Category Archives: management

Optimism, the power of positive thought and the future of your business

I’m an optimist.  I recognised this many years ago and I’ve been reminded of the fact daily ever since.  I look around me, see and hear the responses others have to situations that we are all facing and its obvious that my responses are different.  I don’t know why this should be and and I’m not about to start trying to understand it, but what I do know is that it impacts in many ways on my life and never more so than right now.

With the economies of just about every country now in turmoil every business, anywhere in the world is having to make significant changes.  If you have followed my work for any length of time, you’ll have probably picked up that I like change.  Change is good, same is bad.  You are only as good as your NEXT big idea.  I can’t stand companies who strike it lucky and then settle into the rut of replicating what they did time and time again to milk it for all its worth.  I don’t like them because there is an inevitable consequence to this approach – failure.  The world moves on, customer needs change, attitudes swing, everything is in a state of flux.  It is a very lucky business that has a product that will be equally successful through time with no change at all and right now I can’t even think of one.

I’ve been inside more companies over the years than I could even list and it has become clear to me that successful companies all have a spirit of optimism.  Talk to their employees and their chatter is about HOW they are going to achieve things not WHETHER they can achieve them and that’s simply because they don’t consider for one minute that they won’t get there.  And why should they?  Anything is achievable.  We are our own limitations.

I have never been far away from sports of one kind or another and the great sporting enlightenment of the last few decades has been sports psychology.  At an elite level most athletes have equal capabilities.  What separates them is most often belief in their ability to succeed.  That’s where visualisation plays its part.  Most athletes these days will sit and visualise their success, sometimes for hours.  This conditions their brain so that it doesn’t consider failure as an option and that in turn enables them to perform to their full potential.  It works, but if you don’t believe me consider this.  Within twelve months of Roger Banister achieving the one-minute mile, 37 other runners did the same thing.  What caused this surge of performance after years of believing it was impossible?  The belief that it could be done!  I’ve seen sportspeople who habitually performed below their skill level, transformed.  What’s more, once they realise it’s working it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle – confidence increases, performance increases, success increases, confidence increases etc…   It also works with sportspeople who are not in the elite group, even weekend warriors.

Anyway, back to business and why its clear to me which companies are going to make the transition that will earn them a place in the new world market.

I hear organisations all over the world acknowledging that they have to change to survive, but very few actually end up making the changes that are necessary.  The reason for this is a combination of comfort with the status quo and fear of failure.  Firstly, these organisations don’t have the change culture that I mentioned earlier (You are only as good as your NEXT big idea) so it’s not their habit to constantly look for improvements or changes. Secondly, they are, both individually as employees and on a corporate level terrified of doing something that will go wrong.

This fear is based on the failure to recognise that we are all capable of succeeding at anything.  Anything is possible it’s just a matter of how badly you want it.  If one company can innovate then you can.  It’s just a matter of self-belief.  My advice is, instead of focusing on the potential for failure, turn your attention to the risk of failing to exploit an opportunity, because that’s all that matters.

Attitude change like this has to start at the top.  If you are a manager who accepts failure as inevitable or who doesn’t assume success, you need to pay a visit to a motivator or business psychologist, or you could quit of course if you think you’ll never make the change! (think about that comment, it’s deep)  If you choose to re-focus your mind your next step has to be to eliminate all the doubters in your organisation.  You can do this either by firing or re-training them.  The latter is the best option of course, but you are going to have to focus a great deal of attention on internal marketing to pull it off.

Once you have introduced your organisation to positive thinking you’ll be surprised what you can achieve.  Someone asked one of my contractors this week how sure they were that they would deliver a particular task.  “Absolutely” was the unhesitating reply, but the questioner wasn’t convinced.  “How can you be so certain?” came the response, to which my contractor replied “Anything can be done, its just a matter of how much time or money or effort you put behind it”.  That task would never have been attempted until we came on the scene, but they’ll do it now and it will work and it will improve their business performance and I know that because my contractor recognises that anything is achievable.  What’s more, like the cycle of positive thought I referred to earlier, the achievement will fuel further, bigger achievements for the company concerned.

It definitely pays to be an optimist.


Vuvuzela, diversity and what it could mean to your business

I have heard a lot of bellowing this week about the vuvuzela and while I can’t help wondering if people would have noticed it at all if the England team were performing better, these objections do carry a whiff of xenophobia.  These instruments originated as the horns of wild animals and their tin successors have been a feature of South African celebration for years before the mass produced plastic version we have seen (and heard) this week came on the scene. Why can’t folks just celebrate the richness of diverse cultures?  Until we do, I can’t help thinking that we may be missing out on a few business opportunities.

