Posted: September 18, 2014
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Does “Made in Czechoslovakia” still hold sway, or should the Czechs start building their own national brand?

A senior Czech government minister recently asked me “What do you think the Czech brand is?”. I’ve developed a reputation over the years for telling it like it is and I didn’t see any reason to deviate, so my reply was that I didn’t think it was defined and that this in itself was a severe obstacle to the development of the nation. You’ll maybe know from my past rants that I find the subject of national branding fascinating, but the question is particularly relevant because, right now, there is a debate going on between Czechs and Slovaks over a proposal to bring back the combined trading brand “Made in Czechoslovakia”.

When the then one nation was liberated in 1989 the Czechs and Slovaks were quick to proclaim their differences and by 1993 they had become two discrete entities. There might be a point to this if either of them had the capability of building a national identity or brand, but twenty-five years after the Communists left town neither nation has achieved the focus required to make much of a mark on the world’s political or commercial map.

Both these countries boast numerous assets. They were always smart people and this is evidently re-emerging in some of the start-ups and innovations I saw during my last visit. However, someone once told me that this nation (as Czechoslovakia was), being at the intersection of so many trading routes, represents the most invaded real estate in Europe and from what I have seen over my past fifteen years of working there, history is repeating itself. This time though the conquering army is one of global corporations and with no recent history of professional politicians and a total absence of really good leadership the country has, once again, rolled over and, with no clear direction, the nation has allowed global corporations to write their own rules. Meanwhile, intimidated by the bravado of high-flying corporate executives, Czech politicians and civil servants have let them get on with it. So, now the corporates call the shots. There is no national identity, no national brand and the Czech people have done what they have always done – just accepted it. The trouble is there’s no future in this. The Czech and Slovak Republics have become Western franchises and as I write this there doesn’t appear to be any alternative on the table.

Surely this is what government is for? I’m not saying that there isn’t general acknowledgement among politicians of the problem. Indeed there are a few government-led initiatives running right now, but they are limited and restricted by the inter-departmental bickering and siloing that has become the hallmark of Czech politics. As result the initiative has been taken (again) by independent commercial organisations and a very interesting accelerator, JIC, in the Czech second city, Brno who are trying to put Czech business (at least) on the map. However, its all a bit paltry, given the size of the problem and it still doesn’t address the greater need for a national brand, which, if solved, would also make their job easier.

In the First Republic era Czechoslovaks probably came the closest they have ever been to being a proud nation. Their products had a good reputation and were exported certainly to the East and to a lesser extent Westwards and the stamp “Made in Czechoslovakia” came to mean something. The nucleus of this current branding debate resides in the belief that this old badge still holds sway in some parts. As far as I can see this is still just speculation, and even if it is true I suspect that the residual value isn’t great, but given that both nations have failed comprehensively to develop their own national brands and don’t appear to be close to actually getting down to replacing it with anything, it seems reasonable to consider reviving the only potential brand asset in the box. The Czechs on balance seem to be up for this, however, it seems there are sufficient amateur politicians on both sides of the border to mount objections and we’re back to the inertia that typifies development (or the lack of it) in this region of Europe.

Personally I think that the Czechs have sufficient assets to establish a clear and potent national brand of their own that will play a significant part both internally and externally in the future growth of the nation. There’s nothing like a strong national brand to get the people pulling in the right direction and once that happens the world is your oyster. It would help the Czechs achieve the consistency required to pull this off if they could keep a political party in power for longer than a few months and stop the incessant internal bickering, self-interest and obstinacy, but the recently appointed government appears to be making the most sense I’ve heard from any Czech government so far. If the remaining politicians and the people in general can demonstrate the maturity to put national interests above their own and let them get on with it, there’s a chance the Czech Republic might be able to move it forward. However, here is still a long way to go and I think its going to take an outside influence(r) to make real ground on this. This is a nation that has watched opportunities pass by with the regularity of a Prague tram for a quarter of a century already, so they will have to be uncharacteristically efficient and determined to pull it off.


Posted: September 15, 2014
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Are agencies forgetting the basics?

When it comes to communication “keep it simple” is probably the first lesson I learned on my first day in an advertising agency. It’s not so contentious, of course, every agency I have come across since seems to take it as golden rule and every marketing person I talk to recites it often enough. So why then don’t agencies practice what they preach?

Most people who know me are aware of the work that I have done over the years helping marketing services firms around the world (not just advertising agencies) stay abreast of the market and grow their business and the first step in every case (just as it is with every client I am engaged by) is to get them to define their promise.

Maybe it’s a symptom of the hard times the industry has suffered or the paradigm shift that has taken place as a result of the advent of digital and the massive increase in the competitiveness of all our clients’ markets. Many agencies have been left behind (which is kind of survival of the fittest, seeing as we are supposed to be the thought leaders around here) and even some of those who have managed to stay in business have shown their desperation to maintain revenue by adopting a “we can do anything” approach to new business. As a result I’ve witnessed some wholly inappropriate agency appointments and the consequential fiasco this has proven for all concerned, more times that I could possibly recall.

