I was recently asked eight good questions for an upcoming advertising and innovation conference. I shared the first four in a previous post covering upcoming trends, creating value, organizational dynamics and future sources of revenue. Here are the second four questions and some thoughts regarding agency differentiation, leadership, winning and anticipating the future. Note that the first and last answers, due to the questions, are somewhat specific to Mullen.
What makes your agency different? Do you have unique strengths or ways of creating value for clients that are difficult for competitors to duplicate? How do you capitalize on those differences?
Ask any new business consultant and most clients who’ve been through a pitch process and they’ll tell you that most agencies appear more similar than distinct. They all claim uniqueness but then present capabilities and demonstrate thinking that is pretty cookie cutter. We believe that if something differentiates us (talking about Mullen) it’s culture. In our case that would be collective entrepreneurialism and unbound thinking that gets delivered via a hyper-bundled model that we believe is essential to building a client’s business.
Back up a few years and our industry decoupled all of its capabilities believing that clients wanted to retain numerous agencies, each allegedly offering best of breed capabilities.They wanted a brand agency, digital agency, media agency, social agency. Well guess what? Today you can’t have best of breed without brand teams that combine all the essential capabilities working together. Everything is connected to everything else. We never followed that trend, instead preferring integrated brand teams that brought all the skills in the room simultaneously. Today many clients are coming back to the realization that this model works better than fragmentation. Even Forrester has identified that all those separate agencies aren’t working for brands. It’s easy for us to position this as a strength when it has always been how we work.
How does any agency win in an intensely competitive environment? Given such competition, how do you develop strategies for growth regarding clients, brands, markets and services?
By being better than the competition is the obvious answer. But since best is in the eyes of the buyer it’s impossible to even know what that means. I like to think you win by selecting and focusing on brands that best align with your vision. In our case we want to work with brands that are culturally relevant and that want the same kind of work – creative, digital social, experimental – that we aspire to create. It’s also easier to win if you don’t have to fake it.
Having been in this business a long time, I’ve made lots of mistakes. One of the biggest was taking on clients because of their size or budget. I won’t name names but in too many cases it perpetuated doing work that didn’t really support our long-term aspirations. And we produced stuff that didn’t help our reputation or our ability to attract talent.
As far as strategy goes, then, you have to focus on the circle above. To win takes talent. Talent only comes if there are opportunities for great work. Opportunities come from clients. Attracting them calls for visibility and evidence of what you can do. That only results from work itself. Which, of course, requires talent. This is the circle of momentum. It needs jolts of energy at all five key points. Our strategy is to focus on things like culture, environment (space), briefs (let’s identify problems to solve not just messages to craft) and the kind of teams that can solve those problems. Get that right and the circle spins.
The once common trait of leaders was followers. What do you look for in leaders today? How do you develop a leadership team? What do you see in those who do a good job inspiring others?
It’s pretty easy to be a boss. You simple tell people what to do and if necessary show them how. It’s a lot harder to be a leader. Leaders somehow inspire people to be greater than they themselves even imagined was possible. That means encouraging experimentation, inspiring confidence rather than doubt, and creating the conditions that reinforce both. Culture is essential. Space helps. But once you have that, nothing matters more than casting. Hire the right people, assemble a compatible team and get out of the way so people can do their jobs.
We all know the bosses. They meddle and second guess. They induce fear instead of confidence. They take credit when things go well but issue blame when it doesn’t.
Leaders on the other hand do a great job of spotting talent, pointing them in the right direction, and giving them all the support they need to succeed.
What’s your view of Mullen five years from now? How different will you be?
This is too easy a question to ask. Perhaps people actually think there’s an answer from which they can glean an insight that might insure their own surivival or even success. But only a fool would predict that far out. Look what’s happened in our own and related industries. Cliff Freeman gone. Newspapers gone. Magazines gone. Blockbuster almost gone. Five years from now we could be an advertising agency, a content company, a consulting company, or even a software company. I wouldn’t dare to predict with any certainty. But I do know four things.
Creativity will still be our core business.
Talent will be our most valuable asset.
Our culture of collective entrepreneurialism, and unbound thinking (even if we change that word) will have enabled us to be there.
I’ll be long gone.
Got better answers? Different ones? As always, feel free to share.