The world is shrinking.  The Internet, transport and popular media have seen to that and if any of us are going to be able to afford to fly anywhere in the coming years, it is ultimately destined to become one big melting pot.  For years I have been building project teams, virtual and real, comprising all kinds of people with all kinds of insights and attitudes from all around the world.  There’s no doubt about it that Western experts have contributed disproportionately to the work I have done in the Middle East and the developing markets of Central and Eastern Europe, but that doesn’t mean the traffic has been all one-way.  I’ve found the contributions of locals to be invaluable.  In countries where budgets are tight and social conditions are such that people habitually fix rather than replace things I discovered unmatched determination to deliver complex solutions with the most basic materials and equipment and people who will learn new technical skills on-the-job, sitting up all night with text books when students in the UK would be falling in and out of pubs.

I’ve also learned more about sustainability that I thought possible from people like my Central European wife who was brought up in an education and social system that lived in far-closer harmony with the land that few Westerners of my generation have.  I have a son of thirty, who, brought up entirely in the West, lives in a disposable world, and a daughter of eight, most of whose life has been spent in Prague and to me the contrasts are stark.  My daughter takes my son walking in the forest, explains the medicinal properties of wild flowers and shows him where the wild edible mushrooms, strawberries and garlic hide, just like her mother and grandmother.  She’s keen to teach him to ski too, the expensive Western pastime that is cheap and accessible to Central Europeans and at which she’s been expert since she was three years old.  In return, he’s introduced her to all the cool things on the internet and contributed greatly to her fearlessness of technology.  Oh, and he’s taught her a few rude words that have horrified her teachers and fascinated the chums in her school English class in Prague (Did you know there are no really rude words in the Czech language)!  So much for cultural exchange!

Together they have achieved a synergy and a balance that has benefited them both.  Businesses in these developing markets have been in no position to resist the infiltration of skills and concepts and they have undoubtedly all benefitted as a result.  I can’t help wondering if a few of the Western organisations I have come across over the years wouldn’t be much better off now had they chosen to embrace and learn from other cultures rather than look for opportunities to oppress them or belittle their differences.

I was talking to a recruiter last week who told me that because there are so many candidates for jobs these days, hirers are increasingly selecting only their look-alikes for interview.  Now we all know that every business is only as good as its next big idea, that innovation is a product of diversity in every area and at every level of the organisation and that with all the rules of business having dramatically changed in the last few months, innovation is more critical than ever to the survival of any business.  So, as recession lifts and hiring starts again, maybe we are in danger of rebuilding our businesses to a model that excludes the very thing our survival depends on?

So while the South African people are largely welcoming their visitors from around the world and benefitting in no small measure from what the influx is bringing, you might like to give a thought to your own reaction to the vuvuzela.  If your knee-jerk reaction is to jump on the ban the vuvuzela bandwagon you should ask yourself if you take this attitude to work with you and if so whether its working against the success of your business.  It’s not just a matter of embracing other ethnic types and different cultures, but appreciating different perspectives and being open to the alternatives that these can offer you both at work and at home.

Your future is bright young things. So invest in your brand community.

I hate to be repetitive, but for the second time this week I find myself shouting “hear, hear!” to a piece by Graeme Codrington.  This time he’s talking on the subject of employee relations.  In particular the challenge of holding on to the bright young things that represent the future for all of us.  But, while I agree with what Graeme says, I see this from another perspective – the perspective of “brand community”.

Graeme, as usual, is right (don’t you just hate folks who are always right?).  Too few organisations focus on creating an environment where employees feel they really belong – a community.  In this article he talks about the old days of outback mining companies that established towns and provided all the facilities their employees needed to live with their families, because they knew that without this infrastructure they simply wouldn’t have any employees.  He also points to the fact that initiatives like these were early victims of the bean-counters, looking through distorted spectacles for ways of squeezing more profit from a business.

So, what has an outback mining community to do with a modern business?  Well, it’s not as different as you may think because whether they are rock-face workers or the smart graduates that an international business needs to build its future on, when there’s a shortage, there’s a shortage, and belive me, there are definitely not enough bright young things to go around.  If you doubt that, just give a thought to the last time you marvelled at some meaningless procedure a business that you were dealing with insisted on taking you through – smart people don’t waste your time (or theirs) with stuff like this!

