of the ludicrously wide sociological and demographic tent we call Britain you want to align to or celebrate.
I’m more Team Stormzy than Team Farage. But you’d probably guessed that already.
Britain is genuinely Great (it’s in the name). And if you can take the right bits of it and apply them credibly to your brand then you’re onto a winner. There is nothing wrong with a bit of cliché and familiarity. Remember that Parisians might be bored with baguettes, berets and the Eiffel Tower, but you aren’t. That’s a large reason why you go. Ditto La Dolce Vita, coins in fountains and pasta when you’re in Rome. I’m not talking about just lazily leveraging some Austin Powers Union-jacked soaked cliché-fest. But some of that can be useful too.
There are two key points I really want to land about taking British brands global.
Firstly, the key elements of what people like about Britain are very useful for brands. Heritage and provenance for starters. We have those in spades. Britain has a certain permanence to it that is reassuring. It’s been about for a while – we’re talking millennia here. Most national brands would definitely covet a lot of what we have.
Secondly, the post-Covid world offers an unprecedented opportunity to leverage these factors. When humans suffer trauma (and we’ve just been through a collective trauma) we crave familiarity, certainty and solidity. This is because we want to feel safe, certain and calm. This is the reason that gold prices rise when stock markets fall, or why Bob Marley and Queen went rocketing back up the album charts in the first lockdown. We look for familiarity after periods of uncertainty. It’s societal comfort food.
So much of what Britain has historically stood for are the exact factors that humans seek after periods of trauma. And as the world emerges from the Covid-19 gloom and we start to return to the new (ab)normal, British brands should be very well placed to take advantage if they can work out which bit of Britain they want to leverage. My advice is always to be Britain on her best day.
I’m more than happy to advise on it for brands. Apply within.
Just what are investors being asked to pay for in Engine 'auction'?
Kevin Chesters, July 26, 2021, Campaign Magazine UK #Radicalism #Business #RisingCollectiveAction #Collectivism #Business #Pitch #Agency #Legacy #Independent
There was an old phrase my gran used to use about “cobblers’ children going barefoot”; meaning that people tend to be terrible at practising what they preach. It came back to me this week when I read about the Engine “auction”.
As an industry, we continually and consistently tell our clients about the power of brand. We preach from the rooftops about creating intangible value and about how much commercial return will come from investing emotionally and financially in “the brand”.
We planners spend inordinate amounts of time repackaging the [Les] Binet and [Peter] Field argument about sinking 60% of the budget into emotionally resonant, brand-building comms so that consumers can have a stronger, more loyal relationship with “the brand”. We drone on to the point of saturation about getting customers to buy “into” something rather than just buy “from” someone.
Yet when it comes to our own brands – as agencies – then the sort of decisions we’ve seen from holding companies in recent years are thoroughly baffling.
Agencies, but especially holding companies, have consistently acted in exactly the opposite way to the mantra they preach to their clients. A couple of years ago, Engine got rid of some of the most respected brand names in the industry and replaced them with capability descriptors under the name of the holding company. So, when it comes to the “auction” in the article, what exactly are investors being asked to pay for?
When I entered the industry in 1995, White Collins Rutherford Scott was one of the most respected and feared creative companies in the UK (see BMW ad, pictured above). Even in recent years, it had built a fabulous reputation off the back of great work for Warburtons (below) and the like.
PAA was one of those “direct shops” that all of us in the hierarchical world of ATL always respected and listened to. Then suddenly these names were dropped in favour of a descriptor of what they did for a living. A bit like Unilever suddenly deciding to rebrand Lynx and Dove as “lads’ deodorant” and “women’s soap”.
It’s not just Engine, though. This commoditisation in the name of convenience has been going on for a while. Ogilvy did a big re-org a couple of years ago to do the same exercise – merrily binning names with many decades of equity in favour of generic descriptors like “Advertising” or “PR”. It seems curious to me at the time and very contradictory to the “making brands matter” mantra.
WPP paid $566m for the J Walter Thompson brand name in 1987. Then they threw away that name – which had been invested in over a century – a couple of years ago. It paid a whopping $5.7bn for the Young & Rubicam name, equity and reputation in 2000 and then pretty much casually canned it last year.
The behaviour of tossing names with decades (or centuries) of equity aside without seemingly any thought seems baffling. If we want clients to think their brands matter, why don’t we demonstrate to them that we value our own?
I suppose the argument would be made that the equity is being built in the holding company brands, but is it really? People buy into brands and brand values. It takes years; decades. I don’t really care about Reckitt but I do care about Dettol, Durex and Finish. I don’t really give two hoots about Procter & Gamble, but I do care about Pampers or Olay. Would I care as much about the those last two if they were rebranded as P&G Nappies or P&G Face Gunk?
This is what we do when we rebrand our agency brands as capabilities. We sacrifice our specialisms for convenience and efficiency. And we also dangerously commoditise our offer and make our internal agency cultures irrelevant. Basically, we become the Borg – and who’d volunteer to work for them?
I hope if/when the Engine auction comes to its conclusion, we’ll see an emergence of the various capabilities within that group as fierce, strong and successful agency brands – they’ve certainly got some talented leaders there who could run them. I think that would be a brilliant signal that specialism matters and agency brands and cultures matter, too.
People want to be proud of where they work. But it’s not a coincidence that the best and most successful agencies tend to be independent, creative ones – not anonymous “capabilities” under a big, faceless, corporate umbrella.
If the industry consistently demonstrates to its clients that it has no loyalty to its agencies, then why should we expect them to have any in return? If we show that we can toss aside our agency brands without a moment’s thought, then why do we moan when clients don’t invest in their own brand? But most importantly, if we keep showing clients that we have zero interest in our own brands, then why should we expect them to have any trust that we’ll take care of theirs?
Creativity is a fantastic opportunity to live a more fun and interesting life
Mick Mahoney, July 22, 2021, Campaign Magazine UK #Creativity #EveryoneHasIt #AWayOfLookingAtTheWorld #BeExtraordinary #UnlearnEverything #TheCreativeNudge #Radicalism
When I approached the head of one of our more august industry awards and education bodies to write a review for our new book, The Creative Nudge (written with Kev Chesters my strategy partner at Harbour), they declined, citing a concern that it would encourage clients and account people to write ads. And that wasn’t something that they were willing to do.
I share this story only to highlight the odd relationship that the advertising industry often has with the idea of creativity. It’s most commonly defined as a piece of advertising in one form or another. And only people with creative in their job title have permission to be creative.
I understand why that view pervades. Writing ads is a craft skill. It is learned and honed. And, without question, is better left to experts. I’m a big believer in the power of specialists, as my own business, Harbour Collective, is a testament to.
But creativity itself, isn’t exclusive to the creative department or to the writing of ads. That’s a narrow view that limits the industry and promotes an unnecessary divide. We should all be in pursuit of creativity, in whatever form that takes for us to flourish individually and collectively. Creativity can be and should be applied to any role in an agency.
Promoting creativity to the broadest possible audience is in everyone’s best interests, because, as the recently departed Edward de Bono stated: “Creativity makes life more fun and more interesting.” And that has to be a good thing right now, right?
Now that we have that straight, on to the premise of The Creative Nudge and the cause of the aforementioned refusal to review: we are all born creative. Yes, really. In fact, we all have the ability to think laterally. To problem-solve creatively in everyday life. Capable of original ideas and thoughts.
Creativity isn’t a job title. And it’s not about being an artist. Creativity isn’t even about being able to draw (despite what your art teacher may have told you). Some of the least creative people I know can draw brilliantly. Creativity is a way of looking at the world in whatever field you are in. Even a big, muddy field. There’s creativity in every industry, every walk of life. Breakthroughs in science or technology don’t come by accepting what people have already told us. The future is in the hands of creative thinkers.
Creativity demands that you force your brain out of autopilot. Engage it. Train it to accept new things. Creativity is being brave enough to do new things in new ways – exhilarated by the challenge and the fear. It’s about taking risks. Being open to new ideas. Following your own path. Turning your back on the familiar and the ordinary. It’s about being extraordinary.
It allows you to look and think beyond the constraints and pressures life imposes on you, sprinkle magic onto the mundane. It doesn’t matter who you are, how old you are or what you do for a living, you were born with the ability to think creatively.
Unfortunately, creativity is something that many people have unwittingly unlearned. Evolution, society, education, the workplace, life, all do a great job in helping us to unlearn it. They tell us how to think, how to behave, how to fit in. Don’t rock the boat; stick to what you know; failure’s not an option. These are the insidious little thought worms that are holding you back. It’s very unlikely that there was a point in your life when you decided that you were no longer going to be in any way creative. Instead, creativity has been stolen from you bit by tiny bit without you even noticing.
