Category Archives: consulting


Is your business run by a monkey?

The Chimp Paradox


Do you find that you waste a lot of time and effort on initiatives that aren’t strictly “on strategy” or don’t produce results that are on your list of KPIs?  These days no business can afford inefficiency, and this kind of wastage is one of the worst, but as pressure mounts in the boardroom to perform in increasingly tougher markets it seems to be happening more and more.  Could it be the “Chimp inside”?

As my regular readers will know, I often compare aspects of sport and sportspeople with people and practices in business.  I have also, in the past spoken both here and in my seminars, on how primal instincts influence purchase decisions.  Now the two topics have come together in a book by the sports psychologist Steve Peters called “The Chimp Paradox”.

Steve is the man attributed with the success of the British cycling team, but has a string of other high profile successes to his name.  His theory, very quickly explained, is that our primal instincts of fight or flight cause us to make advance judgements of our likelihood of success in any given challenge which, even though our rational side may be conditioned to rise to the challenge anyway, will always take the edge off our performance.  Somewhere in the back of your mind when you line up on the starting blocks alongside Usein Bolt, something in the back of your mind will tell you don’t have a payer!  That little voice is your Chimp.

The idea that I have explored in the past relative to purchasing decisions is that our primal instincts pre-condition us to buy the stuff we love.  We try to be all grown-up of course, but that little voice is always telling us “You know you want it” so we take the plunge and then try to rationalise the decision with a load of argument and spreadsheets that confirm we made an entirely emotionless, practical decision.  Forget it, you didn’t.

What Steve Peters does is help athletes train their chimp.  He admits that he can’t take it’s influence out of your personal struggle entirely, but he says his success has come from showing sportspeople how to manage their chimp.  We can all do this, some of us, admittedly, better than others and once we do, the chimp’s influence can be diminished and performance increases, but the tougher the challenge, the more likely you are to revert to chimp mode and its my belief that this is what we are witnessing in many of our boardrooms today.

You have to accept that there is another influence going on here too.  After all, some people are just better at handling pressure than others so their “chimp threshold” is higher, but it seems likely that these factors are tightly bound together.  I’ve seen and heard of many businesses, large and small, whose approach to business has been swinging around all over the place.  Managers have been issued with instructions to initiate unplanned activity or initiatives, or change priorities in ways that appear to have no bearing on the original strategy, not always a bad thing in the appropriate context, but all too often they prove to be a waste of time, money and effort.

This kind of behaviour is the product of poorly managed chimps responding to immediate issues.  For example, a CEO who is driven primarily by sales targets can lose sight of the fact that maybe the sales targets should change or the KPIs switched to something else rather than change the marketing strategy.

Chimps gain greatest influence and do most mischief in organistions with a short-term focus.  The time scales of those businesses that haven’t yet recognised that tactically-driven businesses almost always fail, create acute pressure on senior managers to “appear to be doing something” when sales slip.  I’m not saying that they should just kick-back and let the slide continue, but short-termists rarely take their time to study the big picture and often the actions needed to reverse a short-term decline will counter vital actions within the longer-term strategy.  Short-termists hand control over to the chimp.  If they were good enough at handling pressure to be able to take a step back and view the long-term consequences of their current performance they would be less likely to damage the business that investors actually invested in.

Knee-jerk management is never a good thing, but as pressure mounts it becomes increasingly difficult to manage the chimp.  The paradox is, that its when pressure is at its highest its the time you least need a monkey in the driving seat!


Are you running a business or pursuing a hobby?

I realise that TV shows like Mary Queen of Shops, Country House Rescue and my favourite (if only because I could watch Alex Polizzi doing anything all day)  The Hotel Inspector, despite being formulaic and often contrived are the current entertainment of choice, but what I’m really waiting for is a series of “the ones that got away”.

I’m just itching to see the cases that sent the celeb consultants screaming out of the door, if only because I need the reassurance of knowing for sure it’s not just me who occasionally encounters a hopeless case that simply won’t be helped, or for which there is just no hope.

I’m currently going through that process of mental double-checking every option explored or unexplored that I guess every business consultant goes through before declaring a “patient” DOA.  My nemesis has proved to be a small advertising agency with a £1.5million turnover and accumulating losses that came to me at the beginning of the year.