Graeme talks about investing in the things that make work a great place to be.  A while back, I visited an organisation whose offices were so much better and more comfortable that the homes where the employees lived, that they socialised there too.  In fact it was sometimes difficult to persuade them to go home at all!  However, it isn’t quite as simple as office bars, sofas and a few pot-plants.  My real interest in this subject comes from my passion for brands and my belief that while, as Graeme says, there’s a cost involved in making yourself the employer of choice for smart people, it doesn’t have to be as big an investment as many might think.  I see this as a part of the marketing function and in most organisations there a budget for this and, if you do it right, it is guaranteed to bring a handsome reward.  What’s more I know that with the technology we have at our fingertips today, you can measure anything and that includes the return you get on investment in your “brand community”, so the proof that this kind of investment pays-back is there.

In fact, one of the founding principles of my Full Effect Marketing is that a small proportion of your total marketing investment re-directed to internal marketing will bring a disproportionately high return.  And, have no doubt, what we are talking about here is “marketing”; specifically building a brand community where all stakeholders (investors, partners, suppliers, customers AND employees) feel a sense of belonging and ownership.  It works like this:  great brand community = happy and dedicated employees = consistency over time because they stick around = improved return on training investment = better decisions = smarter (and more efficient) execution = happy customers = job satisfaction … you get the idea.  Its called “Brandship” and yes, you have individual Brandships with every one of your “stakeholders” (I hate the word “stakeholder” too so let’s just talk about “community”).

The chance of you being a lighthouse organisation in the future (or even being around at all, given the competition we are all going to face) is very much based on the desirability of your “Brand Community”, not just for customers, but for employees.  But there’s another aspect to this.  A brand community isn’t something that’s dictated from the boardroom.  Employees aren’t going to respond to a community that YOU think they should like.  It has to be a place where they genuinely feel “at home”.  A place that they have created.  In fact, the organisation doesn’t even own the brand community.  You just get to be caretaker or janitor.  A powerful brand community is a product of and owned by its members so if you want to create the real thing (and I suggest this should be your objective) you are going to have to engage another Full Effect Marketing idea, which is that all your communications should be two-way, because you are only going to get it right by listening.

Who has come across a large organisation where all the employees get a free pair of Replay jeans?  I have, because we did it at Oskar Mobile in the Czech Republic that not only became the world’s most successful third operator ever, but, against awesome odds, were nominated World’s Best Mobile Operator; success that was driven entirely by their brand community.  This and many other initiatives like it were prompted by employees themselves, who also made a movie themselves about what a great place Oskar was to work.  The movie in turn was distributed to recruiters and shown at conferences and job fairs as well as posted in the Internet and as a result they were getting thousands of unsolicited job applications every week.  The original Saatchi & Saatchi was a community that worked and played together and it was this that drove our international growth.  I remember walking into a recently acquired agency in Helsinki and being bombarded with questions from everyone about the people and happenings in our London Charlotte Street offices.  Our London softball team had shirt with “Official softball team of the biggest advertising agency in the world” printed across the back and people in our offices around the world wore it with pride.

This is what I mean when I talk about Brand Communities and it’s why I created my Brand Discovery programme.  Every day the idea of the central role of “brand” in any business is gaining more credence.  If you aren’t focussing on this already you should be.

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.

Keep it fresh – the recipe for restaurant brand success

I was chatting yesterday with a chap who runs a load of restaurants … and I mean A LOAD!  Among the topics of our conversation were the “good old days” when the sophistocated man-about-my-neck-of-the-woods, out to cut a dash, took his “bird” to a Berni Inn.  In those days of course there were, by today’s standards, limited options for the young stud out to impress  – Wimpy, Berni Inns, the local pub where you might get that French delicacy “chicken-in-a-basket”, one of the emerging Chinese restaurants, and independents from Joe’s Caf to the more aspirational, Gino or Carlo’s.

By comparison, today’s aspiring roue is spoilt for choice.  Not only has there been a proliferation of independent eateries of all palates and ethnicities, the number of restaurant chains is enough to set plates spinning and because each one is desperate to establish a point-of-difference, today’s eating experience has become as much an entertainment as the date – especially if you have my luck!

I used to frequent Alastair Little’s restaurant in Frith Street, Soho where the man himself once told me that the average restaurant had a life of around three years, after which you had to reinvent yourself.  These days that rule of thumb at least hasn’t changed.  If you watch Gordon Ramsey’s antics on TV, you’ll know that the key to restaurant success is to devise a unique theme and then exploit it to the full.  This lesson has been adopted by all the big chains since TGI Friday’s, who recognised that while a new restaurant format will always add novelty value to an entertaining theme, for the punter, even the most compelling theme is great for two, or maybe three visits.  After that, unless something changes, you’ll find them asking “so what now?”.  If the answer is “nothing” they’ll be beating a path to the next food entertainment experience.  The “novelty effect” may also compensate for a few deficiencies, which gives you a narrow window of opportunity to iron out those niggly operational issues, but “narrow” is the important word here.  Pretty soon, its back to reality.