Seeing as we are talking “golden rules” there’s another. It applies to any business, not just agencies and isn’t confined to websites.  The rule is “Get your ‘promise’ front and centre wherever anybody is likely to encounter you”. That means, for one thing, on every conceivable landing page of your website. Again, it’s not a new idea, it’s what straplines are for, but I’m seeing far too many communications where this just isn’t happening.  Tesco were very good at this with their “Every little helps” and Philips’ “Sense and simplicity” was equally effective. If you’ve built your brand model correctly, your headline in each case will be an example of one of the facts or pillars that support your “promise” and any text will serve to connect the dots between the headline and the strapline. Its simple when you think about it. To ensure that this happens you’ll have established a rule for your advertising guys to comply with. Philips, for example, stated that apart from every headline illustrating how the subject of that communication (usually a product or service) was a manifestation of one of its pillars, it would always use the word “sense” or “simplicity” and both these words (or their derivatives) had to appear at least once in any body copy (I can hear writers whinging as I say it but if you are in this business you’ll have to learn to stick to the rules).

A quick surf of the web is enough to illustrate that agencies everywhere are forgetting these basics. They are neither reminding their clients and keeping them on track nor are they representing them in their own promotional material.

In fact, I think agencies are so busy trying to be everything to everybody that they frequently forget what the job is. It’s almost as though they are afraid to commit to one particular offer in case that’s not the one that’s wanted. We all know that to establish close relationships you will probably alienate more people than you attract, but the relationships (or more specifically in this case the “Brandships”) you establish will be all the more substantial and valuable because they are built on stronger traits. People with vivid personalities have their detractors, but they also have more, and better friends than the bland boring guy, who never offends anyone and it’s a simple fact of life that the depth (or loyalty) of brandships is more important than their numbers. So why do agencies disregard this?

Websites should be a very strong indicator of how good an agency is at its job and when I read Bob Sanders’ piece this week it reminded me of some of the dreadful examples of woolly agency sites I have witnessed recently. It’s one thing to have a philosophy, but if your website is a long and esoteric lecture nobody is going to read it and they’ll certainly not click to connect. If your forte is creativity your site should be creative, of course, but if it’s just creative and creative for the sake of creativity, again it isn’t going to work. You need to make it clear how that creativity is going to work for your clients. Sometimes I think that not enough thought r attention to detail goes into these things.

There‘s a simple promise inherent in every brand and it’s our job as marketers to help our clients define theirs and communicate it simply and effectively. If we do nothing more than his, we will have made a contribution, but if we can’t even communicate our own promise then no client in their right mind is going to ask us to work with them.


Posted: September 15, 2014
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Have you left it too late to start building your brand?

I’m a bit bemused by the complaints I am hearing from retailers that times are tough. Sure they aren’t easy. Life isn’t a bowl of cherries in any sector right now, but that’s just progress. In fact, if I were a retailer who was finding it tough, I’d think I’d keep quiet about it, because it only suggests that I wasn’t smart enough a few years ago to focus on developing my brand. Make no bones about it, we’re not going to get back to the days of milk and honey so you might as well be grown-up about this and see what you can make of what you have. And the thing is, there are loads of opportunities for retailers who invested in their brands and can now get their heads from up their backsides and work that to their advantage.

If its innovation you are after (and who isn’t) international markets have been opened up by e-commerce, while the new capability offered by things like Bluetooth Low Energy (Beacons) and mobile mean that physical stores can do stuff that e-stores struggle to achieve, so there’s no limit to the innovation that’s possible there.

With the struggle between retailers and manufacturers for brand dominance (that old argument about whose brand dominated the buying decision) now consigned to history, it’s clear that the retailers who stood their ground and invested in their brands have triumphed. If you are still unsure that this is so consider how Tesco and Waitrose own-label products are now driving easy revenue, gaining exposure for and further building the authority of their brands as they stand-alone on the shelves of other retail groups around the world.

I’ve always said that one of the most powerful arguments for investing in your brand is that a strong brand gives you more opportunities and as if to underline this Primark this week announced their expansion to the US underlining the concept of UK “cheap chic” in the age of disposable fashion. However, the really interesting story to my mind is that of down-market supermarket group Lidl’s decision to launch their fashion range.

Who would have thought only a few years ago, that a no-frills supermarket could make a success of a fashion range? But Primark have established the segment and there’s no reason to suppose that Lidl’s entry won’t be an outrageous success – as long as whoever is in charge of the Lidl brand ensures that the fashion products maintain and leverage its core attributes. Get this right and the fashion products will further enhance the brand, driving Lidl store sales and the products will gain early acceptance because of the brand. It’s a classic symbiosis.

It’s seemed just logical to me since the early days of own label that the name over the doors of retail outlets would turn into something bigger, embracing products that would, in turn, sit well on the shelves of other retailers, thereby providing revenue growth and further enhancing the authority of the brands concerned (both retail and product). Retailers who instead of cow-towing to their suppliers’ have taken the stance that they are the endorsers of the product brands and not the other way around,, are now firmly in the driving seat. Consumers accept the brands that retailers stock, seeing them as representing the core values of the retail brand. (“if its good enough for Sainsbury’s it good enough for me”). When that same retailer introduces own label products they are seen by consumers as the absolute manifestation of the brand (“If it’s a Tesco product I know its good value at that price point”) and this carries through to where they see these products on the shelves of other stores (“I’m not sure about this store, but these are Waitrose products, so I am assured of the quality”). There’s a double pay-off for the host brand too in that they inherit a little of the values of the bigger brand and can effectively short-cut the process of brand development (“I’m not sure about this brand, but they share the Tesco values that I believe in so I guess I’m safe here”).