I believe there is a solution to every business problem and the biggest obstacle to success, as in this case, is usually prejudice, laziness or obstinacy of top management, who despite consistent failure, insist on perpetuating the same model or set of practices.  Who was it who said “Insanity is repeating the same thing and expecting a different outcome”? What is really frustrating about this case is that the solution was pretty obvious.

The people at this agency are getting on in years and looking for an exit that they quickly discovered didn’t exist.  Their stated losses were modest enough, but when I took a closer look I discovered that the three partners, who were independently wealthy, weren’t paying themselves a salary, which made the real picture rather more of a nightmare.  Strangely, this isn’t the first time I have come across a business where owners were not paying themselves and been forced to point out that they were not a business (which makes money), but a hobby (which burns it)

Working as I often do with marketing services firms I always start with the perspective that whatever discipline they may lead with, a marketing services firm is a consultancy.  A position which carries with it two clear responsibilities.  The first is that you must know more about your subject than your clients do.  This may sound obvious, but I often find client/agency relationships that are a bit like the blind leading the blind.  Assuming you qualify on the first point you should be advising your client not taking instruction, otherwise there is no reason for your existence.

Explanations for the failure of this business were turning up under every stone I turned:

  • The principal of this business told me with pride that he had never in his life stepped foot in any other advertising agency and didn’t know what they did or how they worked.
  • In fact they had never conducted a competitive review and were oblivious to who their competitors were or what they were offering.
  • Neither had they undertaken a client review.
  • None of the employees had worked in other marketing services firms either, so their “training” had all been at the hands of their agency principal.  Consequently their perspective was as narrow as the business.
  • In an era where integrated marketing is accepted as essential this agency operated in a very narrow field indeed.  All they offered was local press advertising!  Account handlers positively resisted the idea of offering additional comms, probably because they didn’t know anything about them.
  • The business operated on the commission model where, as an NPA recognised agency (remember those?) they received a 15% commission payment from publishers, which they used to pay for the design and artwork they provided.  I don’t know of another agency that still operates this system, simply because it doesn’t work.  For one thing any agency, regardless of “recognition” gets 15% discount from publishers these days and for another, 15% of the space cost is rarely enough to cover the cost of design and production when the majority of the space you are dealing with is in local newspapers.
  • They “sold” advertising space rather than advised on media strategy and account handlers were paid on commission, just like a media sales rep.  They also did pretty much what their clients asked if it meant selling some space.
  • Senior management had no contact with clients and I was refused access to them because the account handlers wouldn’t allow it!!!  Work that one out!
  • Their in-house management system, including job-bag management and invoicing was all done BY HAND!  Yes, you read that right.  What’s more, they were adamant that this was better than a computerised system.  I haven’t seen that much paper since Wiggins Teape was a client of mine!

The list goes on, but you get the idea.  However, without giving too much away, after speaking to local businesses, business networks, competitors, local media and other marketing services providers, I identified an opportunity for my client to create a model that catered for small businesses and even outlined a plan for growing the business nationally.  This was obviously going to take the founders out of their comfort zone, but they weren’t planning on being around for long, so that was hardly the point.  My job was to make their business attractive to potential investors.

I wasn’t entirely surprised though, when the owners decided not to adopt my strategy.  It had become clear to me early on that they weren’t removing themselves from the situation.  Comments like “But we like the business as it is” and “What we really want is someone to come in with a few new clients” were commonplace, despite me pointing out that the business was losing significant sums mainly because there aren’t any clients left for whom the agency’s offer was relevent.

So, this is one for the “ones that got away” file.  A fruitless exercise, but maybe not a waste of my time because its always good to have an insight into markets and in this case I have awoken to an opportunity that some other small agency might make work.  It also reinforces my belief that businesses fail, largely because they deserve to and that a great many small businesses should start by deciding whether they are running a business or pursuing a hobby.

Blue may be the new green, but does it suit your business?