As creatures, we are desperate to fit in – to be accepted by the herd. It’s how we have learned to survive. We’re hard-wired to emulate the behaviours of others. This is the reason why the fashion industry, for one, is so successful; we signal our desire to identify with others. Why else would rational beings all wear ripped jeans, then flares, then skinny fit, then stone wash, then hipsters? But it is possible to reverse the process. To overcome this biological and sociological double whammy and let all that wonderful, brave, original creative thinking come flooding back into your life.
All you need to do is unlearn everything. Don’t worry. It’s easier than it sounds. Well, I say it’s easy more to encourage you than because I really believe it. Nothing worth doing is ever easy. But it is possible. Kev and I, with the help of a team of brilliant behavioural scientists have developed a series of nudges to make it happen.
The Creative Nudge isn’t really intended as an “industry book”. But it is a book that promotes the benefits of creativity for everyone. Which, in my humble opinion, should make it an “industry book”. Advertising and communications would benefit enormously from parking its mistaken belief that creativity is a job title and not a fantastic opportunity to live a more fun and interesting life. Then perhaps we might start to look like a more fun and interesting career choice to a much broader church.
Mick Mahoney is creative partner at Harbour Collective.
The Creative Nudge is written by Mick Mahoney and Kevin Chesters and published by Laurence King. It is available to pre-order in the UK and Europe, where it will be released on 5 August.
What Business Can Learn From Studying Gangs
Kevin Chesters, July 19, 2021 #Creative #Business #RisingCollectiveAction #Radicalism #SpecialistPartners #OpenAttitude #WorkingTogether #Collectivism
Ever since we humans have been on Earth, we have come together with like-minded individuals who happen to share a set of common values, beliefs or objectives. In other words, we have formed “gangs”.
Gangs are an incredibly successful way for humans to connect and collaborate with like minds.
But the term ‘gang’ comes with issues. It conjures up images of tattooed criminals and street violence. Fear and menace. It screams danger. Few parents would sleep soundly if their child joined a gang.
But there is a lot that business can learn from studying and replicating the shared characteristics of some of the best and most enduring gangs.
Being in a gang gives you a sense of purpose and an infectious confidence. In a gang, you stand together, you struggle together, you win together, sometimes you lose together. But, most importantly, you have a strong sense of who you are, what you believe in and the values you share. The best ones don’t compel people to join and they aren’t full of people who are half-engaged. If you’re in, you’re all in. And in the great diversity debate, the best gangs don’t discriminate based on age, sex or race. If you want in and you share the values, you’re in. It’s a great feeling to be on the inside and, conversely, it is pretty miserable when they won’t let you in.
Now successful gangs come in all shapes and sizes. From Hell’s Angels to the hardy volunteers of the RNLI, through the Brownies to the Kronk Boxing Gym in Detroit. They can be scary or benevolent, but regardless, whether it is the 220,000 ladies who are members of the Women’s Institute, the nearly 400,000 young men and boys of the Boy Scouts or the 300 members of the Crips, they all seem to share a set of similar characteristics.
So, what makes for a successful gang, and what can we all learn and apply when it comes to running a successful department or business? I happen to think quite a lot.
From studying gangs in all their forms across the ages I have identified ten core characteristics that all gangs share that mirror what makes a successful business. They are Code, Aim, Loyalty, Pride, Enemy, Symbols, Place, Fear, Damage & finally, Swagger.
Gangs have shared sets of values that all members buy into. Think of the Cub Scout Law, “Blood and Fire” from the Salvation Army and the US Marine Corp’s Semper Fi. The best gangs live by their shared code and discipline or exclude those who break it. Businesses could learn a lot here by having a simple set of coherent rules that everyone signs up to adhering to. Think Avis “We Try Harder”.
Gangs have a mission and they make sure everyone, internal and external, knows what it is (and what each individuals role is in achieving it). Most gangs tend to have a simple and (reasonably) achievable objective for the group. How many people know what the objective of their company is, or their role in achieving it? Exactly. The BBC aim is to: “Inform, Educate and Entertain”. Good, eh?
All the best gangs are loyal to one another because they love and trust one another. They take time over who they admit and have a set of expectations for those they allow inside the tent. Not everyone gets in. It should be the same for businesses. No, not demanding blind loyalty but taking time to choose people who have a vested, shared interest in success. And rewarding them accordingly.
Gang members love the gang and they are proud to tell people they are part of it. They feel part of something special because if you get it right, you are part of something special. Think of the pride and passion of the best football tribes or the Palio gangs of Sienna. People should be proud to say where they work and who they work for. If we get it right as businesses and leaders, we should garner loyalty. And loyalty means staff retention and saves a fortune of recruitment too. Everyone should want to be part of what you have.
All the best gangs, tribes, clubs have an enemy. Think Liverpool and Everton. Think Rangers and Celtic. Think Starks and Lannisters. Hell, think Coke and Pepsi. It helps to have a focus. And it’s the same for businesses. Who is occupying your rightful turf? Whose failure would mean your success. Who don’t you want to be like because you just, well, don’t like them?
It’s not a boring corporate ID thing. All the best gangs have a set of powerful symbols that help them identify themselves to each other (and others) and they display them with pride. Even the early Christians had their fish (and cross). Most gangs have a recognisable set of iconography (hell, you could even include the bottle top shoes of the Brosettes in here!). This is equally good for businesses and brands. Read Byron Sharp if you don’t believe me.
It could be a tree stump, scout hut or the back of the bike sheds. Maybe the diner in Grease or the MCC clubhouse. Gangs have a place where they feel safe and where they identify with their code and kin. When it comes to your business your office is not just your office, it’s your home. Be proud of it. Create a safe, happy, attractive environment that people want to be in (and your ‘enemy’ covets).
OK, this is where this might start to make some people feel uncomfortable. The most successful gangs do tend to instil fear in their opposition. This can sometimes be a little controversial when it comes to life or prison – think Yakuza, MS-13, Sharks and Crips. But in a business context fear is fuel, fear is useful. If you are in a competitive pitch against another company it is good if they fear you. It is useful if they are distracted by the fact that you are their opposition.
Gangs tend to leave a mark. You know they have been. Think about the Mods and Rockers visiting those trembling seaside towns in Quadrophenia. Think about the Hells Angels. In a business context this damage can be reframed as ‘impact.’ Your company should leave a lasting impact on its sector, competition or culture if you are creating art, music or media content.
A good gang walks with a bit of swag. Winners choose winners. Remember Rizzo’s strut in Grease when she was wearing her Pink Lady jacket? Yes, that. But in a business context. When you put together elements 1-9 it should give you a magnetic and attractive group of like-minded folks that others will want to join or align with. It helps in winning new business and retaining existing business. It’ll help with morale. It will help with mental health. You will create something and somewhere that is undeniable. You’ll walk taller just because you are a member of a gang, and other people know it.
So, what happens when you put all those things together for your business? If you spend time and energy applying the above to your team then you will create a powerful and successful group of individuals. You walk a little taller, you act a little braver, you speak with authority when talking to partners, customers or prospects. And because of that you tend to ‘win’ more than you ‘lose’. It makes you one thing: UNDENIABLE.
According to Bloomberg, 80% of businesses fail within their first 18 months. Now think about the enduring nature of the Cub Scouts, the Women’s Institute, the RNLI, or even groups like Opus Dei! Wouldn’t any leader love to be able to harness and apply some of their enduring success?
Let’s reclaim the word ‘gang’ for good. Let’s reclaim it so that we all understand that creating a ‘group of people with compatible tastes or mutual interests’ is a great thing when it comes to running a business.
The bear trap for new agency models
Mick Mahoney, Creative Partner at Harbour, June 25, 2020, Shots Magazine #Creative #Production #TheModelClientsNeed #OnlyPayForWhatYouUse #Radicalism
Last year’s report from research consultancy Forrester featured the following line; “Agencies need a new business model that puts the client at the centre, elevates new services and blends creative entrepreneurialism with new executional prowess.”
It’s hard to argue with that statement, and Covid-19 has now accelerated this need into something of a burning platform. True creative entrepreneurialism and executional prowess are in desperately short supply in our industry right now, having been sacrificed in the fight for survival over the last 10 or so years. Despite being what makes our industry truly valuable in the first place.
All new models need creative and production driving them, or clients will find themselves sitting at the centre of not very much at all. It’s something of a concern, then, that in everyone’s haste to nail this new model they appear to be walking into the bear trap of focusing solely on the process. On how we do it, rather than what it is we do and how good it is.
Following all the recent high-profile alliances and re-orgs, I didn’t hear anyone talk about the work itself, or the quality of production, or that their new model will create a brilliant atmosphere to enable these invaluable disciplines to create world-beating work that would be a genuine business benefit to clients.
I only hear talk of efficiencies. That’s like opening a restaurant and selling it on having a clean kitchen. I want to be sold a culinary vision. I don’t want to know about your kitchen, I just want to know that what comes out of it is going to make me weep with joy. I want to know that your chef has the talent to create miracles in my mouth. The backroom that gets it there is their business.