Lidl's £4 scent

Is it too late if you failed to get to grips with brand development a few years back? We’ll, I guess not if you got your skates on, but the trouble is that if you missed the boat then you are probably lack the dynamism necessary to catch up, brand development, after all, is a transformation process and your progress depends wholly on your culture.


Posted: September 3, 2014
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Radio Shack – a demonstration of what happens when you fail to innovate.

It can’t be much of a surprise to any thinking person to hear that Radio Shack are on the skids. Times are hard in retailing right now and they aren’t the first and certainly won’t be the last big name to fail.

As evolution quickens across all sectors retail gets hit on two fronts – fashion and technology. Retail trends are increasingly short-lived and technology is accelerating the pace of change. If innovation isn’t in your DNA, you are probably going to fail. It’s been decades since Ralph Halpern turned the UK’s Burton Group around and even then a cornerstone of his strategy was to have as many as twenty new formats under test at any one time. HMV and Abercrombie and Fitch are hanging on to existence, right now, by their fingernails because they failed to adapt to changing consumer demands, but there are few offenders who deserve to fail more than Radio Shack who appear to have had an inordinate amount of time to sort it out yet look increasingly as though they are wading through molasses. I don’t know this company intimately, but all the evidence suggests an old-fashioned, bureaucratic culture incapable of innovation, which is a bit of a disconnect seeing as they made heir name servicing the tech enthusiasts whose successors are setting the trends right now.

The most cursory glance at a Radio Shack store is enough to tell you that this is a company who are unclear who their customers are. The products are diverse and disconnected. The proposition undefined. Very little is done well or thoroughly, staff knowledge falls well short of the “expertise” that they built their name on and customers wandering around seem disconnected. In a sector which, as Retail Dive points out is tough, this makes you look like Mary’s little lamb in a field full of wolves!

I thought the Retail Dive article was actually a bit of a cop-out. It offered the excuse that times are hard in electronics these days, but, as I said at the opening of this piece, times are hard for everyone. The question here is “are you man enough for the job?” and when you fail as Radio Shack have there’s no avoiding the conclusion that you are not.

By contrast take a look at a very similar business from Ireland Maplin, who admittedly were struggling a few years ago, but saw the writing on the wall and under the enlightened management of John Cleland have turned their business around, to the point where they have just landed £85million in investment to fund their next phase of their development.

Apart from their size the thing that most distinguishes Maplin and Radio Shack is the definition of their respective brands. Maplin appear to know who they are and are working to build on that with new innovations and really tight execution, whereas Radio Shack seem reluctant to leave the comfort of their traditional and largely now irrelevant positioning and are struggling for a purpose in the new world order.

Until brand basics are fixed, anything else you do with an organisation like this is just papering over the cracks and will only add to the mess and confusion. It seems to me that what Radio Shack need is some serious help with their brand strategy. Once that’s defined, the internal marketing that will pull everything into line, can commence and over time (depending on how much you put into it) they’ll be able to innovate and their current problems will start to go away. Of course, a whole new set of problems will have emerged by then, but hopefully they’ll have learned that you are only as good as your next big idea! Given that they have wasted so much time already though, maybe Radio Shack are at the end of their road. If I was looking for an investment opportunity right now, I might consider Maplin, but as for Radio Shack, why would I want to risk my hard-earned on a business that is clearly so disorientated? In some ways it would be a pity to see them go, but that’s the game.

When it comes to service Luminox walk all over Tissot purely on process

Posted: September 1, 2014
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When processes are bad for business

As I’ve said many times, the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful organisation is efficiency and the purpose of processes is to maintain consistency and therefore efficiency across a business. Along the way processes will overcome shortcomings in skill-levels (It doesn’t fix them, just wallpapers over them), experience or even basic intelligence of customer-facing staff. They are essential to the survival of large organisations, but we are also now discovering that they are the reason for the failure of many of these large companies to innovate and, as we now know, a business that isn’t innovating right now isn’t likely to be around for long.

You could, I suppose, liken processes to powerful drugs. On one hand they are what keep you going, but on the other hand, if you get to rely on them too much they can destroy your life. If processes have become the focus of your organisation, you are in trouble.  Smart companies have realised that processes don’t have to be so rigid, but in order to liberate yourself from their constraints you have to give employees something else to work with. You do this through culture development and training within your brand development programme (Initiatives such as I create with my Brand Discovery programme). However, that takes a little effort and in the past lazy organisations have tended to lean too heavily on the short-term, process-driven fix.

