The Industry Has An Identity Problem: Behaviour Change Marketer

The Industry Has An Identity Problem: Behaviour Change Marketer

In this guest post, Behaviour Change marketer Oliver Shawyer tells us what he’s learned since he first joined LinkedIn four years ago.

Oliver Shawyer
Posted by Oliver Shawyer

This morning I received a stack of private LinkedIn messages congratulating me on my professional anniversary. A series of well wishes reminding me that I’ve now lodged four official years with Behaviour Change Partners.

But more importantly, four official years here makes it four official years since we, as a business, opened our doors as the new kid on the block. The huge block…

Before being approached by Paul Fishlock (co-founder of BMF and ex-Chairman of The Campaign Palace) at the ripe old age of 26, I liked to think of myself as a switched on suit ready to take over the advertising world. Hungry. Passionate. Naïve.

My CV looked very much like a typical Gen-Y’ers and I genuinely had no idea about what I ultimately wanted. But in saying that, I had a damn good idea about what I didn’t want. So, it was a no-brainer when Paul asked me if I wanted to be the first to join him in setting up Behaviour Change Partners.

Other than having relatively little to lose, I had everything to gain.

In four years I’ve had to do a lot of growing up. Whilst I can’t pretend to understand fatherhood yet, I do now somewhat understand the sentiment of ‘growing up together with your baby’. As the agency grew, I had to grow.

But, when thinking hard about it all, all the lessons, the mistakes, the highs, the lows, I figured it would be worth capturing the four most important things I’ve learnt in the four most important years of my life. And I wanted to share them.

1. All marketing problems are behaviour change problems

Before Behaviour Change Partners, I spent a lot of time reading, writing and supervising briefs that were specifically aimed at trying to generate awareness or intention (or whatever key metric you’ve seen on any of the thousand different brief templates). And in doing so, I genuinely believed that this was what we as marketers had to do.

But when revisiting all of this from a blank piece of paper when addressing our very own brief and agency process, it became evidently clear that, at the end of the day, it has very little to do with people’s attitudes and intentions, and only about their actual behaviour.

Whilst instinctively I always knew this when writing those briefs, I still worked hard at approaching those respective marketing problems on the basis and research of what people say they’ll do, rather than what they’ll actually do.

Whilst all this was happening, the industry continued, and continues to tear itself apart about what is the most effective medium to use, what channel doesn’t work any more that apparently once did, what technology is now dead that was once the future; what new platform is now the messiah that was born overnight. You get the gist.

And these are all very fair arguments and some of them and their conclusions are truly for the betterment of our industry, but, at the end of the day, they’re mostly driven with ulterior motives from the backing parties – notably to justify their organisation’s existence and why you should use their services. But in doing so, most of them only muddy the one thing we actually only need to know – will it change behaviour?

At that particular moment where the behaviour change needs to happen, the only thing you need to ask yourself is whether this medium, this particular channel, this innovative technology, this ground-breaking platform, will actually change behaviour.

We can spend millions upon millions growing awareness about new products, services, brands. We can spend millions upon millions increasing preference for those same things. We can spend millions upon millions generating intent to purchase. But if it’s doing nothing for actual behaviour change, then simply replace spending with wasting.

When your agency’s called Behaviour Change Partners there’s no hiding from what your key capability has to be and how you will be held accountable.

2. We, as an industry, have an identity problem

If Behaviour Change Partners were to close its doors tomorrow, what would the world miss? A question I continue to ask myself. So it’s only fair that I ask you – if your business, (or the business you work for), closed its doors tomorrow, what would the world miss? It’s a grounding thought when trying to determine and understand your value.

A few years ago I sat in a conference that spoke about the difference between suppliers and value-adders within the communications industry. It was here that I, a naïve ad-guy, realised – we have an identity issue. The advertising industry is now a commodity category – there are too many agencies and worse yet, there are too many agencies with a lack of distinctiveness. This over-abundance of supply has led to two important outcomes (one more important than the other depending on which side of the fence you sit):

For agencies – downward pressure of charge out rates.
For clients – decreased valuation of what’s on offer.

It’s fair to say that the industry no longer offers a premium product (barring a few outliers). Advertising agencies are now looked upon as service providers – if we’re not creating value, real value, then marketing is seen as a cost of business for which suppliers are only a cost to be reduced.

I’ve written about it before, but we, as an industry, have to understand the need to start ‘cutting the rubbish’ – less ‘interesting’ (likes, follows, shares, views, awards), more ‘credible’ (quantifiable demand for goods and services) returns on investment. We have to transform ourselves if we are to earn the trust of our clients, and just as importantly, their CEOs.

3. Every loss is much more painful than a win

Over the course of my tenure, I’ve spent a huge amount of time researching human behaviour. Sounds like a planners role, but other than the fact it offers me a huge advantage in business, it’s had huge benefits in my personal life. In saying that, I’ve set out to establish myself as a specialist in behavioural economics. I think it’s ludicrous to work in this industry if you don’t truly understand what drives human behaviour. But that’s for another time.

In my research, one of the biggest themes to prevail is how influenced we are (all of us) by the fear of loss. It’s been scientifically proven that we feel the pain from a loss almost twice as much as the equivalent gain from a win. That saying, what have I got to lose, didn’t come from nowhere!

In running an agency, I’ve become very reactive to every loss the agency has. Even when I’m not directly involved. Whether it is losing a pitch, losing the next project from a current client, losing a staff member, losing out on a new business introduction, losing the room in a presentation…whilst I have to try hide it from staff, suppliers and other clients, it all really hurts. And it’s impossible not to take it personally.

I often think that people overlook the personal involvement and commitment of individuals in any form of business transaction. One thing Paul said to me in one of our very first meetings was that he’d love to see ‘good manners brought back into our business’. And I couldn’t agree more. You’d be amazed how far a ‘thank you’, a ‘sorry’ or a ‘well done’ goes when comforting someone after a loss.

4. Passion trumps experience every day of the week

When I was trying to secure my first job in high school, I spent hours upon hours handing out my CV – moving from one store to another. On almost every occasion, I was asked “do you have any previous retail experience?

‘No. No I don’t’ I would answer.

And “I never will if one of you don’t hire me” I would think.

We invest a lot of time in our industry trying to find experienced people to fit specific roles. We give up countless amounts of money (and internal resources) looking for individuals that are specifically tailored to the status-quo skills needed for the respective role. Why? Because it’s always been done that way so it must be the right way to do it. What have you got to lose if you do it how it’s always been done?

I constantly hear about the talent shortage in this industry. And at the same time, how hard it is to find the right person. But are we looking hard enough? Are we looking wide enough? Or are we too constrained by our own working models?

I’d be naïve to shout from the rooftops that you don’t need someone with experience to deliver on specific duties and responsibilities. But that experience doesn’t have to exist in the exact form as the advertised role? You can teach anyone how to do most mechanical things required out of any particular job. But you cannot teach someone initiative. Passion. Love. Motivation. These are all hard-wired traits that exist well below the surface. These are the people you want in your business.

If Paul was looking for someone that had experience in setting up and running agencies, a 26 year old with mid-level account management roles is the last place he should have looked. I’ll let you ask him how that’s worked out though.