I know that money is tight and getting tighter by the day, but it’s the quality of the work that is remembered long after the saving is forgotten. The creative and production agenda needs to be at the heart of the evolution of our industry. Or, frankly, we’re little more than PowerPoint decks and meeting contact-reports, neither of which have ever, to my knowledge, made anyone rush out and buy anything.
We have to create new models that enable us to excite, inspire and delight our clients, but, most importantly, the public. Of course, they have to be efficient, but in the service of creativity. Now, I don’t believe that there will only be one successful model, I’m sure a number will prosper as there are now so many possibilities and permutations to successful creative output. But I do believe that they will all share a belief in the power and primacy of innovative creativity and production.
Broadly speaking, the advertising world is, at present, split into two halves; we have the network agencies, that have vast standing armies to cover every permutation of communications under one roof, and the specialist independent agencies that are entrepreneurial and focussed on the output, but limited in the variety of skills they can offer a modern client.
And it’s now the norm that CMOs aggressively manage costs, that budgets and fees are routinely cut and account reviews are used to force down marketing costs (which have grown due to the rising cost of media, content, data, technologies, and agency fees). This in turn is putting an incredible pressure on both types of agency to trim their costs. As a result, they have no option but to discount labour costs, junior-ise roles, restrict the scope of work and manage the margin through fees.
I struggle to see how the big network offerings will ever be able restructure themselves to deliver the model that clients need and Forrester suggests. But the indies can. The future is in the hands of hungry independent agencies and production companies willing and able to work together to offer the same breadth of skill sets as the networks. And because each of those skills operate as independent entities, they aren’t waiting around to be fed centrally. So, no need to restrict the scope of work or the quality of the services delivered as clients can build what they need around them, then only pay for what they use, when they use it.
It also enables the elevation of new services at a moment’s notice, blends creative entrepreneurialism with executional prowess, and creates a level of flexibility that is impossible to achieve any other way. So, just remember, next time you go to a restaurant, (hopefully very soon) ask yourself why you chose it. If it was for the spotless preparation surfaces then you deserve the very ordinary meal you are about to eat. Hope it was cheap enough to help you swallow it.
Our world is waking up to collective action (finally)
Kevin Chesters, Strategy Partner at Harbour, May 26, 2020, Campaign #RisingCollectiveAction #SpecialistPartners #OpenAttitude #WorkingTogether #Collectivism
I don’t think it would be unprecedented of me to talk in an unprecedented way about the unprecedented challenges we are all facing in these unprecedented times.
One response to this (unprecedented?) set of circumstances has been the rise of collective action and the acceleration of collaboration – between industries, brands and latterly, rather tentatively, agencies.
In recent weeks, we have seen loads of examples of businesses and brands setting aside their traditional practices and working together for the common good. Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, writing in The Guardian this month, noted the trend was on the rise in all areas of society.
Naturally, this starts with the more acutely Covid-19-specific challenges. We have seen landmark collaborations between Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline, and AstraZeneca and University of Oxford, pooling resources to search for a vaccine. We have seen the creation of the academic rapid review initiative to speed up the traditionally glacial-paced work of peer-reviewing of academic papers on Covid-19.
The next collective actions have come in the form of brands partnering organisations to help deliver personal protective equipment or other related materials for front-line workers. The best of these has been the Mercedes Formula One team collaboration with University College London to develop a breathing device in a matter of days and weeks. Collaborations have also taken the form of my old friends at Sipsmith partnering Imperial College to quietly turn waste alcohol into medical-grade hand sanitiser. Obviously, lots of other brands such as LVMH have also partnered medical bodies to provide equally useful products not traditionally associated with the brand.
There have also been interesting collective actions between brands themselves. Deliveroo and Morrisons have come together to allow customers to order from 70 essential household items for on-demand delivery. Aldi and McDonald’s in Germany have collaborated on a staff-sharing deal to redeploy workers who might otherwise have been laid off. Ukactive and Nike united to create a pretty cool set of daily “activity missions” to keep kids active through a joint initiative called Move Crew. Vogue and Amazon have done some cool stuff together, too, as have the National Gallery with Ocean Outdoor (pictured, top). There are loads more of these interesting partnerships, showing there is a growing understanding that the way we solve the big problems is to set egos and agendas aside and work together.
One great recent example in our industry – although slightly disappointing that it had to come “bottom up” rather than “top down” – was the launch of the really rather brilliant Not Fur’Long collective: some enterprising folks from Dark Horses putting potentially dormant talent to work on pro-bono projects. I know from mates who are part of it that it’s useful, fun and productive. I think the recent VoxComm initiative is also a strong example of movement in the right direction as a result of the pandemic.
There have been some encouraging signs that our industry is finally waking up to the benefits of collectivism (even before Covid). We at Harbour Collective have been big exponents of this way of working for a while – the clue is in the name. Other examples include collectives such as Hello Finch, Beyond or Pimento. I even saw that maybe WPP was starting to see the benefits with the launch of Black Ops.
There are some interesting freelance networks such as The Fawnbrake Collective or Been There, Done That, or international examples such as Speakeasy, Co-Collective or Dawn. This is all growing evidence of a trend of clients wanting to work in more flexible ways, by accessing a wide variety of talent, rather than a closed shop of the same team from the same agency on every brief. This is being turbocharged by the timing and budget challenges that all clients are now facing for the foreseeable future.
I’ve seen lots of articles from agency leaders recently that seem to suggest a few of them, too, have become latter-day converts to collective working. Quite an epiphany from an industry that has been traditionally really bad at collaborating together. But if it takes a pandemic to get people working together better, then at least something good can come out of all this.
It’s not before time that agencies are waking up to the power of acting collectively. Clients have been encouraging it for a long time, but some of the more traditional process (and especially attitudes) have tended to get in the way. One of the few positive consequences of Covid-19, I hope, will be the adoption of more open and collaborative creativity.
Our industry is traditionally awful at collaborating. Agencies often pretend to collaborate with other partners when forced to by the client, but they are not traditionally very good at it. Agencies do tend to be OK when they have to work alongside other partners, but only if they are implementing their “big” idea. This behaviour has come about because the ad agency was traditionally the “lead creative” agency. They were the ones who came up with the idea and then the retail agency got to draw it on a box/bag and the PR agency had to somehow get people interested in the concept without the attention bribe of media spend. The ad agency took 90% of the “deck” time and left the remaining scraps for media, with the other agency work normally relegated to the appendix if they were lucky.
Agencies might be waking up, slowly and tentatively, to the benefits of collaboration with specialist partners, rather than sticking to the one-stop-shop model of yesteryear. If one good thing comes out of the challenges of the past few months, it is hopefully people being more willing to work together.
Sitting at the heart of a collective of independent specialist agencies has really brought home to me the cumulative and additive nature of actually properly working in collaboration with expert partners. An idea can be so much more powerful when it is truly delivered by experts in their field, rather than an ad agency playing at doing content, digital, experiential or branding.
And these collaborations are also more effective when they are positive choices rather than enforced by clients or holding companies (I know from experience that those are always a disaster for all involved).
Collaboration is best when it comes from a place of shared respect, synergistic skills and an open attitude to embrace challenging each other to create better shared outcomes. It’s not just forcing people to work in the same room to save a few quid – which has been the traditional network view of “collaboration”.
The power of collective thinking is proven. The benefits of the sharing of specialist thinking and expert execution are not in doubt. But traditional models, egos and working practices have always got in the way of agencies really collaborating effectively with each other.
Maybe now is the time. The age of collective action could and should finally be upon us. Better answers – for agencies, clients and society at large – lie that way.
The Agency Pitch in its Current Form is the Root Cause of the Problem
Paul Hammersley, Managing Partner at Harbour, May 13, 2020, Little Black Book #AgencyPitches #ResistTheTrap #High-ValueThinking #StopGivingItAway #Radicalism
As more agencies chase every new client review, now more than ever we must resist the trap of the traditional pitch explains Harbour’s Paul Hammersley.
The issue of agencies getting paid fairly for their advice and creativity was raised once again this week in our trade press, ironically by one of the intermediaries responsible for managing client reviews and agency pitches.
I say ‘ironically’ because the issue of how agencies get fairly paid and the pitch process are fundamentally connected in a way that is constantly overlooked. Actually, the agency pitch in its current form is the root cause of the problem.
Everyone knows that the pitch process is imperfect and there’s little value in reiterating all the issues here in detail; but most of the discussion is about how to tweak what has become accepted as the norm.
But ‘tweaks’ won’t ever solve the real issue with the pitch and the negative effect it has on the broader relationship between clients and agencies.
The real issue, whether for creative, media or other disciplines, is that most pitches now demand that agencies give away their high value-add work on a speculative basis.
As competition has grown and agencies have got ever more desperate, the scale of the pitching task has grown exponentially like some sort of arms race; in the 2020 downturn, I fear the desperation will get even worse.