Yesterday I witnessed the best example that I have seen in a long time of what happens when process takes over the running of a business. It concerned two watches – a Tissot sports watch that required a new battery and a Luminox diver’s watch with a broken strap – and visits to the two respective stores in Dubai.

Visit one – Tissot (single brand store)

  • Me: (to shop assistant): Can you please replace the battery in this watch?
  • Assistant: Yes. I will send it to our service centre. If you would please fill out this A4 (small print) form (requiring loads of largely irrelevant information).
  • Me: How long will this take?
  • Assistant. It usually takes between two to four weeks sir.
  • Me: How can that be? The service centre is just a few city blocks from here and all you are doing is changing the battery.
  • Assistant: Yes sir, but we have to check the watch and report to you.
  • Me: I don’t want you to check or report, just change the battery for me.
  • Assistant: Yes that’s no problem sir. Our service centre will call you in around seven days.
  • Me: I thought you said that it would take two-to-four weeks?
  • Assistant: That’s to fix it sir. They will call you to tell you what the cost will be.
  • Me: Don’t you know what the cost of a battery will be?
  • Assistant: Yes sir, its 120 Dirhams.
  • Me: OK, so I know the cost, so just go ahead and change the battery and we will at least save a week.
  • Assistant: But Sir the service centre has to call you to tell you the price.
  • Me: I don’t want the service centre to call me until they have changed the battery. Then they can call me to say its ready.
  • Assistant: But they have to call to get your approval, otherwise they can’t do the work.
  • Me: I have given my approval, I’ve even signed this form here, so the deal is agreed. Please just go ahead and change the battery.
  • Assistant: Sir the service centre will call to tell you what needs to be done and what he cost will be and then they will start work
  • Me: But we all know that you are changing the battery and it costs 120 Dirhams already. Anyway, what is the service centre going to be doing for the remainder of the month?
  • Assistant: Changing your battery sir.
  • Me: What is to stop me taking this watch right now to Mister Minute down the road who will change the battery in a minute for twenty Dirhams?
  • Assistant: Nothing sir, but the warranty will be invalidated if someone other than our service centre works on the watch.


Visit two – Luminox (multi-brand store)

  • Me: Is it possible for you to change the (highly technical) strap on this (specialist) watch?
  • Assistant: Of course sir.
  • Me: How long will it take?
  • Assistant: About three minutes sir
  • Me: (Incredulous): You can do it here?
  • Assistant: (surprised I would ask): Yes of course sir, we are a Luminox shop.
  • Me: And how much will this cost?
  • Assistant: two-hundred Dirhams sir.
  • Me: Done!

Now I know that in future I won’t buy Tissot watches, but I will buy Luminox (should I ever need a new watch because at these prices these things should last for ever) and the moral for organisations is “Don’t allow process to take over your business”.


Posted: August 18, 2014
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The real opportunity for the UK’s on-line retailers

Although he may not have intended to flatter us, I’ve no argument with Napoleon when he described Britain as a “nation of shopkeepers” and it seems that we’re proving this once again in the digital era.

While its now clear that physical retailing has largely run out of road with a 17.7% year-on-year decline in new retail space planned for the UK this year, we have embraced the digital age and are now generally regarded as the world’s most successful on-line retailing nation. However, this isn’t just about switching customers to the on-line model, its a real opportunity both for retail start-ups with a shiny new model and for established brands to take their offer to new territories without incurring the cost and risk of a traditional retail business.

We are already seeing how the varying on-line competence of big UK retailers is causing the league table to be re-written in the context of the digital, rather than physical market. In the supermarket sector alone Morrison’s represents a vivid illustration of what happens when you don’t get your digital act together with physical sales declining and no on-line business to fill the void. However the real value in the on-line phenomenon is the opportunity it provides for retailers to enter markets that offer a far higher return than their core domestic business.

Sure the volume of traffic on UK retail sites from US and UK customers is phenomenal. Of our non-UK customers 21% are from the US, which has to represent a success, but in terms of value, Asia and other emerging markets are a far more enticing prospect. A Malaysian customer for example is worth six from the UK or US and although we are only slowly making in-roads into the Chinese market a Chinese on-line shopper spends around five times what a Brit will. Nevertheless, there’s a sting in the tail of this beast that we need to be aware of.

It easy for UK retailers to operate in a bit of a vacuum, but, as I have pointed out on numerous occasions in the past, these developing markets are not without their own retail heroes. India, in particular, boasts some really good supermarket chains who are quickly catching up with their Western counterparts in terms of quality of product and professionalism of their operation. The other thing about these places is that they have thrown themselves into the digital age embracing it with considerable enthusiasm, unhindered by existing infrastructure and business models that have caused delays with better established British retailers – Morrisons being a case in point. Admittedly, their delivery doesn’t always live up to their enthusiasm, but they are getting there and what’s grease for the goose … as the saying goes. Already Indian retailers are scoring sales in the UK and US. Don’t let’s forget that a large proportion of the UK’s budget fashion comes from India, so it will be tempting for locals and attractive to UK shoppers to cut out the middle man and get even better prices. This is already happening with many small limited-inventory operations emerging and it is only a matter of time before they work out how to scale up and market to Western markets. There could even be a social welfare aspect to all of this, because one assumes that by cutting out the UK retailer there will be enough margin in the deal, even with lower retail prices, to pay Indian fashion workers a better wage or at least improve their working conditions. Sustainable fashion retailing could be the next big thing!