So, the debate is pretty well done and dusted – the Green movement is dead. A victim of the same monarchical culture that has buried so many other great ideas and business over the years.  Adam Werbach pointed all this out to us in his speech “Eulogy for the Green Movement” at the Commonwealth Institute in San Francisco way back in 2004.  The mistake he made then was not to offer an alternative and as a result he was vilified by old Greenies, the press and a bunch of other people with no imagination or brains to work it out for themselves.  As he said, people don’t like being called “dead”!  So, he returned to the same venue in 2009 with the missing pieces, which he has called “The Birth of Blue“. Yes, without a doubt, Blue is the new Green, so start adapting your wardrobe.

In fact, Blue isn’t anything new.  Just as the demise of Green followed the familiar path beaten by Communism, a few religions and other movements that relied on compliance under threat rather than a voluntary embrace.  Adam isn’t alone in what has done, but where he scores the bonus is in introducing an imaginative and practical solution, in this case, by adapting a proven approach to a different problem.  I say proven with the certainly of first-hand knowledge, because along with all the other initiatives, cultures and institutions that have successfully adopted this kind of strategy, I have been following it for years with my programme of brand transformation that I call Brand Discovery.

History couldn’t possibly give us more conclusive proof that a culture based on strict rules will fail, yet its not surprising that governments worldwide have adopted a heavy-handed approach to getting us all in line behind the sustainability thing.  When you throw old ladies in jail for putting paper in her rubbish, or stick tracking devices and chips in wheely-bins you really can’t expect anything, but resistance from folks.  The same applies to any community, brand or organisation.  If you make a community welcoming, comfortable and rewarding enough people will want to be a part of it.  Conversely, if you want to drive people away from a place you make it threatening and unpleasant.  Maybe if we gave less thought to prisoner’s rights and conditions incarceration might represent more of a disincentive to criminals?  However, I digress.

Green failed because it didn’t welcome people to its community and brands fail for the same reason.  What constitutes “welcoming” is another discussion and will vary from one brand or community to another, but what I want to do now is focus on the process involved. Its simple really.  You firstly need to lay out all the facts and associated issues in a clear and unbiased way (something that governments just don’t seem capable of).  You then fuel debate and discussion and LISTEN (something that few organisations of any kind find natural). People will work out their own relationships with the problem or issue at hand and if you really are listening, you’ll discover that they are writing your strategy for you.

Sustainability, affects us all.  It influences communication, travel, jobs, in fact pretty well everything in everybody’s life.  As our schoolkids are learing (and these future customers are way ahead of us on this see Graeme Codrington’s Hanna’s Rules) nobody can avoid it, so its really just a matter of helping people understand how it affects them individually.  Then you can start to offer them suggestions of things that they can do to help, if not themselves, their kids, avoid a future that’s far less inviting than that which we have today.

Brand Discovery encourages brand stakeholders to nominate things that they can each do to ensure that they are contributing to a bigger shared objective – the delivery of a brand promise.  Blue takes the same approach by asking people to nominate a DOT – Do One Thing – that will bring them closer to living a sustainable life.  What Blue also realises is that entire national populations are too large to work with successfully, so it relies on dividing nations into smaller work-groups.  They, cleverly chose businesses … large ones.  Their first candidate was Wal-mart, a community of almost two-million employees, not to mention partners and suppliers (I’ve visited countries with smaller populations!) where the approach has proven to be a great success.  More including Morrisons and Sainsbury’s in the UK are following their lead.

The issue isn’t going to disappear by itself and the emerging generations of customers and consumers place sustainable living far higher on their list of priorities than we or our forbears have so its not difficult to see the attraction for a corporation of engaging in sustainability.  In fact, businesses that don’t embrace the cause are going to suffer big-time in the future.

However, if you think it’s just a case of flying a sustainability flag outside your corporate HQ you are wrong.  Apart from their understanding of the importance of sustainability, emerging consumers have inherited a realisation from our generation and they just mistrust pretty well anything that the corporate world tells them, so you are seriously going to have to walk the talk.  What we are talking about here represents a significant change for most organisations.  You are going to need a strategy and there are few organisations around with the perspective and in-house resources to tackle this alone, but before you even find your partner to help you with this you need to understand that blue really is your colour and be ready to trust in your chosen Gok Wan.