In literally NO other professional services business, or for that matter any other services business at all, is this the case. Accountants, lawyers, investment bankers? Photographers, designers, architects? Plumbers, fitness instructors, picture framers? None of them, not one.
This video from Canadian agency Zulu Alpha Kilo makes the point better than any words can.
You know who else doesn’t do it – the management consultancies parking their tanks on our lawn. The same intermediary referred to above said in a report last year that ‘the strategic consultancies appear to have it right; they’ll show work done for others, their methodology and approach as the basis on which the brand has to make a decision’.
I understand the apparent attraction of pitches to clients but there are wider consequences of all this for clients as well as agencies which aren’t well understood.
The waste of time and resource and distraction from attending to paying clients is obvious enough – especially for the losing agencies.
But critically, even if an agency wins a pitch, the only way to make up for giving away all that high value thinking for free is to charge as much as possible, for as long as possible for the low value-add executional work that comes with winning the assignment.
While this used to be the unwritten rule of the game, it’s the cause of a growing misalignment of interests and friction between clients and agencies.
As Tim Williams of Ignition Consulting says, in an hours-based cost-plus remuneration system there will always be an underlying conflict between how agencies justify their fees (with the executional work) and where clients see value (the strategy, insight and concept work).
This is why clients are increasingly finding ways to get that low value-add executional work at a better price. Where once they negotiated on charge out rates, chargeable hours, overhead mark-ups and profit margins, they are now unbundling that work or taking it in house. Some are finding ways to automate much of it and many more will follow. All developments which the pressures of the Covid-19 crisis will only accelerate.
So yes, agencies have to stop being reliant on the executional work to pay the bills and make sure that they get paid properly, on an output or outcome basis, for their high value-add work.
And this requires more than just having a different conversation with their clients (if it were that easy we’d all have done it long ago). Agencies need to organise themselves differently to disconnect the strategic, insight and conceptual work from the executional work; something that the big legacy agencies will find very difficult to do with their huge standing armies to feed, revenue streams to protect and shareholders to fend off.
But critically, despite all the short-term pressures that will lead to more agencies chasing business harder than ever, they must also stop giving away their true value for free in a pitch process.
We can’t blame clients for asking for it but we can blame ourselves for agreeing to it and for facilitating it.
Why There Will Be a Reset in Client/Agency Relationships after Covid-19
Paul Hammersley, Managing Partner at Harbour, April 22, 2020, Little Black Book #OpportunityForChange #TimeToReset #TrySomethingDifferent #BigBrandThinking #Radicalism
This week we are seeing clients dropping daily crisis management meetings and in their place booking meetings to discuss ‘Project Relaunch’; even a client whose business has been mothballed is now running a ‘Project Revival’.
So, to quote Churchill and Andrew Cuomo, we may now just be ‘at the end of the beginning’ and our minds must turn to what business will look like as and when we emerge from this crisis; specifically, what clients will want and need from their agencies.
While it remains the case that there won’t ever be one model or offer which prevails, as in every other aspect of life and business, there will be change and it could be significant in breadth and depth.
What will be the driver of this change? Will it really be that profound? Won’t we just fall back in to our old ways of working?
I think the biggest driver, and it will be profound, is the opportunity for change as much as the need.
What we’re seeing on a number of fronts is that if there is any upside to this mess, it is that once a business is significantly, or in some cases completely, put on hold, that creates an opportunity to start things all over.
Annual budgets, year on year targets, market share, tracking studies: all have become irrelevant for a brief, ‘once in a career’ moment.
Never has it been a better time to reset or start over; to try something different; to dump that legacy system. There’s no risk, no downside and no complex ‘mid-air refuelling’ process.
Surely that is as true for how clients work with agencies; most client/agency relationships are the function of some legacy system, perhaps with a few tweaks along the way. Very few are the function of a fundamental re-think and zero basing. Why not now make the switch to that optimum, modern, relevant agency offer that you know exists but so far have been too busy, or fearful of any downside risk, to make.
So, if you were starting again in today’s (or more importantly, the post Covid-19) world what would the characteristics of the ideal agency relationship look like?
Everything we have heard from clients during the crisis has been an amplification of what they said they increasingly wanted before – integration, collaboration, flexibility, speed and lower cost; all without any compromise in strategic, creative or executional quality. More and more we’re hearing that what they also want are innovation and ideas – not just creative or channel ideas but business ideas.
In delivering all this who are the winners and losers in ‘agency land’ likely to be?
The losers will be those who can’t change – or can’t change fast enough. It has to be likely that these will mostly be the big network agencies; classic legacy businesses with siloed structures, complex management hierarchies, excessive fixed cost bases and a dependency on historical revenue streams.
Even before the crisis they have already shown that their ability to change is institutionally limited but with the recent collapse of revenues combined with the pressures of public shareholders this could be horrifically exacerbated.
Just when change is most expected by clients, they will be less able than ever to deliver it.
The winners will be agencies with lower cost bases and simpler structures; who are used to cooperating and integrating; whose scrappy attitude have seen them through the crisis by throwing ideas at their clients. These are the defining characteristics of the many independent agencies across the UK’s marketing services landscape.
If they organise themselves in some way to partner and integrate with other specialists in their respective field – and perhaps have also found some way to also offer clients the big brand thinking that will help them adapt existing strategies, positionings and campaigns to the post Covid-19 environment – they will be especially well placed.
If only there was a model which looked like that. Oh wait, hang on…!
If brave is best, what are we all afraid of?
Kevin Chesters, Strategy Partner at Harbour, August 5, 2019, The Drum #CreatingEffectiveWork #BeBrave #TakeBiggerRisks #FocusOnRelationships #Radicalism
I think we all have always instinctively known that the best ideas are the brave, distinctive ones. Gorilla, Cog, “Dumb Ways to Die”, Skoda Cake, Nike’s “Nothing Beats a Londoner” – work that helps to define categories.
New research that came out last week finally proved what my creative partner, Mick Mahoney, always told me was “bloody obvious, Kev”. The study carried out by Mark Ritson and published in AdAge analysed 6,000 campaigns to try to isolate the primary factors in making more effective work. Guess what came out on top? Bravery. Brave work is the most effective work. Work that is conservative (with a small c) is the least effective work. It turns out that the safest option for agencies and clients is to take a bigger risk.
As Mick said, I think we all instinctively knew this already. Ritson has validated it but it isn’t anything new in terms of theory. We know from lots of other studies (especially by Binet/Field) that the most commercially effective work is the most creatively original work. We also know that doing fame-making, brand-building work is more effective (even in response campaigns) than doing the dull, massive-phone-numbered, dull-as-ditchwater generic campaigns. For things to be creative they need to be original (just check your dictionary) and original means new and different.
So, it’s obvious, proven and unarguable that being conservative is commercially damaging. We know that doing things that are outside our comfort zone will benefit our brands and businesses. So why don’t we do it? Why are most campaigns asinine, obvious and as far from brave as it’s possible to be?
Well, like most things, it is a combination of nature and nurture. There are some behavioural science factors that stop us doing what we know is better for us. But equally I think we have some industry-wide bad behaviours that get in the way of developing braver and better ideas. The former are hard to stamp out, the latter should be a lot easier.
Let’s start with evolution.
There is one core characteristic about new and brave ideas that we don’t like to admit: they make us feel uncomfortable. This is because humans are not good with new things; they set off every single ‘fight or flight’ mechanism from back in the prehistoric day. We aren’t a brave species. We’re far comfier with cowardice. Remember that your brave ancestors all died fighting the sabre-toothed tigers. The cowardy-custards who hid, trembling, behind the mammoth carcass? Those are your genes, mate.
We actually fear the new. It’s a real thing: neophobia. We fear the unknown more than the known bad, it’s hard-wired into us. It drives the principle called ‘risk aversion’ and means we’ve been trained over eons as a species to fear and distrust new things. So, does that mean we are off the hook? Do clients and agencies tend to steer clear of the brave and hug the average because of our evolutionary blueprint. Well, sort of. But I’m not going to let us off the hook that easily. There are some industry factors that are compounding the issue.
Any form of good creativity involves taking a risk. You will never take a risk with someone that you either don’t like or don’t trust. The best work comes from a different attitude between client and agency. It happens when that relationship is one of mutual respect and trust; not a master/servant, JFDI relationship. But these trusting relationships don’t form overnight or tend to happen in one campaign. They develop over time as people get to know and trust one another. Declining tenures of CMOs and the pitch/switch addiction of clients changing agencies like shoes have really got in the way in the last decade. No one, client or agency, seems to have the time (or be afforded the time in the age of short-term metrics) to develop those longer relationships. Look at the agencies and clients that are doing the best, most effective work (and bravest) – they tend to be the ones who have developed long-term relationships (Mother/Ikea, adam+eveDDB/John Lewis, W+K/Lurpak). Duh!