However, new markets mean new challenges that not every UK retailer is going to be able to get its collective head around. Supply chain is an issue in many countries. I’ve reported before that a lot of these countries don’t have what we would recognise as postal services nor street addresses, so delivering orders is a bit of a challenge. There’s also the question of warehousing. It’s easy for UK retailers because we are a very small country with good infrastructure. India and China though are a different matter (being a bit bigger!). I mentioned in an earlier post that Tesco, through their appointed regional distributor, (the conglomerate MENA Holdings Group) have arranged for the (African, but Indian run) Choithrams supermarket chain to stock Tesco products in (initially) 1,000 stores across the Middle East and India. Waitrose have been following a similar strategy with their own label for a few years too. The Tesco deal has since been extended to include another MENA Holdings members in Kuwait and Qatar. Meanwhile Argos has been trying to extend its global presence in a similar way. We all know that Tesco have announced increased focus on their on-line business recently and having your product on the ground in these places is a very useful first step to on-line supply chain development.

There’s another important challenge to the on-line globalisation though. Shopping habits and consumer attitudes in many promising markets are often very different. Not only are infrastructures frequently incomplete by Western standards, but consumer attitudes to on-line payment, returns and delivery demand that Western retailers reconsider a model born of the neat and tidy western marketplace. Nevertheless, its all do-able and with Western ingenuity and standards of execution there’s no reason why Western retailers can’t maintain their lead over the burgeoning ranks of more-Eastern challengers. In the next few months the on-line marketplace is going to be a pretty interesting place.


Posted: August 10, 2014
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Do Middle East clients get the agencies they deserve?

In my occasional capacity as advisor to marketing services firms, I have witnessed a number of new business pitches in the Middle East and with few exceptions, they have been a joke. Putting aside for the moment the clear fact that, in these parts, most of these contests are decided before they have begun on the basis of family ties, vested interests or back-handers paid to decision-makers, the processes engaged, such that there are any, are utterly useless. Its no wonder clients change agencies with the regularity of a Dubai metro, but the agency merry-go-round is counter-productive for everyone concerned. Pitches cost everyone time and money and if the strategy changes every time the agency does then the client concerned is wending their way to brand disaster.

One of the problems is that clients here (and agencies have cooperated in this) have taken the traditional Western pitch process, which they have failed to understand and tried to replicate it, even though in the West it is considered now irrelevant and largely being abandoned. At the heart of of this confusion is the failure of clients (and many of the agencies) to understand what the job of an agency is. So, let me add a little perspective.

A company needs an advertising agency or marketing agency to tell it how to do things that it doesn’t have the skills or resources to do for itself. That makes this, in every sense of the word, a simple “partnership”. It is not the old-fashioned client/supplier relationship that the old commodities traders used to have with the desert-dwelling sheihks. There is no “boss” and “serf”. Those days are behind us and the old rules are totally irrelevant (If they were ever really appropriate). A contemporary client/agency relationship is based on mutual respect. After all, the agency should be guiding the client’s decisions and advising (if not dictating) strategy that, if they are correct, could be the difference between success and failure of the client’s business. The problem is that I wouldn’t trust half the agencies I see here to go to the grocery store with a list to do my weekly shop, so I’m hardly going to take their advice on strategy. Therefore, the pitch process is, at least in part, about finding the few real agencies among the plethora of pretenders. However, that’s not hard to do if you are organised.

There’s a clear and intuitive path to developing cohesive marketing/marketing communications and it starts with your strategy. Any business should have a clearly defined business strategy that defines their objectives and sets out the way that they have chosen to reach them. If you are operating a business without this fundamental document (and I’ve seen some that are) then you deserve to go out of business and undoubtedly will very soon. Current thinking says that a business plan and marketing plan are synonymous. Today successful companies have recognised that every business is a marketing business and have placed marketing at their centre. This means that the Marketing Director writes the strategy, usually in collaboration with the CEO. Of course, you have to have a marketing Director who is capable of doing this, but, again, if you don’t, given that you are a marketing business, you are in big trouble.

Once you have your strategy, you should use this as the basis for your pitch. A marketing services firm of any kind – and that includes an advertising agency – should be commercially astute enough to be able to demonstrate what they can do to help you realise your objectives. Finding a handful of agencies who can do this should be the first stage of your pitch process. Literally write an RFP that asks for a marketing communications strategy based on your business strategy, an explanation of the processes the agency will engage to make it happen and why you should believe that they are capable of delivering. Their response should be a written document, maybe with charts and graphs to illustrate points, but definitely not to include any creative proposals. It should include their credentials presentation and examples of work that hey have done for other clients and to prove that they actually can deliver, each case study should state the objectives they were set and the results they achieved. You absolutely don’t want anything more from them at this stage and any agency that responds with anything more or different to that should be struck from your list on the basis that they lack discipline. Agencies should expect you to call up the Marketing Directors responsible for the work contained in the case studies to get feedback and you definitely should do so.

