On Brand or Off Brand: Advertising Agency Office Design

Advertising agency office design has always fascinated. Even before joining the industry I interacted with agencies and appreciated the creative effort to dress up their workplaces. Office design is a complex puzzle of practicality, utility, image, productivity, and more. The intended result in the case of advertising agencies is to communicate the brand and culture of the business.

I have been involved in the design and decorating of six agency office spaces. These required attention to layout, spaciousness, flow, natural light, sound control, collaborative spaces, and break facilities. Unfortunately, individual work areas often get short-changed to accommodate a certain desired impact.

Ironically there is precious little differentiation among competing agencies when it comes to office design. I have been in over 100 offices of various advertising, branding, public relations, digital and media agencies. Based on my observations I can conclude they are not immune to trends and these trends force them to look the same.

Sadly too many agency office designs have one imperative…impress the client who may visit once a quarter for a few hours. As you can imagine, this will comes at the expense of employees who spend 60+ hours a week in the space. Office design is an opportunity to tell an agency’s story but a few macro trends are driving a lack of differentiation.

Look Like a Restaurant

I have done a few double-takes when entering an agency office. In some cases I thought I was on the wrong floor in the wrong building. Tons of agencies are striving to look like a high-end restaurant, a hip lounge, pub, coffee bar, summer patio or all of the above. A designer told me this directive originated from agency leaders who believed the millennial workforce wanted to be in a bar at all times. I am not talking about just the office kitchen or eating area. This design dominates the entire space. It also has a productivity factor…it is employed so the staff do not leave for a bite or drink offsite. Staff should be encouraged to get out, observe, and interact with people who may buy their client’s brands.

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The Reason Ad Folks are Unhappy

In the Mad Men television series, Harry Crane of Sterling Cooper helps out Paul Kinsey, a former colleague. Kinsey lost his copywriting position at the agency and went on to successively fail at McCann, Y&R, K&E, and B&B before going in-house at grocer A&P. When that didn’t work out he joined the Hare Krishna.

Crane is largely an unsympathetic person but he shows empathy for Kinsey. Crane says to Peggy Olson, “Don’t you know how lucky we are?” Crane cannot believe his hare-krishna-diner-mad-men-640x448own good fortune in the agency world. This episode and much of the series examines those in advertising who make it and those who do not. Mad Men beats up the profession while simultaneously aggrandizing the ad world.

The show profiled tensions and issues that persist to this day. A big one is employee morale. CampaignUS recently shone the light on growing unhappiness. On October 24, 2016 they published their 2nd Annual Morale Survey.

It found that nearly half of agency employees suffer from poor morale. Forty-seven percent of employees rated their morale as either “low” (31%) or “dangerously low” (16%). That is up 36% from the previous year. As alarming is the fact that 63% of those claiming poor morale were actively job-hunting. One assumes that means not switching to another agency.

On the same day (a cool coincidence) Advertising Age published an article titled, These Are the 50 Companies Creatives Would ‘Kill to Work for Full Time’. It covered the survey conducted by Working Not Working. Twenty-four of the fifty companies identified were not agencies.

Creative folks would much rather be at Vice, Spotify, Tesla, National Geographic, or Nike over McCann, JWT, Leo Burnett, Y&R, or Ogilvy.

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2016 Top-Drawer Business Books

It is that time again. We are happy to share our annual business books picks. Welcome to the 9th edition of the Top-Drawer Business Books of 2016. Too many business book lists are narrow in definition. Our list is less traditional and duplicative to others. That is why it includes, and is sometimes dominated by, screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-3-32-04-pmbooks not categorized purely as “business”.

We always avoid books promising four-hour workweeks because they are fables, over-simplified and prescriptive how-to works that are vacuous and dangerous, and so-called inspirational books that are trite, lite and ineffectual. These are all tossed aside when one experiences the blunt adversities found in actual commerce.

There are no shortcuts or magic panaceas in business. We have to do the work even when reading. As John Locke stated, “Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.” We encourage you to read the selections here and make the knowledge yours.

The list includes books released in 2016 that are top-of-mind, notable, relevant, Famous_Nathan_jacket_revise_new_trim_size.inddwell written, applicable, thought-provoking, and innovative. Our last bit of criteria makes the selections tougher to determine and that is timelessness of content. We love sharing the Top-Drawer list because so much of success in business is predicated on great storytelling and these selections exemplify that skill.

This year 13 make our list, 4 more than last year, and are presented in no particular order. For the first time, fiction efforts are included for the amazing lessons they carry if one is open to the education. For fun, we have included a separate list of 8 timeless business novels.

Remember, life is too short to drink cheap scotch or to read books that are not Top-Drawer. So keep these selections within easy reach for repeated reference. Access the list here, topdrawer2016final.

The High Cost of Poor Business Writing

Hello dear reader. It is important for you to know that I labored over every word in this post. Oliver Wendell Homes said, “carve every word before your let it fall.” For tone-of-voice I strove for “friendly academic and passionate advocate”. Then I asked, “What do I want the reader to remember?”