Every new business lead, meeting or project win we’ve had in the last few months at Harbour has come from a former client or colleague with whom either Mick, Paul or I had developed a strong relationship of trust. Trust pays.
The second industry factor that gets in the way of brave work is how the role of account management has changed recently (for the worse) – from relationships to service. If we are going to get to great, brave work then we all have a role to play, but Account Management’s role is disproportionately crucial. They create the conditions within which great creative can happen. Without them, strategists and creatives are wasting their time. Brave work won’t get developed, presented, sold or ever made if Account Management don’t create the framework for it to happen within. And the mutually respective relationship between agency and client is key to this. If account management think their role is client service, then it’s unsurprising if they and their agency get treated like quasi-servants.
Account Management have to work harder than anyone to create the relationships that will nurture those risky ideas that we all want to make. The best work has always come from good client relationships. I’d suggest getting back to some of the things that used to make for strong, mutually-respectful relationship building: a focus on commercial understanding of your client’s business and adding intellectual value beyond standard agency scope, for starters.
So, let’s get braver. Let’s break those pesky evolutionary shackles. Let’s do new and ‘risky’ things because they are what will get us lauded, awarded and rewarded (Ritson just re-proved it). Let’s get back to having relationships with clients, not just three-bags-full agreeing with them. Let’s get back to what we know works. After all, it’s not brave to do what is proven, is it? It’s just bloody obvious, as Mick never grows tired of telling me.
Creatives, take control of your business... or stop complaining.
Mick Mahoney, Creative Partner at Harbour, July 31, 2019, Campaign #TheCreativeAgenda #TakeControl #YourIndustryNeedsYou #CreativityAtTheHeart #Radicalism
I keep hearing and reading about agencies/groups etc. that are “putting creativity at the heart” of what they do. But in most cases, it’s not really true, is it? In fact, it appears to be in almost inverse proportion to the amount that is claimed.
You only have to look at how a business is structured to see that. Look at what percentage of the headcount is creative. Ask the chief executive of your agency.
If it really does have creativity at the heart, they will give you a direct answer. Because they’ll be proud of the fact. It should be around 30% at a minimum, by the way. Ideally 40%.
If they start talking about creativity in the abstract and use vague terms such as “creative problem-solvers” or “creative is a collective responsibility”, they’re fudging. Take this as confirmation that creativity isn’t really at the heart of their business. And if that matters to you – and it really should – then you know the question to ask at your next interview.
It has become one of those lazy things to say, such as “content solutions” and “agile working”. Our industry loves a good buzz phrase, doesn’t it? Everyone repeats it so they look like they’re in the know. Even if they don’t really know what it means. Assuming it actually means anything at all.
Great creative work is what makes a difference to clients’ businesses. The stats are endless that prove the case. But it’s hard to do. Really hard. And it can cause friction. It’s much easier to be a pleaser. To hide beyond lots of excuses. Time. Budget. Research. Difficult client. And bill for all the things that are more tangible, such as bodies in a meeting and photocopying decks. But great work finds ways through this. Great creative agencies find ways through this.
Agencies that truly have creativity at the heart build the structure of their business to deliver great work. They don’t have a “pleaser” structure and then make unreasonable demands on the creative department, like most agencies. You know exactly which ones they are too. If I asked you to name them, chances are 99% of you would say the same ones.
We are in an industry that needs to adapt to thrive. It’s currently on its uppers. Everyone can clearly see that the entire industry needs to find new and innovative ways to restate its creative agenda. We are finished without it. If we make it all about things such as efficiencies, then management consultants have won. And they’d be welcome to the miserable and joyless nonsense that would emanate.
But shouting and posturing about it all “being shit nowadays” creatively isn’t helping either. All the creative commentators who bemoan the good old days really irritate me, to be honest. Silent films became talking films. Film became digital files. Records became streaming. Things change. Get over it. Lean in and help the industry find new paths that put creativity at the heart. Or be quiet.
And creatives, don’t sit there and allow it to happen around you. It’s your business too. You need to engage with the business side of the business you are in. Do you understand how an agency is structured? Do you know what a client is charged for? Do you understand how a project is scoped? Well, you should. It’s why the creative department you are in isn’t big enough to service all the briefs. It’s why you didn’t have enough time on that brief. It’s why you’re working at the weekend again.
Don’t allow others to worry about that stuff. You worry about it. You change the business. You ask the chief executive about headcount. It’s time to roll up your sleeves, creatives. Take control of your businesses, influence their structures, involve yourself in every aspect of what we do. And if you don’t, don’t be surprised if you don’t get what you want and the industry doesn’t get what it needs.
And, yes. It is your responsibility. It might not interest you or play to your skillset, but it will create the environment that does.
Creatives, your industry needs you.
This is advertising's age of the collective
Mick Mahoney, Creative Partner at Harbour, June 18, 2019, The Drum #Collective #NoStandingArmy #Entrepreneurial #FairerWayOfWorking #Collectivism
“Agencies need a new business model that puts the client at the center, elevates new services, and blends creative entrepreneurialism with new executional prowess.”
Hard to argue with the Forrester report on that one, and it’s certainly in everyone’s interest to nail that model. Creativity has been sacrificed in the fight for survival in the last 10 years. Yet it’s the one and only thing that truly makes us worth paying for in the first place, as well as the thing that truly differentiates one agency from another.
Everyone seems to have become obsessed solely with the process. How we do it, not what we do. In recent high-profile alliances and reorganisations I haven’t heard anyone talk about the actual work, or how they are going to create a brilliant atmosphere to create world-changing work that would be a genuine benefit to clients. They only spoke about efficiencies. That’s like opening a restaurant and selling it on having a clean kitchen. I want to be sold a culinary vision. I don’t want to know about your kitchen; I just want to know that what comes out of it is going to make me weep with joy.
I know that money is tight, but it’s the quality of the work that is remembered long after the saving is forgotten. We have to put the creative agenda back at the heart of the evolution of our industry. We have to create new models that enable us to excite, inspire and delight our clients and the public. Of course, they must be efficient, but in the service of creativity.
Of course, I don’t believe that there will only be one successful model. I’m sure a number will prosper, as there are now so many possibilities and permutations to successful creative output. However, I do believe that they will all share a belief in the power and primacy of creativity and innovation.
Furthermore, it’s possible that the Forrester report has overlooked a model that is pretty much what they are describing and already exists. I would argue that they should have said ‘a new business model that puts the client and creativity at the center…’ In any case, the model in question delivers on that too.
The model I’m referring to is the collective – independent individuals or businesses that co-exist for the mutual benefit of their clients and each other. The principle of the collective is not a new one, but it does seem to be gaining a lot of traction right now. Possibly it’s because the previous orthodoxy was just about bearable enough for everyone to carry on as they were, but not anymore. Now, everyone is desperate for a better, smarter, fairer way of working. From the most senior CMO to the most junior creative.
In this environment, collectives offer two very obvious benefits to clients.
Take the world being broadly split into two halves: there are the network agencies who have vast standing armies to cover every permutation of communications under one roof, and there are independent agencies who are entrepreneurial and focused on the output, but limited in the variety of skills they can offer a modern client.
If you accept the norm that CMOs now aggressively manage costs, then budgets are routinely cut, fees routinely challenged, and account reviews are used to drive down marketing costs which are rising from the growth of touch-points – the price of media, content, data, technologies, and agency fees. This in turn puts pressure on agencies to trim costs, which results in them discounting labour costs, juniorising roles, restricting the scope of work, or managing the margin through fees. All these moves challenge client trust, let budget negotiations influence the quality of the services delivered, and screws up any chance the work had of being good.
Then collectives can afford to counter one offer with a ‘have what you need, use when you need it and only pay for what you eat model’ as they, in theory, could have the same breadth of skill set as the networks. As each of those skills operate as independently, they aren’t waiting around to be fed centrally. This means that there is no need to restrict the scope of work or the quality of the services delivered.
Collectives can trump the second offer by creating a central relationship that harnesses all the necessary skill sets to deliver on a client objective, that the clients in question would otherwise have to juggle themselves.
In both cases this puts the client at the center and enables the elevation of new services, blends creative entrepreneurialism with executional prowess, and creates a level of flexibility that is impossible to achieve any other way. Most importantly of all, it puts creativity at the heart of the offer right next to the client.
That’s just my take on it, but it’s why I’ve chosen to join a collective.
Just remember, next time you go to a restaurant to ask yourself why you chose it. If it really was for the spotless preparation surfaces, then you deserve the ordinary meal you are about to eat.
The Joy of Knowing F*** All
Kevin Chesters, Strategy Partner at Harbour, June 11, 2019, The Drum #DiscoverWhatYouDon'tKnow #WeNeedExperts #NewModels #SpecialistPartners #Radicalism
“The only true wisdom is to know that you know nothing” – Socrates (not the footballer).