You’ll use the submissions that you get from this first stage to establish who has the commercial nous, processes and practical capability to provide the support you need. Select three or four (no more) and issue them with a brief to turn their strategy into creative work and a media/activity plan with full costings for the coming year. Don’t make the mistake of expecting your agency to dictate your budget. That’s a figure that you should be giving them. You can do so at the first stage or the second, but make no mistake this is your job not theirs. I notice that a lot of businesses here use pitches to get opinions from marketing services providers on what their budget should be, but this is a cop-out and it’s a meaningless practice that fails on just about every level. You need to calculate your budget. Any Marketing Director worthy of the title will know how to do this, but as a guide, last year, a global survey established that businesses generally invested between 7% and 10% of their turnover in marketing, while start-ups and businesses that are trying to establish themselves or a new product, invest more – often as much as 20% in total – to get the job done. You can build into your brief an opportunity for the agency to submit proposals for a different budget or add-ons provided they build a case.

Neither the first nor second-stage briefs should be sent by e-mail. You should go to the agency’s office, meet with their teams and brief them on your project personally. The entire process is designed to find a partner that you can work with long term. Marketing is a collaborative process, you should expect to be involved at many points and this means that you have to be able to get on with your team. Chemistry is important and you’ll only be able to judge this by meeting the people and spending as much time with them as possible on their home turf.

You should expect a proposal from each agency in the form of a final presentation, divided into sections, probably as follows, but you should define the headings that you want them to work within.

  • Summary of business objectives and strategy
  • Outline of communications strategy
  • Explanation of overall creative strategy
  • Creative proposals
  • Demonstration of how creative applies to specific components of the communications.
  • Outline plan of activity for twelve months with budget breakdown.

From this you should be able to determine your ideal partner agency.

In my experience, most businesses in the Middle East are incapable of organising a proper pitch and that’s where consultants like me are useful in managing the process. There are few things more counter-productive than a badly run agency pitch, but many would-be clients set themselves up for failure at the starting line. I saw a brief from a major Gulf-based international business recently where someone had obviously tried to impose some level of professionalism. However, such is the chasm often seen between the capabilities of local businesses and international standards that it wasn’t much help. They started by inviting thirty agencies to “tender”. (It was a tender because the brief didn’t state a budget, which, as I have said is a major mistake for all kinds of reasons). Inviting thirty agencies to pitch is also ridiculous and among other things suggests the business and the person issuing the brief is both clueless and lazy. The most agencies you ever want on an initial pitch list are ten and you can and should arrive at this number by conducting your own research on-line and through contacts to determine which agencies you include.

The brief for this pitch looked promising at first glance. It was organised under sensible headlines and it asked for the agencies concerned to explain how they would measure the effectiveness of their proposals. Every agency worth employing would do this automatically, of course, but given the height of the bar locally this is a good pre-requisite to include in a pitch brief, except for one point. Measurements can only be applied against a stated objective and the objective stated in the brief in question was “To publicise the [name of client removed to protect their reputation] …” which is, of course, not an objective at all. More than one agency brought this brief to me asking me to advise them on what to do. My conclusion, and the conclusion of any proper agency would probably be not to tender because the client was demonstrably clue-less and unprofessional and no agency is ever going to be able to deliver decent results against these odds. I have no doubt that every agency that could, pitched though. Some because they were equally useless and didn’t spot the anomaly, while others adopted the “Take the money and run” approach, which you can understand in this part of the world, is often the case. It’s wholly counter-productive of course and that’s why businesses here tend to be pretty slow to develop. But then, clients usually get the agencies they deserve!


Posted: August 8, 2014
Comments: 0

Tell it like it is and we’ll all get along much quicker!

I think most of us have come to the point at some time in our lives where you just feel like quitting and becoming the proprietor of a village shop or something. I know I certainly have and very often this has been prompted by encounters with a particular breed of pompous asses for whom our business seems to provide a safe haven.

My wife, who is a country girl at heart, holds the view that everybody in advertising is a poseur, which may be an over-simplification, but I know where she is coming from. There are far too many people involved in marketing and advertising who are just up themselves! Like the new young Marketing Director of my friend’s client, who I mentioned in an earlier post, seemed to think that, fresh out of college (well, almost), she was going to tell a thirty-year veteran of marketing about branding!

Arseholes take many forms. There’s the one who thinks up new words to describe something that we’ve all been doing for decades and drops them into conversations or presentations with the unspoken challenge to anybody listening to question what they mean. Invariably this is a ploy that the presenter thinks will enable him to establish his superiority, but which, he fails to realise, because we are all in the communication business, just proves he’s crap at his job! There’s also the dress-code ponce who seems to see any presentation as a fashion contest. I actually had one of these tell me once that he’d scored in a presentation because he’d “out-dressed everyone else”! It’s important to hit the right note with your dress code in these situations, we’ve all witnessed “death by suit” at some time, but Armani armageddon isn’t the objective.