I love to connect with people through writing. I do a great deal of business writing and have been encouraged of late. This skill and practice is under scrutiny. Its poor quality leads to inefficiency and ineffectiveness. I am encouraged because we are beginning to recognize the magnitude of the problem.

Josh Bernoff recently wrote in The Daily Beast a piece titled, Bad Writing Costs Businesses Billions. Bernoff has been a writer for 30 years and just published, Writing Without Bullshit: Boost Your Career by Saying What You Mean. The article grabs with an amazing statistic. It seems that bad writing is costing American businesses close to $400 billion every year. That is a staggering number.

Bad writing is costing American businesses close to $400 billion every year.

Bernoff writes, “Think about it. You start your day wading through first-draft emails from colleagues who fail to come to the point. You consume reports that don’t make clear what’s happening or what your management should do about it. The websites, marketing materials, and press releases from your suppliers are filled with jargon and meaningless superlatives.” The last sentence resonated with me. I am on a mission to ruthlessly, creatively and intelligently improve my own writing. This is a demonstration for to do the same.

American workers spend nearly a quarter of their day reading. Much of that is wasted because the material is poorly written. Bernoff has done the math, “American workers spend 22 percent of their work time reading; higher compensated workers read more. According to my analysis, America is spending 6 percent of total wages on time wasted attempting to get meaning out of poorly written material. Every company, every manager, every professional pays this tax, which consumes $396 billion of our national income.”

The websites, marketing materials, and press releases from your suppliers are filled with jargon and meaningless superlatives.

Bernoff illustrates the problem with this mind numbing job description example: “The Area Vice President, Enterprise Customers will develop and manage a sustainable strategic relationship that transforms the current commercial model by creating joint value that results in the ongoing reduction of costs, continuous process improvement, growth and profitability for both partners with the ability to export key learnings.” Such language is poor and embarrassing but it also grates.

Kaleigh Moore wrote an article on business writing in Inc. earlier this year. It examined a related aspect of poor business writing. She makes the case that communication “is an essential skill for any business”. This seems obvious even fundamental but apparently it is not given the sad state of the skill in the business world.

She cites a study from CollegeBoard, a panel established by the National Commission on Writing. It shows that “businesses are spending as much as $3.1 billion on remedial writing training annually. Of this budget, $2.9 billion was spent on current employees–not new hires.” This is not attributed entirely to our early years in the education system because “even a college degree doesn’t save businesses from the effects of poor writing skills.”

A report from the Partnership for 21st-Century Skills notes that 26.2 percent of college students had deficient writing skills. These educated folks “also lacked proper communication skills across the board.” This should come as no surprise. Writing makes you a better reader and conversationalist. It can also improve your presentation skills. Writing, reading, conversing and presenting all contribute to knowledge and confidence. That makes for a much resilient, more innovative and efficient workforce.

Carolyn O’Hara is the Managing Editor of The Week and tackled the subject of business writing in Harvard Business Review. Her piece, How to Improve Your Business Writing, is practical. She paraphrases Marvin Swift who said, “clear writing means clear thinking.” Swift wrote a touchstone essay on business writing in a 1973 issue of Harvard Business Review.

Kara Blackburn, a senior lecturer in managerial communication at the MIT Sloan School of Management is quoted in same piece, “You can have all the great ideas in the world and if you can’t communicate, nobody will hear them.” That is so true. I have witnessed too many of my clients making the mistake of not only assuming they have been heard but that they have also been understood. Too frequently, neither has taken place.

Too many of my clients making the mistake of not only assuming they have been heard but that they have also been understood.

O’Hara lays out sound advice:

Think before you write: don’t start writing on the spark of an idea. Talk it through in your own mind before words flow on paper.

Be direct: make your point right up front. It will guide everything after. I think of this as a thesis statement to be proved or disproved.

Cut the fat: avoid the unnecessary and build up the necessary but not with more words. Do it with more emphasis…there is a difference.

Avoid jargon and $10 words: I used to believe I was paid by high-sounding words. I know now it is about being convincing and not trying to impress.

Read what you write: I agree but recommend reading it out loud. I am often embarrassed when I hear the words. Equally so, I am happy when they are edited for greater impact.

Practice every day: We write something every day but I also advocate walking away from that book, article, blog, or report. After all, athletes do not train the same muscles each and every day.

Josh Bernoff has his own advice for better business writing. He suggests “The Iron Imperative” where you “treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own. To embrace it means that every time you send an email or write a document, you must take a moment to structure it for maximum readability and meaning. We are lazy; we’d rather save our own time than someone else’s.” That is very true. It is far too easy to press “send” than to edit again.

It is far too easy to press “send” than to edit again.

He recognizes that smartphone or computer screen reading “reduces attention spans and concentration” so it “demands a radical rethink of the way you communicate in writing. In this environment, brevity must become a core value.”

I am not a proponent of this in a strict sense. Most social media is soundbite-like but exists to compel people to investigate and learn more. That eventually demands long-form business writing. Bernoff’s mantra of ‘clarity, brevity, and plain language’ misses the opportunity to be creative, inject personality and tell a rich story.