Our natural human tendency, as evolutionary problem solvers, is to want to have all the answers. It is also tempting in a ‘service industry’ to want to be seen to have all the answers – for our clients – and to not ever admit that we don’t know or can’t do something.
It’s definitely not encouraged, especially in network agencies, to admit a knowledge or skill gap. In fact, quite the opposite. There is pressure in modern agencies to pretend that you can solve all client issues. Whatever the challenge, the agency will say they have the experience and skillset to solve it – before trying work out how the hell they are going to deliver.
It is seen as a sign of weakness to admit that your agency doesn’t have a certain skillset or capability that a client might need. In the current industry climate, it is also encouraged to never (ever) allow any revenue outside the tent whilst also trying to expand accounts across every single part of the agency offering – like some kind of Augustus Gloop at a scope-of-work buffet.
One thing that struck me while watching that documentary on the Fyre Festival, was that what they did didn’t seem that odd in the advertising industry. We are used to making huge (over)claims about the scale/scope of what we can do and then heading back to the ranch to work out how the hell we can possibly deliver on the outlandish promises made in the meeting/pitch/RFP.
No one can possibly know or do everything – individually, or as an agency/network. It’s simply not possible. The world of communications has just got too complicated. In his brilliant book, “Better”, Atul Gawande discussed this as the need in modern medicine for “pit-crews, not cowboys”. He was talking about the need for a set of experts to come together, Avengers-style, to solve problems that are just too complex for one person to be able to solve alone. This is the case in most modern marketing/brand challenges. The one-stop-shop sounds like a magical panacea to cost and convenience, but it is in my experience a total myth that asks clients to make far too many compromises on quality and specialist output.
My view is that it is the very opposite of a sign of a weakness to admit that you don’t have all the answers, to say that you don’t know, or will have to go and ask an expert in that area. I think only confident people admit what they can’t do and wouldn’t ever pretend to. I believe that if you want an expert opinion then you are better off asking an expert, not an over-enthusiastic generalist.
As an ex-client I can also say that it makes you look much more credible as an agency to admit what you’re good at and what you might need to partner with someone else to deliver (even if that revenue goes somewhere else). Over time any client will value the honesty and it’ll pay back in a stronger relationship. There is nothing more annoying in life than a bullshitter. They are obvious, odious and frankly dangerous to agency credibility (both internal and external).
Now, admitting you don’t know the answer certainly doesn’t come naturally to us Account Planners. We’re supposed to be the thinkers, the ‘clever department’. This was clearly brought home to me in the early part of my career when I shifted from being an account man to being a planner in the same agency. On the Friday I was being scolded for not buying the right biscuits for a client meeting, and then on Monday it was “what’s the answer, oh sage one?”
As planners we find it really hard to say, “you know what, this just isn’t my area, let me go and find someone better who can help you”.
I’ve have also discovered that it is not only a sign of strength to admit that you don’t know everything, but also incredibly liberating! Spending time with experts is really brilliant. It is exhilarating to watch someone who is really good at something you are not. It is really seductive to listen to someone talk enthusiastically about an area or sector that you know nothing about. It is really useful to know people who can add to your knowledge rather than just validate it. This is why I say that it is not just a real joy to discover what you don’t know, but it is also vital.
The best thing about going to the annual TED Conference is how thick it makes me feel. It’s great to sit for a week and listen to people who are ten times cleverer than you talk about stuff that you know nothing about. It takes your brain for a walk and makes you see things very differently.
At Harbour, over the last few months, I’ve been spending time with VR specialists, programmers, UX folk and eCRM/data experts. I’ve also spent time with people who make proper long-form content (rather than just writing slides about it at the end of a pitch deck). It’s brilliant, so interesting. It’s also a little embarrassing and humbling to realise how much of my career I have spent thinking I knew about stuff when I really didn’t. John Keats said “Nothing ever becomes real until it’s experienced.” I think that says it all when finding an expert.
The nice thing about being a consultant now, with access to specialist partners, is the ability to always be within arms-reach of a true expert. My advice is to find someone who does only that thing because they’ll know an awful lot about it because it is their life.
Give yourself the permission to feel a bit clueless occasionally. It’s fine to ‘not know’ or to have to ‘phone a friend’. It’s amazing how clever you can look when you admit you’re a bit stupid.
Why does B2B advertising have to be ugly and crap?
Kevin Chesters, May 10, 2019, The Drum #GoodCreativeSells #BeAestheticallyBrilliant #InfluencedByEmotion #B2Badvertising #Radicalism
Last week I did my first bit of business travel in ages. As I walked through Heathrow my eyes and ears were repeatedly assaulted by a cacophonous avalanche of cliché, both verbal and visual, under the guise of B2B advertising.
I didn’t even want to start to imagine how much all the media must have cost the respective vendors punting their mostly-tech wares at me. My professional self was pretty embarrassed on behalf of the set of big clients and big agencies who had signed it off and spent the money. It was universally ugly, boring and utterly meaningless.
You know the kind of messaging I’m talking about, right? ‘Powering the Possible’, ‘Enabling empowering possibilities’, ‘The possibility of empowering enablement’ and ‘The power of enabling the possible’. It was all as anodyne as it was lazy.
It struck me that all of it was targeted at my ‘business self’. That mythical creature that inhabits this world of ‘possibilities’ and ’empowerment’ and is surrounded only by people who look like Gary Vaynerchuk, endlessly high-fiving at the top of escalators.
All the work reminded me of that amazing ‘tagline generator’ meme.
When I got to the business lounge, I opened my free copy of The Economist and was further drowned by the same fridge poetry of meaningless words and an equally tiresome smorgasbord of suited-up Getty Images. But something was very weird. My eyes had been opened like the main character in John Carpenter’s ‘They Live’. I looked around at all the other people in the business lounge. They weren’t a set of these mythical identikit ‘businessmen’ and ‘business women’. They were like me and all my mates who work ‘in business’. They were mums and dads. They were people who go to gyms, drive cars, visit supermarkets. They were ‘Consumers’. In short, they were real people with real lives and real human brains.
Businesspeople are still people, with the same evolutionary brains. You don’t switch off your heart when you put on a tie. Humans in business respond like all other humans – emotion first, logic second. We know that creativity is the key driver of effectiveness. We know emotion in advertising works. So why is this suddenly different for B2B and B2C? (Spoiler: It isn’t. All research proves it).
Science is seriously on my side here. We humans respond better to what looks nice. It’s called the Aesthetic Usability Effect. Masaaki Korosu and Kaori Kashimura from Hitachi Design Centre in 1995 tested 26 variations of an ATM UI and found that there was a huge correlation between participants ratings of aesthetic appeal and perceived ease of use. People think things are superior if they look nice.
As a corporate business you want people to trust you, like you, interact with you, buy from you. You want your reception to look good. You want your office environment to look good for clients. So why would you then let your advertising be a lazy collection of cliched stock shots and word salad? Follow the same rules you know work – good creative sells. Always.
Google did a piece of research on this back in 2012. This proved that emotion works just as well (in fact better) in the B2B world compared to B2C. They studied a vast number of B2C and B2B brands to check people’s emotional engagement with them. The survey showed that people actually had a higher level of emotional connection with B2B brands compared to B2C brands (in fact, most of the B2B brands had an astonishingly high level of emotional trust – above 50% – compared to the average 10-40% for B2C brands). According to Google, this indicated that: “B2B customers are significantly more emotionally connected to their vendors and service providers than consumers.”
The survey stated that over 50% of B2B purchasers were more likely to buy from a product or service that they ‘personally’ valued. It went on to show that 71% of B2B buyers who had an emotional connection to their vendors ended up buying products/services from that vendor. Google concluded: “We like to think of organisations as rational and logical. The truth is, there are people within them, and those people are just as, if not more, influenced by emotion than everyday consumers.”
It makes total sense if you think about it. If you’re buying a chocolate bar or a can of fizzy drink then your risk level is virtually zero. But when you’re choosing a supplier or partner for your business then there is an inherent risk, and it can often be a hefty financial one. This just increases if it is your business. You buy from people you like and trust – your ads in this instance are your ambassadors and virtual sales force.
So here is my challenge and plea to all of us advertisers. Let’s up the game. Let’s apply the same rules and quality levels to the corporate advertising as we do the consumer stuff. There is absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t have emotionally powerful, creatively brilliant, aesthetically amazing advertising in the corporate space.
I’ve worked in a lot of the top agencies and the B2B work is hidden away on other floors or in back recesses like some embarrassing relative we don’t want people to meet. Why have we accepted that the trade ad has to be ugly and boring? Why do we think that it’s ‘just the corporate’ stuff so there’s no need to try too hard? Why do our rock-star creatives never work on the B2B accounts?