In the coming months I will be working on this with my clients, testing out, ideas, introducing initiatives and all the time doing all I can to live sustainably.  Next week I’m off to Marketing Week Live in London and, as I try always to do, I’ll be minimising my carbon footprint by travelling by train.  I’ll be tweeting as I go and hopefully producing a bit of audio on or from the show.  Among the questions I’ll be asking of the people I meet there will be how their organisations are rising to this challenge.  So follow me on Twitter @thefulltweet and make your own contribution.

The things your mother doesn’t tell you

There are a suprising number of quite sizeable businesses out there that, when they are under-performing call in a consultant to tell them that its anybody’s fault but theirs.  I’ve always told potential clients “don’t call me if all you want to hear is how great you are”.  For one thing life ain’t like that and for another that isn’t my job, go ask your Mother!

I’m quite clear about my business role.  I’ll introduce you to the good and bad in your business, help you work out what you need to do to fix the bad and make the good even better. If you don’t want to put the work in, I’ll settle, with a little frustration (because I hate to see anything that could be fixed, not working) for watching your business go down with all hands, but if you are up for the challenge I’ll be there with you every step of the way as you put your plan into action.

The business environment is highly geared.  If you are not focused on being the best in your class, history leaves us in no doubt that you are on a short road to nowhere.  Sadly I’ve encountered two businesses in the last couple of weeks who think they can beat the odds.  Of course, they won’t.

The first was a sports equipment challenger brand with an inflated opinion of itself and the second a digital content company that behaved like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis – what they needed to do to fix their problem was against their religion.

The sports company was like a lot of mid-sized businesses stuck in their original, small business mindset.  I organised a “meet the end-user day” where sporty people tested their products, wrote reviews and entered them in a prize draw.  The feedback was clear.  The products were far from cutting edge, weren’t exciting, weren’t what customers really wanted (although at the right price they might consider some of them) and the prices were too high.  The company’s principals decided the customers didn’t know what they were talking about.  At the price points that customers were talking about the business would operate at a loss.  My conclusion: this isn’t a business, it’s a hobby!

The content company was one of a group of businesses that had been acquired over time by a larger group.  They are good at what they do, but are finding themselves in the same position as a lot of other marketing services businesses in recent years – doing a lot of one-off jobs on low margins for medium-sized businesses and not making a lot of money out of it.  Although for many marketing services firms much can be achieved by the introduction of a decent management information system, what this lot need is to get out of the commodity-supplier rut, which, for a marketing services firm, means putting their offer in a  broader context, leading with and owning their clients’ strategy.  These days, positioning your marketing services business as a production facility is like putting your own head in the noose.  The problem for this business was that other businesses in the group owned the strategic mantle and strategy was seen as “out of bounds”.  A case of woolly thinking, maybe both at group and business unit level, which until that was sorted out was going to continue to condemn them to the treadmill – a lot of hard work for little return.

SMEs that I encounter often don’t deserve to be anything more.  The confusion between hobby and business mind-set is a common malaise, but, more fundamentally, the people running these businesses frequently aren’t being honest with themselves.  A consultant like me isn’t in the business of being destructive, but we are there to  deliver home truths.  If you can’t take it on the chin then perhaps you shouldn’t be in business.  The important thing though is for consultants to always present the reality with a clear and practical solution to the problems it represents.  If the solution is still rejected, we sadly have to accept that these organisations are the runts in Britain’s new business litter.

Bridging the gap between insights and action

A while ago I sat through a credentials presentation by the MD of one of the leading international data management consultancies.  At one point in the process a slide came up and the presenter went into a series of claims saying that they had shown so-and-so organisation how to save twenty million pounds and another client how to save thirty million etc.  Now, I’ve been in these situations before and even if I hadn’t, I would have been sensitive to the weasel, so I asked the obvious question.  “So, you showed them how to save all this money, what did they actually save?”  – Stunned silence.

It quickly became clear that the consultancy didn’t know how much some of the organisations in question had saved, or even if they had saved anything at all, because their proposals often weren’t acted upon.  In other cases the saving was minimal or nothing.  This isn’t unusual of course.  The ideas that the consultancy had offered were probably quite sound, but the problem that all these people have is that their clients are rarely capable of introducing the changes to processes or programmes that the data identifies as necessary and they themselves are not equipped to help beyond the point, at best, of identifying the kind of action required.