Those of you who follow my posts will know that I recently had a bash at trying to standardise marketing nomenclature – a bit of a challenge I admit and not one that I felt was guaranteed to succeed in anything, but maybe making a few people realise that marketers reduce their credibility in the business world by failing to agree on pretty much any basic terminology. Unsurprisingly, while it got a load of views and downloads, nobody contributed to that project, so I have to conclude that marketers generally like to baffle each other (and probably themselves!). We have a saying in England that someone “calls a spade a shovel”, which is a reference to the way some folk are very blunt, direct, don’t dress things up and more than anything use simple basic language. I like people like this, you know where you are with them. I never find their bluntness insulting (which I understand, if you are a bit insecure, you might). I was talking to a Czech government minister a few weeks back and at one point I suggested that Czech government policy on start-ups was miss-aligned. He rocked in his chair “You British” he said “you have such a way with words!” I took it to mean that I was myself sliding into the mire of politically correct ambiguity and quickly re-phrased. I won’t tell you what I said but he agreed! I’ve been tempted a few times in the past to adopt a kind of inverted snobbery about this stuff, particularly when I’ve encountered particularly extreme offenders. There are few things more satisfying the just-sucked-a-lemon look on a poseurs face when you tell them, as Sir John Hegarty told the audience at a recent conference, that what they are doing is “shit!”.

My one-time colleague and ex-agency chief John Ward, probably inspired by the same arse-holes we both rubbed shoulders with in the past left adverting and set up The Slog, an hilarious and highly controversial, political blog dedicated to, as he says, “deconstructing bollocks”. John takes on heavy-hitters these days and through his myriad of extremely well-positioned political connections explodes political myths and reduces statements of the rich and influential to the meaningless pap they really are.

Anyway, here’s one for John. I’m sure he’ll appreciate this. It’s Austrian designer Stefan Sagmeister lampooning those idiots who describe their work as “Storytelling”. I’ll leave it to you to decide where you stand on this.


Posted: August 5, 2014
Comments: 0

If you are leaning on data you probably aren’t up to the job.

Very early in my career I was told by one of my mentors “Research is a light to guide your way not a lamp-post to lean on”. Its a perspective that has stuck with me and which these days applies equally well to data of any kind. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a great fan of the insights that data can give us and a supporter of any attempt to gather and manage data, but I’m growing increasingly concerned that we are relying on it to do stuff it never was intended to do, nor is capable of. It’s another symptom of the dumbing-down culture that I’ve spoken about before.

Consider all the really great entrepreneurs. Not just those from the past, but those who are emerging today. The business decisions that have led to their success have invariably been instinctive. I work with innovators, so I know that probably 80% (that’s an instinctive figure) of them are entirely product focussed. They don’t know if their inventions make good commercial sense or not and rarely care. Its not what drives them. They just know they are “neat”. Sure, most of them will never make it commercially and the big successes out there have probably at some point used data to confirm their beliefs or provide insights when making decisions, but the core idea and the really key decisions are instinctive. We can debate where this sixth sense comes from until the cows come home, its not so important. What matters is that that instinct, that Midas touch, can’t be sythesised with data and this is what we are increasingly trying to do.

There are numerous chicken and egg debates that we can get into on our way to determining why. It could be that managers are becoming risk averse for intance, but is this because the stakes are higher (which they undoubtedly are) or because today’s managers are younger (in the case of corporates you can read “cheaper”) so they lack the experience that feeds the instinct they need? We are told that data speeds up the decision-making process, but this is just bollocks put about by analysts to help them feel wanted. I love analysts, but insecure or what? There’s nothing quicker than Henry Ford’s “Nope, it’s black or black”, so don’t tell me that collecting data for three years, getting a room-full of analysts to comb through it and then hiring an interpreter to tell us what they are talking about is getting us there any quicker. Its not always more accurate either. Analysis is a cold process and fails to account for human frailty. Not everyone thinks like an analyst, so I’m not backing one to tell me for sure what Gladys from Chipping Norton’s motivations are when she’s doing the weekly shop.

No, its all a bit of a cop-out really. What we do know is that a buying decision is based on primal instinct. We buy what we like and then use rational argument to defend our choice because, somewhere along the line, we’ve been told that this is what grown-ups do and that’s exactly what most managers are doing with data. Its a cover-up, a hide-behind. “You can’t blame me for this cock up, the data told me to do it!”. Why can’t managers just accept that there’s risk in decision-making and the law of averages (which data can’t influence) says you get it wrong occasionally? The measure of a good manager is that he gets it right more often than wrong and if you make too many mistakes you get fired, but that’s the deal. You should be a grown-up by the time you get there, so get over it and the sooner we get off this mission to manufacture infallible managers the quicker we can get on with the job.

Is there a sinister plot by corporate employers afoot to cut costs by employing less experienced managers and giving them mountains of data in the hope that this will enable them (in the absence of experience and instinct) to make smart decisions? If so, its not working, nor is it going to. Anything you save on managers salaries is more than used up paying for analysis and, as I have said, data won’t trump instinct. There’s no cutting corners with this. The best way to build a business is by investing in your people. Train your managers. Enable them to accumulate knowledge and by the time they reach an age when they have enough experience to make valued judgements they have the kit to do it with. A recent survey revealed that over 60% of managers felt they weren’t up to the job they had, and most execs expect to be in a role for no more than two years (Its funny how those two facts add up!) so let experienced and prepared people use data to refine their instinctive decisions rather than actually make the decisions for them and you’ll reduce failure rate and increase ROI.