So now that we know the same rules of emotional storytelling work just as effectively to businesspeople as all people, we have no excuses for the tsunami of pap that overwhelmed me at Terminal 3. We could start applying a 50% ‘possibilities’ or ’empowerment’ tax to the next corporate advertiser that attempts to use those words in a strapline. But mostly it would just be about applying the simple rules that we know work in all advertising, regardless of audience or product.
Let’s be clear. Let’s be different. Let’s be aesthetically good. Let’s aim for brilliant.
Just imagine the “possibilities”.
Frogs in the well: How creative agencies could get a lot more creative
Kevin Chesters, Strategy Partner at Harbour, April 12, 2019, The Drum #FrogsInTheWell #OriginalityOfThought #DifferentQuestionsForDifferentPeople #CreativeAgencies #Collectivism
There is a Korean proverb that says “the frog in the well never sees the ocean”. For the hard of thinking this means that if you spend all your life in one place you don’t get to see the depth and breadth of everything the world has to offer.
I’ve spent nearly 25 years working in what we describe as “creative agencies” but what everyone else in the world would probably just call advertising agencies. Let’s face it, whatever most agencies make – telly stuff, digital content, direct, PR – most people who live in the real world would just call it adverts. The stuff that businesses create to get you to buy something that they make and sell.
I’ve worked for big and small agencies, independent and big network agencies. I’ve seen a lot of change in that time. I’ve seen the canvas for creativity grow and stretch. But in the greater scheme of creativity I’ve increasingly noticed that most agencies still see ‘creativity’ through an incredibly narrow industry lens. This is especially true compared to the rest of the world. I think I’ve come to realise that I’ve spent most of my career at the bottom of the aforementioned well regardless of the size or style of agency I’ve been at.
So, what made me reach this conclusion? Firstly, I did a project last year which was triggered by people saying that people working in communications were ‘story-tellers’. I interviewed a teacher, journalist, sculptress, film director, a documentary maker and a vicar to see if the rules of storytelling changed, if the story output was different. It made me realise that we rarely look out from our own little industry bubble for the lessons that can be learnt and applied to what we do. Soichiro Honda always said that we “learnt at the edges” (he had a weird analogy about baby spiders that won’t go into) but we rarely do this in ad land. We read the same blogs, we retweet the same tweeters, we read the same case studies about the same campaigns and we pass around the same received wisdom from the same industry luminaries.
In most ‘creative’ agencies the problem solvers still tend to solve problems with one form of answer. My gran always wisely counselled – ‘never ask a fishmonger what he recommends for dinner’.
The second thing that happened was a recent rather lovely six-month period of paid garden leave. I spent the time visiting galleries, reading books, attending lectures on things, talking in cafes to mates who didn’t work anywhere near my industry – basically spending time NOT rewriting another deck about ‘The Long & Short of It’ or talking about the same advertising case studies. It was incredibly eye-opening to not be ‘in the well’ every minute of every day. It was also – here’s the crux – enlightening, terrifying, humbling and embarrassing to see how widely the rest of the world defines ‘creativity’.
Now most of you won’t be lucky enough that an employer will pay you for six months to wander galleries and gain life experience, but the more enlightened bosses (I think of Stu Smith when I worked at W+K) won’t think you’re skiving if you visit the odd gallery or attend the odd lecture ‘on company time’. And clients should be open to thinking that that their problem could maybe be solved outside of their ‘main’ agency – because I can tell you from experience this is where the more creative thinkers lie.
And finally, I’ve now started a new job. And it’s not quite what I did before. I’m at the heart of a collective of 20 specialist agencies (and, by god, in some cases do I MEAN specialist). And this has given me a new and (over-) excited appreciation of the depth and breadth of creativity that exists outside of the well of ‘advertising’ (even in the broader network agency sense). Now, I love adverts, I always have and always will – and they have a brilliant and vital role to play in the communications mix. But the world of creativity is an amazing sandbox outside the world that I’ve been living in until recently.
The dictionary definition of creativity is “originality of thought” – and this can and should be applied to any output of an agency for a client. Everything can be approached creatively. The worst kind of people in our industry are those who only see creativity as creative work.
It has been amazing to sit down with a data science business, and a local media specialist business, or proper experts in experiential brand proof. It’s been the most ridiculous learning curve to sit down with people who genuinely make long form documentary content (rather than people who write a slide saying we should ‘make long form documentary content’). The questions that people ask are different when the output is different. You tend to talk to different partners, you are exposed to different references, you genuinely get to see more ‘creative’ (ie original and different) answers to clients’ challenges.
If you want to be a creative problem solver then it’s probably best that you don’t creatively problem solve with the same tools, case studies, research sources and creative solutions that everyone else is using.
We should all get out of the well. If we are to cut through in an increasingly complex and noisy world then we are going to have to differentiate. Creativity is about being original; and if we want to get to different answers it is time to ask different questions to different people.
Why the world needs more agency specialists
Kevin Chesters, Strategy Partner at Harbour, February 7, 2019, The Drum #TargetedSolutions #SpecialistAgencies #RealCategoryExperts #RightToolForTheRightJob #Specialism
If you were looking for the best butcher in your area, I suspect you wouldn’t find them behind the meat counter of the local supermarket.
If you did look there, you’d be likely to find a very good butcher. You would find someone with skills, experience and knowledge way in advance of the average layman. I suspect you would come away (unless the supermarket was crap) with a good solution to your meat-related need.
But you would always be making a significant compromise.
That compromise would be sacrificing the guarantee of getting the best answer in exchange for enjoying the convenience/scale of a generalist retailer. Now, if you were the kind of person who had quality as your first criteria, then I suspect you’d seek out a specialist butchers’ shop.
It’s the same with medicine. A visit to your GP will bring you into contact with a skilled generalist in medical health. One who’ll be able to give you a more accurate diagnosis than you’d get from Dr Google or a concerned mate. However, the moment you required any form of more specialist diagnosis then you’d expect the doctor to know their limits and refer you to an expert in that field. This expert practitioner would be in a much better position to give you a more targeted solution to the problem at hand. And this would just get more specialised as your issue became clearer. Makes sense, doesn’t it? If you want to get a more expert opinion, ask an expert.
So why has our communications world become so populated by generalists? This is something that has definitely come full circle in the marketing and communications industry since I started back in the 90s. Back then there were lots of specialist agencies, and clients tended to employ a collection of said experts to deliver specific elements of the marketing mix. This became especially true during the first wave of digital marketing in the late 90s when some really famous and feared digital agency brands emerged to challenge the famous advertising behemoths.
However, the world has tended to shift since the noughties (and the financial crisis) towards generalists – big agency or big holding company solutions that promised the convenience (or economic saving) of a one-stop-shop to meet all your marketing needs under one roof. This was the marketing equivalent of the big out-of-town megastores offering the promise of worry-free convenience if you weren’t too fussed about excellence in any specific vertical. Small specialist local shops went out of fashion (or business) as a result of this compromise – but the ‘consumer’ didn’t necessarily get the promised excellence (or savings, for that matter).
The world of marketing has got more complex over the course of my career. Significantly so. I think that the role of, and need for, the specialist has really grown over the course of the last decade. The role of the specialist expert agency has never been more necessary for clients in my opinion. And I think we are about to enter the new age of the specialist.
If you want sharper, better informed, more focused answers then you are better off going to an expert. And my observation from 20+ years of doing this is that the smarter, hungrier, more informed people tend to gravitate towards the more specialist agencies. Especially if they are the kind of owner, entrepreneurial folks who set up their own agencies based on their specialisms.
As a side note, I think this equally applies to the specialist skill of traditional advertising. The most lauded agencies over the last few years – W+K, Mother, Lucky Generals, Adam & Eve/DDB, VCCP – have massively over-indexed on traditional advertising output (especially film/TV) and have reaped the benefit for it in awards and new business wins. It might be unfashionable to say it, but the best agencies are still largely defined by their advertising output.
I’m not saying that there is not a role for big generalist communications groups or more generic folk (I’d count myself as one of the latter, for starters) but I think that the role of specialist agencies and experts has never been more vital than it is today. Beware the generalist who promises to be the ‘Master of All Trades’ – it is just not possible in 2019. To steal the words of Atul Gawande, modern marketing solutions need pit crews, not cowboys. And I think that it is unlikely that you find these real experts in vertical offerings in the big generalist supermarket-style agencies. They don’t gravitate there.
If you’re a big client with a meaty challenge, then you’ll certainly still need an overall diagnosis. It is good to work with an experienced brand expert who can see the bigger picture and give you a ‘big picture’ answer. But then I would argue that in this increasingly complicated media landscape you are much better off selecting a specialist to meet your specific need. The key, as always, will be in making sure that you don’t end up taking too much time managing or integrating your various experts. This is the issue is what led to the ‘convenience compromise’ of choosing the one-stop-shop at the expense of the right solution to your specific problem in the first place.
It’s my contention that the world needs experts more than ever. It just makes sense to me that you would get your collection of expert Avengers with key skills together rather than expecting the big Hulk to be able to solve every problem with his big generic Hulky fists (apologies to any non-Marvel fans out there who are probably lost at this point).