What we are talking about here is brand development and I love the restaurant business because it offers one of the clearest demonstrations of the concept of “brand community” and “brandships”, which has been my personal cause celebre for many years.

For a restaurateur this isn’t just a case of introducing new things to the menu, although that plays its part, you have to continually tweak other elements too.  Data management comes into play here as you define your segments and start to manage them.  You’ll have customer-segments, day-segments and seasonal demands that will probably all be heading in different directions out from your central theme and the devices you use to manage your community will be as diverse as these segments.  Starbucks discovered early on that day-segments demand different music and its a no-brainer that restaurant day-segments require different food, but that’s not only to accommodate the traditional meal variations, but different customer types – for instance, pensioners and young moms in the morning and groups of youngsters in the evening.

Its also not enough just to make changes, you have to make sure everyone recognises them.  I was in a chain restaurant recently that had a number of USPs and had introduced new items to its list, but none of them were highlighted.  That’s an ommission no operator can afford to make, but the ways in which you publicise development are as many and varied as your segments.  I don’t belive that Face book and Twitter are the panacea that some marketers suggest they are, but we are talking social networking here and while grannies don’t Tweet much, (unless you squeeze them really hard!) if you have a “youth” segment you can use this medium intelligently to drive awareness of the changes and maintain the freshness of your brand.  Press Relations and grass roots events will play their part in heightening awareness of your brand and its freshness, as will viral, personal appearances, demonstrations and good, old-fashioned advertising and PoS, plus, don’t forget your floor staff – dif’rent folks, dif’rent strokes!

Like any brand community a restaurant brand is a constantly evolving thing with opportunities for maximum customer involvement and engagement at every level that no operator can afford to miss.  Who do you think is making the most of their community?

Britain’s unemployed managers – the solution to SMEs’ problems

I’m back in the UK for a while and, inspired by the tales of the many struggling businesses in my local area, I’m trying to do my thing for SMEs .  I say “trying”, because, as my Granny used to say “You can’t help folks who won’t be helped”.

Most “small businesses” are small because they haven’t got what it takes to be big.  The deficiencies come in many forms and span all areas of business from lack of key skills like financial, operational management and marketing, to just being plain crap at what you do.  In a normal buoyant market there may be hope for even the least capable, but as conditions are now, if you aren’t sharp you won’t get to play.  As I have said before, this is a good thing.  Its the process of natural selection and we should come out of this experience, as a business community, smarter and better equipped.  However, I have my concerns.

Its no disgrace for an SME to lack a few key management skills.  If you are small, you are bound to be wanting in one area or another, its just a matter of where your strengths lie and what you do about your weaknesses that determines your destiny – that’s marketing.  My worries are two-fold.  Firstly, the natural instinct of far too many organisations in recent months has prompted an alarming HR trend and secondly, the support system for SMEs in the UK is failing miserably – and I’m not talking about the banks who seem hell-bent on some wild agenda to bring down the UK SME sector.

The HR trend I refer to is for firms to off-load senior people in pursuit of short-term payroll savings.  Its may seem an obvious quick-fix, but as I thought we all knew already, it brings only very short term benefit and beyond that its nothing more than the beginning of the end.   It affects organisations large and small in the same way, but simply because small businesses are less robust the effect it has on them is more often terminal.  Taking away managers (provided they are worthy of the title) from any organisation is like removing the rudder and the end result is invariably crash and burn.

In a similar way, organisations that think they are being smart by taking the Arsenal FC approach to business – hiring young inexperienced players and attempting to turn them into key strikers – are on a hiding to nothing too.  Inexperienced staff suck up key management time, involving them in micro-management that leaves them unavailable to perform their main leadership and innovation role.  It is also a customer satisfaction and operational efficiency nightmare that in times like these you just can’t afford.