Footnote: An old friend of mine, deeply respected in the marketing world and now operating as a mentor to some decent-sized businesses, recently met for the first time with a young woman who has found herself in the Marketing Director role of one of his international clients. She started the conversation with “I don’t know if you are familiar with branding …”. Its people like her (and there are many of them) who need data to lean on because, frankly, she’s way out of her depth.


Posted: August 5, 2014
Comments: 2

A strong brand. The secret to survival in the next twelve months.

Do you ever have that dream where there is someone some metres in front of you about to get mown down by a juggernaut that for some reason they just aren’t aware of? You are shouting a warning to them and they can see that you are trying to tell them something, but they just can’t hear you. Well, I feel like I have been living this for the past few years!

There’s nothing worse than feeling cosy. Especially in business and sadly there are so many businesses and business people out there who have snuggled into a warm and comfortable business model and just can’t see that the reasons for abandoning it could possibly overcome the nice warm feeling they get inside every day. Sure, business is getting tougher, but that’s the case for everyone … isn’t it? Its just a matter of improving efficiency, streamlining a little and maybe settling for a little less out of the whole deal. Besides, there’s enough slack in this old machine to get us through to retirement and then … who cares really?

Well, I have news for you. The days of nip and tuck are gone. One business analyst this week stated that he thought businesses that haven’t revised their model will fold within the next twelve months. Its not that the writing hasn’t been on the wall for the past few years. I’m not alone in having given warnings to businesses that I have worked with. What’s going to catch people out is the pace of the change. Its accelerating like crazy and a lot of businesses are going to find the tail end of that whip wiping them off the face of the business map any day now.

You can see it happening already. The most vulnerable businesses, even major international concerns have had to accept they are doomed because they didn’t move fast enough and now there’s no wriggle-room. We’ve seen household names bought up by smart young businesses founded on a new business model for a fraction of their market value simply because they had to admit they couldn’t make the necessary changes.

In the past they might have tried to acquire the younger businesses and steal their model, but these days the new businesses, especially the tech ones, have the upper hand in any bargaining session. They hold all the cards. They are lean, energetic, nimble, market savvy and built on a culture of innovation. They started with the premise that their value wasn’t in the product they created, but in their ability to generate ideas that work and instead of building a business that merely produced the same old thing day after day they set about creating a model that generated new ideas every day. As I have repeated many times over the last few years “You are only as good as your NEXT big idea”.

There’s no doubt about it, innovation is what it’s all about, but how do you drive it? In fact there is probably no set answer to this, but there is a basis that its essential to establish as a platform upon which to build. Its your brand.

For decades business people have talked about brands and still few of them have actually worked out what a brand is. Now, having and understanding a brand is the key to success in the new business world. Seth Godin calls them “tribes” I have always referred to them, as “communities”. Whatever, a brand is not a product, nor is it a logo, a business or even an idea, its people. A whole mass of people from different places who share a set of desires and beliefs. A brand community is made up of employees of the company that manages it (It’s a fallacy that companies own brands), their partners, suppliers and investors and their customers. Their values and beliefs are manifested in a product, products or service, which will change and adapt as their needs evolve. Some of them make it, others buy it, they all believe in it. Kevin Roberts at Saatchi & Saatchi calls these communities “Lovemarks” and we have a relationship with them something like that which we have with our friends. That’s why I have coined the term “brandships” and the key to their success is the feeling of belonging that they generate.

In my travels around Asia and the Middle East I have seen many businesses that run on a “flog ‘em and fire ‘em” approach to HR management. It works to a point when your business objective is just to pump out the same old product in ever increasing volumes, but we all know that the world market is finite and we are nearing the end of the road as far as that model goes. Once everyone in the world who can afford one, owns a smartphone, apart from making more people more wealthy (which economists are telling us isn’t going to happen like it used to) the only thing you can sell them is a smarter one – Its that innovation thing again. Businesses like these exist in the West too, for the time being at least, but we have more real brand communities. Smart businesses recognised a long time ago that your bottom line is better when your employees are “engaged” and the way to do that is to focus on brand building. A brand gives people something to focus on, an objective. Handled well a brand will get all your employees behind the promise you make to your customers. It will help partners understand the role you need them to play in delivering that promise and it provides the belief system that consumers can relate to. Members of a brand community are proud to be so. They carry your logos around as a badge of belonging and act as evangelists. Recommendation is far more effective than advertising when it comes to customer acquisition so your cost of sale reduces. Meanwhile your happy, committed workforce set about the innovations that enable you, in turn, to deliver your brand promise. There’s no confusion, so you don’t waste time, effort and money chasing ideas that don’t fit your community’s expectations. Suddenly, you are efficient, lean, energetic, just like those smart young businesses who are buying up your big competitors right now.

The question you have to ask yourself right now is “Is my brand strong enough to get me through the next twelve months?”