Sharper answers come from asking the right questions. Deeper knowledge comes from exposure to real category experts. If you’re just looking for convenience and speed, then you probably should head to a supermarket. But if you are looking for the best answer to meet your specific needs, ask an expert.
As my dad always said, “the right tool for the right job”.
Bye Bye Binary : Why one answer can never be the only answer
Kevin Chesters, Strategy Partner at Harbour, November 7, 2018, The Drum #AgencyModels #BinaryChoices #MultipleApproaches #MoreThan1Answer #Radicalism
Everything seems to be binary these days. Everywhere we look we seem to see the emergence of ever more polar extremes presented as the only true path to salvation.
Are you a Brextremist or a Remoaner? A patriot or a traitor? Alt-right or left-wing mob? It’s either all about this or all about that.
A quick check of Twitter will show you that everyone and everything seems to be pushing us to take ever more extreme positions with very little shades of grey. The recent US Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh showed that we seem to be becoming ever more binary in the public arena with his confirmation being easily the closest and most partisan in SCOTUS history. Filter bubbles can take a lot of the blame for what’s going on. The behavioural scientists like Cass Sunstein ‘Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite & Divide’ show how we humans take ever more extreme positions in order to stand out from within our like-minded ‘tribes’.
Now binary thinking and binary choices do make some sense in politics because often it frankly IS a binary choice. It is a case of vote for me or vote for him/her.
But I think we are increasingly falling into this trap in our industry too. It seems it is all about the brand or all about the technology. “Are you ‘Traditional’ or ‘Digital’? is possibly the most ridiculous question in the history of marketing against some very stiff competition. We are presented with the binary choice of emotional engagement/purpose-led marketing vs. rational activation/data-driven targeting as if this is some kind of Dante-esque battle for the soul of a client’s business.
I think this is not only unhelpful but also frankly ludicrous. We know this because smarter people than me – Les Binet, for starters – have proved that it is the cumulative blend of these things working together that makes for more effective campaigns. But there seems to be a lot of money to be made in the modern world from trying to convince clients that the future is this, therefore, it must mean the death of that. These either/or choices tend to be pedaled – mostly via LinkedIn – by a bunch of (sorry) modern snake-oil salesmen who have a vested interest in selling you whatever their next wizzy ‘future’ answer is.
There is no more ridiculous example of this current trend for pushing erroneous binary choices than in the current debate about agency ‘models’. I’ve lost count of the amount of articles I’ve read about the ‘death of the network’ or the ‘rise of the independent” – or was it the other way round? To be honest it tends to depend on who the author is, and whether or not they work for a network or an independent agency.
I think we make ourselves seem laughable to clients when we try and claim that the answer to everything must be the one we are currently selling or representing. It also undermines the ever-eroding claim that we are an independent counsel to our clients. My gran always said you should never ask a fishmonger what he recommends for dinner.
It is frankly ridiculous to try and claim that one model of engagement is the answer, regardless of what the category or challenge is. We wouldn’t ever make this kind of silly conclusion for a client when it came to creativity or media solution, so why do we do it for agency models?
I’ve always hated binary choices. I know humans tend to gravitate towards the simple choice, but simple easy choices are so often picked over more difficult right ones.
I’ve worked for the big agency networks (Publicis and WPP), I’ve worked for the independents (W+K) and I’ve also worked at a micro-network (mcgarrybowen). When I was a client at BT I worked with all three models at the same time.
There are amazing benefits to using a big network agency – scale, breadth, experience – and many client challenges that could only be met by a network. There are brilliant benefits to using an independent agency – flexibility, speed, hunger – that frankly big networks often claim but can rarely deliver just by the nature of their set up.
The best things in life often come from blending the good things about multiple approaches. Fusion cooking, for example – take some great flavours from one culture and fuse them with another and you’ll get some of the most delicious (and lucrative) menus in the world. The music business has understood this for decades and as long as you forget some of the more unsuccessful examples of mash-ups like Ozzy Osbourne and Miss Piggy (look it up) the blending of different styles works more often than not. Anyone familiar with the work of artist Jacky Tsai can easily see what gold can come from taking the best of one thing and fusing it with the best of something else.
So that’s my plea to my/our industry.
Let’s stop presenting binary choices as the only choices. Let’s stop presenting what we sell as the only thing for sale. Let’s work to find the right way of solving problems for clients that might not always be our way. Let’s be honest sometimes and say that maybe we are not the right choice for a particular challenge or project. There is good and bad in all of the ways of working and engaging with clients, let’s take the best of all of them and work to find the best answers. The clients will thank us for it, and maybe all those obituaries about the death of the industry we all love might turn out to be a little premature.
Keep it complex, stupid: A plea for the glory of complexity
Kevin Chesters, Strategy Partner at Harbour, December 19, 2017, The Drum #KICS #TheGloryofComplexity #KeepItComplicated #AgencyVoices #Specialism
KISS; short for Keep It Simple, Stupid.
Oi! Who are you calling stupid, Stupid?
Whisper it in hushed tones, for it is probably marketing heresy, but simplicity is greatly overrated. And over-simplifying in most cases is downright dangerous.
Now, clearly it is a fundamental skill of a planner to make the complex, simple. But as Einstein once said: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” I believe that perhaps we have accepted simplicity as the one true God and I’m noticing it’s not always the right thing.
The world is a complicated place, life is complicated and let’s face it, marketing is becoming increasingly complicated. My proposed enemy isn’t simplicity per se, but the sin of oversimplification.
This infatuation with simplicity is bad for the world. It encourages binary thinking (Remoaners v Brextremists etc) and favours over-simplified solutions to complex world problems (#MAGA). So here is a new mantra to kill KISS stone dead. I call it KISIS (Keeping It Simple Is Stupid). Not convinced? OK.
Businesses are complicated. Often we try and reduce a business/comms problem to one thing. And I think this might be damaging too. Businesses are complex so therefore business problems are complex. Maybe (Heresy! Heresy!) we actually have four or five problems that need to be fixed with comms. So maybe some of the comms will fix one problem and other comms with fix another. I think this is the heart of Binet and Field’s Brand Response model. We tend to oversimplify when we are planning communications and the world is rarely as simple as we can make it look on 21st century witchcraft (or Keynote as it’s sometimes alternatively called). KISIS.
Audiences are complicated. Most segmentations are hopelessly simplistic and pretty much useless for anything other than making money for those who devise them. How many segmentations have you seen with more than eight segments? Gracious me, even the bloody Horoscopes have 12 – and they’re a load of tosh. 60 million people in Britain: Are you really telling me that they can all be stuffed into one of eight buckets? No, they can’t. We’re complex creatures with multiple competing desires and attitudes, often simultaneously across different parts of a day. I once saw a segmentation for headache pills where I could stick myself in seven-out-of-eight segments. The simplicity in segmentation studies is rarely useful. As a marketer, ask yourself a question and answer it honestly. Does your segmentation cause more problems than it solves? I reckon in most cases it does for both agencies and clients – because of oversimplification. KISIS.
The media landscape is complicated. The IPA’s brilliant paper ‘Know the Value of Media’ highlighted this in 2014. Between 2003 and 2014, there was a 46% increase in the number of TV stations in the UK. The number of radio stations rose by 17% in the same period, the number of consumer magazines by 24% and the number of poster sites by a whopping 217%. Add to this the proliferation of digital platforms and the emergence and ultimate triumph of social media in the same period and you’ll see that the media world has become increasingly complex. The brilliant thing about this is that it gives us multiple ways to reach audiences in different ways when they are in different mindsets. Great! Let’s embrace this complexity and get smart about using it to our advantage – rather than galloping to (over) simplify it for the purposes of making charts look neater. KISIS.
Creativity is complicated. “Keep it Simple, Stupid” also leads to one of the ugliest phenomenon in modern communications – the matching luggage problem. Obviously consumers are far too stupid to deal with two sets of pictures or two creative executional techniques aren’t they? I mean, they’ll follow multi-level narratives in shows like Game of Thrones but their tiny brains will melt if the poster doesn’t have a massive picture of the telly advert on it. Grrrrrrrr. I’d hazard a guess that most consumers don’t give a stuff. Your posters can be different from your telly in the same way that you can wear a hoodie one day and a suit the next without your family suddenly believing you’ve developed acute schizophrenia. They are different mediums, so it’s OK to use them differently. KISIS.
I’m all for being clear, concise and cogent. I’m a big fan of understanding the key challenges and the key message(s) we want to get across. But I’m not a fan of simplification for convenience, or simplifications, sake.
Let’s keep it more complicated. In a lot of cases it’s the more useful thing to do. I think most consumers are far smarter than most clients or agencies give them credit for. After all as the man himself, David Ogilvy, said: “The consumer isn’t a moron, she’s your wife.”