To make matters worse, there’s nowhere for a UK SME that is short of management know-how, to go for help.  Years ago, a UK government initiative saw the foundation of an organisation called Business Link.  Basically, this was a joint-venture between the public and private sectors that was supposed to bring management skills to SMEs through a network of local consultancies.  Now, I have to put my hands up here and say that if I had my way they’d all be closed down and I bet nobody would even notice – apart from the exchequer who would immediately have a shed-load of cash to do something useful with.  Without exception, every SME that I have encountered, that has had any dealing with this bunch have nothing but disdain for them.  From what I have seen and experienced over the years they fail absolutely to operate as a network, they have no understanding of the realities of business and their methods are both outmoded and inflexible.  If ever there was a depository for no-hope graduates, with lots of meaningless qualifications and absolutely no grasp of reality, its Business Link – a typical public sector organisation in fact.  Anyway, rant aside, expecting Business Link to lead your SME out of recession is on a par with expecting Gordon Brown to win a personality contest – It ain’t going to happen!

Against this background I have been trying to get local politicians, government departments and business groups to consider ways of addressing some of these problems.  For example, most of the smart senior managers who have been victims of business cut-backs in recent months are still on the dole.  The managers with the very skills and experience that SMEs need right now are being paid (albeit a pitiful amount) to watch daytime TV and most of them are resigned to this reality for the rest of their lives.  That’s a fact supported by today’s unemployment figures and under-lined by a live phone-in on the BBC’s Radio Five Live this morning.    I approached one of the organisations employed by the Department of Work and Pensions to deliver Back to Work programmes for unemployed managers with the idea of devising a programme that would bring the need and the resource together and taking it to the DWP to seek funding.  It was like trying to raise the dead!  Rather than apply their minds to making something happen their every effort went into thinking of reasons why it wouldn’t work.  Just the kind of positive thinking we need to get us out of this mess!

I asked my local Tory candidate to help me get something going with the DWP and JobCentres, but got no reply.  I even offered free advice to a local trading group and received no reply to that either.  I approached the local paper and an independent employment agency with the idea of running a seminar for local managers of SMEs and neither were interested.

My mailing to a sample one-hundred local businesses offering them a free consultation that could get them thinking in the right direction had no takers and my follow-up calls revealed that they had mostly been approached by Business Link who failed them miserably and once bitten were put off the idea of consultants forever.

Its sad that our SMEs – our commercial future – are stuck like rabbits in a car’s headlights, while Theresa May the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary and the Employment Minister Jim Knight, who together have solutions to some of these problems in their gift, bitch about minutia and argue out party politics on national radio.  The inability to run a piss-up in a brewery is endemic in our society and clearly, it goes right to the top!  Maybe we should recruit our next government from the ranks of our unemployed managers?  Now there’s a thought!

Are marketing services failing clients?

I don’t agree with Saatchi’s Kevin Roberts on everything, but there’s a big overlap in our thinking and, hey, differences are what prompts innovation and make the world go round, so that’s good.  Yes?

The thing is that on the fundamentals we are on the same page and its always reassuring to know, when, as we marketers do, you are ploughing the lonely innovation furrow, that someone of Kevin’s gravitas agrees with you, at least in part.  That’s why I was delighted to hear him make three key points in an interview in Singapore recently (he probably made many more) that really resounded with me.

  1. The current economic situation is causing far more radical change than most people still realise and it’s going to go on for a year or two yet.  As a result, business leaders are desperate for ideas, but nervous of change, so the ideas that we take to them have to be bigger, better and more than ever before, grounded in sound commercial thinking.
  2. Marketing services businesses (Kevin focusses on Ad. agencies, I’d put brand consultancies up there too but all the other disciplines are failing their clients too) are generally way behind their clients and end users/consumers when it comes to realising what’s happening and responding to it (which, given that we are paid to be thought-leaders, is pretty damning)
  3. Awards are becoming counter-productive.  They are encouraging agency people to entrench in old-thinking.  It’s almost as though given their failure to deliver in the real world, agencies are retreating to a world of mutual admiration inhabited solely by their peers.

Where maybe I differ from Kevin is that I believe that its our job to lead our clients.  Not just to give them great ideas, but to help them fully exploit them.  This requires bigger thinking.  I am trying to go much further than most agencies, by not only coming up with new creative ideas, but having ideas about how business can change and reshape themselves, communicate internally as well as externally and do new things operationally that will enable them to get more out of the ideas.  And I go further than that even, because, as I just said, business leaders are not only desperate for ideas, but nervous of change too, so its my job as a marketer (and if you are a marketer, its your job too) to help them along the way with implementation.  That’s why I spent months working with buyers at a supermarket group to get them to think differently about their role and what they were buying and why I just devoted weeks to convincing a software organisation to take another look at the environment their otherwise great software creates for users, before they take it to market.

Sure its a lot of work, but that’s the game we are in now.  Be sure about that!