Its a few years ago that Jim Taylor in his book Space Race was lamenting the failure of advertising agencies to respond to their clients’ demands  for integrated solutions, but, sadly, things haven’t improved much.  The management consultancies as Jim prophesied, have taken the lead and the ad-agencies have just watched them disappear in a cloud of dust over the marketing horizon.  This is perhaps understandable when you consider that advertising agencies have for decades sat at the head of their clients’ marketing support roster, but things move on and today the traditional advertising role is revealed for what it is – just a very small corner of the bigger picture.  Sure, its a tough pill to swallow when you are used to being king of the hill, but I find it disappointing that even today the majority of advertising people I come across continue to describe what they do as “integrated marketing” which only illustrates how far they are away from understanding the wider landscape or the role they could play in it.  In fact, there are significant new opportunities for advertising agencies in the world of new model marketing that, if they just gave up trying to persuade us that they are still running the show, they could adjust to and solve the problem of their dwindling revenues.  I know, I’ve introduced a few agencies to these new opportunities and helped them add tens of millions of dollars in incremental billings as a result.

What clients need is an end-to-end seamless process for delivering truly integrated strategies and if the marketing services sector doesn’t come up with a model that works clients have no other option, but to take control, assemble narrowly focused marketing services specialists into project teams and make them work to eye-wateringly constrictive briefs.  I’ve helped a few clients of mine put teams like these together.  They are not for everybody, but they work well once you have all the resources.

The biggest impediment to achieving the single-source, end-to-end solution is culture.  At one end of the process sit the data nerds whose lives are written in binary code.  At the other are the creative advertising folks.  They don’t make good neighbours at the best of times, but trying to get them to agree on a single business model is a little like introducing George Dubya to a MENSA convention.  The reason that the management consultancies, as Jim Taylor predicted, are doing so well out of this, is that they sit with their structures and practices perspective, somewhere in the middle.  They aren’t great at data or creative, but manage a sort of average attempt at a solution that’s acceptable, in a businesslike sort of way, to a lot of half-arsed client organisations.

It seems to me that the people to watch right now, even though they probably have further to travel than any of the other players, are the aformentioned data folks.  Sapient and Experian appear to be leading the field, but are taking different routes to the same conclusion.  Experian, or rather those very smart folks at Clarity Blue, who they acquired a couple of years back, seem to be building out from their established base in the direction of the objective, adding new skills and resources that understandably, because of their parentage, appear rather more functional that creative as yet.  Meanwhile Sapient dropped an advance party by helicopter, right at the objective, by acquiring one of my current favourite advertising agency networks, Nitro last year and are now have the task of working backwards to set up a supply line.  They probab;ly stand an equal chance of creating the necessary end-to-end process, but I’ve always seen the “big idea” as a vital component in any marketing strategy so my money is on Sapient’s Nito approach being first to deliver the goods.  Watch this space!

Deconstructing bollocks

A lot of years ago (I have to be sensitive here and not say how many, for fear of offending others mentioned in this story) a young goateed hot-shot was introduced to me as the new Deputy MD of McCormick Intermarco-Farner (Now Publicis) where I was working at the time.  Although we had very little direct contact (and I hate to further inflate his ego), John Ward made an impression on me that has lasted to this day.

At that time I was strugging to find my fit in the wonderful world of advertising agencies.  Sure, I was doing OK, but I lived with the constant nagging feeling that I saw things differently to everybody else.  It wasn’t until John turned up with his irreverence for institutional industry practices and viewpoints that I realised that different is good.

In fact, seeing things differently has become my greatest asset and one of the facets of my professional character that I value most is my natural instinct for de-mystifying the crap that a lot of people in this business seem to worship.  Over my years in the business I have developed a hatred of intellectual clutter.  We are in the communications business. Communications drive society and are what is supposed to elevate mankind above pond-life.  The thing about communications is, the more complicated you make them the less they work.  It is this belief that fuels my disdain for “experts” who construct a fug of mystique around their subject, I assume, in the paranoid conviction that if anybody actually gets to understand their stuff they’ll be out of a job.

