Forget the work, the work, the work

Forget the work, the work, the work

Defining your agency by what it makes is a fast-track to obsolescence. Media, creative and PR shops, like the brands they counsel, need to invest in powerful brand-building if they want to adapt and grow in a galloping media landscape, writes Naked Communications' Adam Ferrier

B&T Magazine
Posted by B&T Magazine

I'm convinced that we don't improve by evolution, only by revolution. I've seen massive brands like Kodak, and those closer to home, like Ansett, die. Trisha's toys, the toy store in Cottesloe I used to get my toys from as a child, couldn't compete with the category killer Toys R Us – that's now dead too.

Same with agency brands – The Campaign Palace, dead, and many other successful brands in limbo. We can't change by evolution. If change is required – and it often is – then revolution is the only way to go.

Let me explain. Some years ago I was invited (potentially by mistake) to an exclusive lunch at Fairfax to hear the then CEO of Ford speak about the car market and how they were evolving with the times. He mentioned Ford had just introduced 'intelligent turning headlights' as an example of evolution. I asked him: "What about electric cars from Ford?" His answer was evasive. He spoke about lead times, and capital investment costs, and how it was important to keep up with consumer demand, but not change things too radically. He said:  "At Ford we believe in evolution, not revolution."

Now compare the car industry to that of our lunch hosts, Fairfax, the 'Newspaper' people. They, I believe, have got it (a little more) right. The newspaper industry has the legacy issues of all legacy issues – massive printing presses, and the massive challenge of the increasingly ubiquitous nature of information. 

However, they haven't tried to change their entire business model by evolution – creeping towards digital day by day. Instead, they've created new brands and businesses and jumped into the online world head first.

Within this environment they (and their friends at News) have been occasionally getting it right (Domain) and sometimes getting it wrong too. They've done this whilst the legacy business, newspapers, chugs along. It will die at some stage, but they are managing the decline whilst nurturing different businesses which look forward towards growth.

So if the answer is revolution not evolution then how do you easily jump from one thing to another – revolution, not evolution? 

There is one simple rule all brands should embrace: define yourselves by an emotional promise, or attitude, not by what you make. Think Virgin, 'the consumer champion'. Virgin can apply that promise no matter what industry, versus Ford's 'we make cars and trucks'.

Interestingly, I see a similar thing happening with advertising and media agencies. Those who think they are (for example) a media agency who buy and sell media will not evolve as media buying becomes commoditised. Only those that have a higher order promise will. A promise that can umbrella other business models other than just the trading of media. 

However, think of the media agencies you know – what do they stand for? What's their promise? Will it carry them beyond buying? And it's not just media agencies. What about the creative agencies, or research agencies, or PR agencies? They all have a factory and define themselves by what they 'make'. 

So many of these agencies have the audacity to tell their clients to understand what their promise is, and to not define themselves rationally (by what they make), yet PR agencies do PR, research agencies do research, and advertising agencies do ads (or 'the work, the work, the work'). Most define themselves rationally – and few have a promise that stretches beyond what they currently do.

The future-proofed business models are ones which understand their promise, and don't build factories making just the one thing. Think Virgin, or Apple (what businesses are they in? Laptops, tablets? Music, phones?). Who are the Virgins and Apples of the advertising and media industry – the brands that are defined by an attitude and a promise, applying that to what comes in the door, rather than having a factory to feed?

So coming back to Ford, and their struggle to remain relevant in the 21st century. It was their founder who once said: "If you asked people what they wanted they'd have said a faster horse." (I agree consumers are not good people to ask if you want to understand what they want). He also was very clear to explain Ford was in the transport business, not the automobile business.

However, if that's the case, where are the innovations for Ford in electric vehicles, bikes, airplanes, rail and shipping? Why is it that Ford has 99% of its business in cars and trucks with combustion engines? Why do they have factories dedicated to making (more or less) the one thing?

In the future there is only one guarantee: things will change faster and more dramatically. What seems relevant today will be obsolete tomorrow. The power of a well-constructed brand is that it can ebb and flow and manifest itself in all sorts of different ways.

However, it can only do this if it's constructed to be a 'why'-based brand – a brand with a purpose, rather than a 'what'-based brand – a brand that defines itself by it's output, what it makes.

So if you work with brands, or you're a brand yourself, what is it that you stand for, what's your promise? If you know, you're in for the long haul. If you don't then I hope luck is on your side.

Finally, I want to say thanks to B&T for having me back as one of their regular contributors. I'll be writing for B&T monthly after a four-year hiatus. It's nice to be back.  

Adam Ferrier is founder and global head of behavioural science, Naked Communications