According to Ad Age (from a study conducted back in oh, 2007), there are over 20,000 marketing agencies in the U.S. alone. And every one of them is looking for a competitive edge these days. Perhaps your firm is lucky enough to have a captive audience, and you are in the unlikely position of being immune to replacement - but if you’re one of the firms who rely on hard work and engaging those little gray cells to get by, here are ten things you absolutely cannot afford to do.
1. Confuse Planning with Strategy
Many firms believe that they are engaged in crafting strategy, when they are merely planning. Planning aims at getting things done, while Strategy aims to advance our big ideas. Business academics Gary Hamel and C. K. Prahalad created the term Strategic Intent to refer to this notion, and it is essential to any powerful and effective strategy. Remember also, that a strategic plan is a way of dealing with a constantly changing environment, responding to that environment to achieve our goals, and attempting to change that environment to our benefit This is what distinguishes strategy from simply planning which, while necessary for any business, may be little more than checking items off a to-do list as we complete them.
2. Take Your Eye Off the Competition
As mentioned above, strategy is a means of responding to a constantly changing environment, and here I remind you that your environment includes your competitors. Devising strategy that will serve you well in a constantly changing environment requires a good understanding of that environment. Firms that craft a winning strategy and then shut out the outside world while they work to execute the tactics associated with that strategy have just moved back into the realm of to-do lists. Organizations that successfully execute winning strategies are constantly keeping their eye on the ball, responding with agility, taking advantage of sudden opportunities, and out-thinking the competition.
3. Summarily Dismiss Fads as Mere Fads
If you ask me, the rare talent to be the first to spot a fad as an emerging trend is worth a whole pack of MBA graduates (to paraphrase one of Mel Gibson’s more colorful and extremely bigoted quotes). Part of your job of keeping your eyes on your constantly changing environment, is watching out for trends. But don’t be too quick to dismiss them as fads. Marketing professionals who lead their industries are sought out for their ability to apply judgement and analytical thinking to examine and evaluate new developments and determine if they are likely to bear fruit.
But how can you tell a trend from a fad? Great question – glad you’re still paying attention! While a fad is fashionable for only a brief time, trends look more like a movement, rising slowly, gaining momentum, and finally being adopted by the majority of a market segment. Judging whether an innovation is likely to become a trend requires analyzing how that particular innovation may alter how people live their lives, or how processes may be improved.
4. Override the Input of Experts
Phil Libin, co-founder and CEO of Evernote, Inc. Magazine‘s Company of the Year in 2011, recently wrote a story for Inc. titled Why It’s Wise to Hire People Smarter Than You, where he talks about the time it takes to micromanage those whose jobs you could do better. Further, he discusses how problems get fixed so much more effectively when you have people smarter than you working on those problems. I, for one, am inclined to listen to this wisdom and, as an example, my programmer can write brilliant code in one tenth the time it would take me to even write out the steps.
While it takes a secure manager to hire people that are smarter than they are, it takes a complete moron to ignore the advice of said smarter people. If an organization has brain power as one of its resources, overriding or ignoring that brain power doesn’t merely handicap your chances of success, it can demoralize your team. If members of your team see that their best and brightest are having their expert input dismissed, it does little to encourage others to rise up and shine in their area of specialization.
5. Punish Risk-Taking
A culture of yes-men is the exact opposite of a culture that recognizes the value in divergent thinking. Divergent thinking, the very cornerstone of creative problem solving, is currency to marketing companies, so when an organization rewards the sycophants amongst their ranks, they are steering themselves towards certain destruction. How does an organization become populated with sycophants? Frequently, it occurs under an abusive or hostile manager who publicly (or privately) berates underlings voicing dissenting views.
6. Create an Environment for “Group-Think”
Groupthink, a term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis in 1972, is faulty decision-making by groups, which can be brought about by a variety of factors such as desire for conformity within a group, or direct pressure on dissenters. The resulting decisions are likely to be less than optimal due to the fact that alternative options go unvoiced or unexplored. Skillful managers know their teams well enough to spot when group members are seemingly nodding their heads in agreement, while silently disagreeing with the consensus, and can draw these individuals out, effectively encouraging their participation. If the group mentality is too strong, dissenting views may need to be discussed in private, where the team member feels a greater sense of safety.
7. Have a Cliche Tag Line
As a marketing company, you’re a representation of what is possible for your clients, and your tag line is possibly the first experience your prospective clients have of your firm. It should therefore be pushing the upper limit of cleverness – not desperately scraping the bottom for ideas. A cliche tag line for a marketing firm is the equivalent of a limp, clammy handshake. So, Behold the Power of Cheese (as the American Dairy Association has urged us) and Do More (American Express), Think Different (Apple), and Reach Out and Touch Someone (AT&T). If your tag line doesn’t quickly create in the minds of your audience a positive association, that is memorable, and which inspires action, take heart – there’s still time to fix it. Just do it.
8. Use B-Grade Design
According to Fast Company Magazine, design is a “sustainable competitive advantage.” Forbes Magazine wrote “All businesses, no matter what they make or sell, should recognize the power and financial value of good design.” Our world is becoming increasingly design-aware as other competitive differentiators dwindle into being barely perceptible. Marketing firms at the top of the food chain recognize that paying handsomely for professional design is an investment that pays off, and cutting corners in this area of their operations carries a cost that far outweighs potential savings.
9. Definitely, Definitely, Definitely Stick to the Norm
Nothing transforms an up-and-coming company into yesterday’s news quicker than the leaders at that company becoming comfortable with the status quo. We get tired of the stale old sayings such as “the only constant is change” yet we easily stick to doing things “because that’s how we’ve always done them.” We know we would never hear something so robotic as that spoken in a meeting at Google, or under Steve Jobs’ command, so surely we recognize that agility and daring are simply requirements for survival, no?
10. Screw-over your Designer
Hooo, I love this one! Designers these days don’t just make thing look pretty. In case you haven’t noticed, you’ve been asking for years for your designers to also be experts in SEO, social media, and strategy – not to mention content-writing, coding web-apps, and digital publishing – and of course, there’s motion graphics, animation and video editing – and let’s not leave out typography, illustration and photo-editing. Yet, at the same time, designers have been expected to submit their work for free, make multiple design revisions that are not paid for, or even to go unpaid for their time if they fail to meet the unarticulated expectations of a difficult client. But the design community is a strong, thriving, and tight-knit community of collaborators, creative thinkers and professional problem solvers. Screwing over your designer may get you sued for breach of contract, and using designs that you haven’t paid for may make you liable for damages in copyright court. But the real damage may occur if your designer decides simply to stick with what they know and write some content with some good SEO, back it up with some strategy, and harness the social strength of their community, resulting in your online reputation suffering damage that could quite literally take years to repair, make your organization’s website compete in Google’s search results with bad press, make it difficult for you to attract good candidates willing to work with a company with a bad reputation, and make it difficult to retain current employees who don’t want your company name making a smudge on their resumes.
A recent story emerged in the design community which has sparked somewhat of a renewed movement. When a marketing company in Danville, California decided not to pay their designer for content writing, the designer published a story about it, optimizing the page for the company name, Paradigm Real Estate Solutions. The story received over a thousand views on its first day, and was shared by hundreds of designers on Facebook, Reddit, and personal blogs. The page now out-competes the company’s website in search results for that company’s own name.