From time-to-time I have tried different ways of describing, what I see as my mission to relieve the world (of marketing at least) of intellectual crap.  Then, a couple of weeks ago I happened upon the profile on LinkedIn of an author who in the “specialities” section had entered “Deconstructor of bollocks”!  Perfect!

Yes, the paths of John Ward, author and wit and I have very happily converged again.  Is this fate’ s hand?  I’m not sure, but I have since become an avid reader of John’s daily, tell-it-like-it-is missives.  In fact, today has been particularly trying and were it not for John’s hilarious piece on farting and the chuckle I had over his F11 story this morning I may well have pressed F11 myself (well, actually, it would be more my style to press someone else’s F11).  Don’t get the wrong idea about this bloke.  His expose of Gordon Brown’s drug dependence and the revelation that our PM’s poor eyesight isn’t wholly attributable to the fact that he’s a total wanker, sit alongside a terrific insight into what’s really happening to the relief effort in Haiti, to create a rarely balanced and infinitely sensible view of life.  I wish I had come up with “Deconstructing bollocks”, but more power to your elbow John and more visitors to your “The Slog” and “Not Born Yesterday” communities.

The measure of a marketer.

I have absolutely no doubt of two things.  Firstly that “marketing” means leveraging the resources of an organisation to satisfy the needs of end users and, secondly, that as marketers it is our fundamental responsibility to go places and do things that nobody had gone to or done before. These are the two basic truths upon which I base my work.  I’m happy to debate this with you, but I will win! However, I have come across a few illustrations recently of  woolly, cop-out thinking by marketers around the world that makes me fear for our future.

Firstly I became involved a few weeks ago in a discussion on LinkedIn, that might become its biggest yet, which started with a member asking if anybody was interested in setting up a “consultants’ group”.  The responses that followed were horrendous and I quickly came to the realisation that the relationships between a lot of consultants and their clients must be a bit like the blind leading the blind.  I was simply staggered by the narrow thinking of many of those consultants who contributed.

Then came the response on to a report on the BBC interview last week with RyanAir’s Michael O’Leary.  SimpiFlying is a knowledgeable and highly respected blog that focuses on marketing within the airline sector, so you would expect that the majority visitors would be airline marketers.  That being the case, many of the contributions served only to underline O’Leary’s premise that airline managers are a bunch of sad, uninspired old gits (My words, his sentiment).  I’ve never been a particular supporter of O’Leary, but that might change after this interview.  I have, however, always admired his business and brand development nous, and I’m delighted to hear that his inspiration was Southwest Airlines in the US who are a case study that I use in many of my seminars and workshops.  O’Learly clearly understands branding far better than most of the contributors to this discussion.

The final nail in the marketer’s coffin was a recent campaign by Naked in Australia, an agency that I have always thought was quite OK, for their mens’ fashion client Witchery.  Appropriately, this was drawn to my attention by Adam Broitman on under the heading “Interactive’s Most Offensive Campaigns”, but the offense I took wasn’t that it was rude or in bad taste, but the fact that the production of such utter dross was sure to have incurred some level of carbon footprint.  Naked seem to have totally forgotten that for a viral campaign to work at all the material that’s seeded has to be interesting enough for someone to care enough to forward it.  I am used to clients thinking that a viral campaign is a solution in itself and forgetting, like any other medium, that its only as good as the content, but for any marketing specialist, let alone an agency of this standing to completely miss the point like this is unforgivable.  I fought to stay awake through the movie, only because I wanted to see why it was supposed to be so offensive.

As I said in my opening, we marketers are supposed to be taking our organisations or those of our clients, to places and getting them to do things that they would never dream of.  That’s our primary responsibility and when times are tough, as they are now and we all really need to be brave, its our job to save them from their natural tendency to dig a pit and wait for the flak to pass.  Our clients and colleagues should be beating a path to our door just to recharge at our power-point of creativity, innovation and entrepreurialism.  If they aren’t its our fault not theirs.  It means we are just too boring and that’s something a marketer should never be.

Thanks to Michael O’Leary for calling time on the old farts of aviation and talking up his ambition to pay us for travelling with him rather than the other way around and shame on those like the people who, whether RyanAir is their cup of tea or not as a carrier, aren’t smart enough marketers to recognise that this is how you build a brand (and the world’s biggest carrier).