Let me summarize what we have covered in hopes of compelling and convincing you of my thesis. First off, poor business writing costs businesses big dollars in inefficiencies and lost sales. Second, everyone needs help to be a better writer.

This means you. You can always improve and if you do you will be contributing to your career, your company’s success, and the entire economy. If that was not enticing enough, you will be incredibly proud when you press send on that next e-mail or text or when your article appears in Fortune or Bloomberg BusinessWeek or when your marketing materials convince a customer to try your offer.

Famous advertising professional, David Ogilvy, had it right, “People who think well, write well… Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well.” We are taking writing for granted. It is just something we do, not do well. That has to change.

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100 Staff: An Advertising Agency Tipping Point

Starting any business is a bold move. Not all survive and few truly thrive. Those that do face the challenges of managing growth and staying true to what made them successful in the first place. This is an interesting tension that I recently discovered in working with four advertising agencies.

These businesses had grown to 100 or more staff. Of course, that metric in, and of itself, is not an indicator of sustained success. The good news is the agency leaders know that. In fact, these leaders were concerned because interesting things happen when the payroll hits 100. Here are some issues that arise:

  • Agencies of 15 or 30 or even 75 employees possess a start-up or boutique feel. When you hit 100 this weirdly begins to dissipate.
  • You don’t know everyone any more. Small agencies talk of being saatchi-saatchi-office-funkt-1“family” where everyone has each other’s back. While a strong culture can keep this rolling as staff size grows, it cannot mitigate the realities of being larger. This is compounded when they open up other offices.
  • A bigger payroll and presence prompts new business pressures. This can mean chasing the wrong work to keep the machine humming.
  • Founders and principals move from client service oversight to functional roles. Marketing, people, service and product development and other areas need full-time leadership. This transition can be bumpy and skill-sets are stretched.
  • Specialisms and differentiators begin to lose their luster. You simply cannot make the same claims. Being “nimble”, as an example, gets called in to question.

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Every Agency Needs to Obsess About Loyalty

The company, Access Development, tracked and recorded, and recently shared every publicly available piece of data available concerning customer engagement and loyalty. They call it the Ultimate Collection of Loyalty Statistics. These data points, insights and themes are interesting unto themselves but add up to one big fat fact they did not note…any marketing business is in the business of loyalty.

I mean advertising agencies, marketing consultancies, public relations firms, market research bureaus, digital agencies, performance marketing shops, telemarketers, brand consultancies, social media marketers, media buying services, promotional material providers, influencer and celebrity marketing 200464106-001advisors…well, you get the idea. Any agency, firm or service that is in the business of marketing exists for one purpose. Of course, this includes those prescient to be specifically in the business of loyalty marketing.

The past, present and future of marketing has and will always hinge on loyalty. No company wants a one-time customer. Even businesses selling bomb shelters in the 1950’s wanted a client’s second home or to upgrade the first. Apple wants to sell customers a new cellphone every time there is a new release or every 22 months which is the smartphone adoption average.

Agencies and consultancies continue to talk about brand positioning, awareness, consideration and trial. Important stuff for sure but only the start. All efforts and spend should have loyalty as the end goal. Anything else is a dodge, a feint, a run from the real focus and fight.

Not one single advertising agency, brand consultancy, PR firm, media buyer is really talking about loyalty.

I see not one single advertising agency, brand consultancy, PR firm, media buyer talking about loyalty. This leads to churn, inefficiency, ineffectiveness and the regurgitation of the same ideas whose only result is a client’s frustration and dissatisfaction…and poor results.

Why spend money on branding and advertising if not to have repeat customers?

Let me say it again, no company wants a one-time customer. That is why marketing’s purpose is loyalty. You only need to give a cursory examination of Access Development’s aggregation to arrive at the same conclusion. We thank them for the following…and for also proving loyalty programs are a tactic not a strategy.

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The Real Reason Clients Hire You

I have spent my career in professional services. From Price Waterhouse to Interbrand to DDB to now running my own agency. Over that time I have become an expert in branding and marketing professional services. At least that is what peers and clients say. To make that claim myself is analogous to me telling you that “I’m cool” or “I’m funny” or “I’m smart”. The credibility is in others saying it. Having others speak well of you is the goal of branding.

This specialty allows me to work with law firms, management and marketing consultancies, advertising and digital agencies, and accounting firms. An engagement with an investment management firm led to an insight about how and why clients truly decide on one professional over another.

screen-shot-2016-09-20-at-8-58-40-pmFor a long period we assumed that clients first and foremost chose expertise. This assumption led ad agencies to talk about themselves way too much, law firms to numb clients with superior high-minded jargon, and management consultancies to dazzle with mysterious black boxes of proprietary processes. To their credit many professionals identified this as a problem but mistakenly identified the solution. They chose to switch emphasis and focus on the prospective client’s situation.

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What Ungava Gin Has To Do Now

I first tried Ungava gin about three years ago. We live in Mont Tremblant, Quebec and the local Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ) was showcasing this home province concoction. To tell the truth, the color of the product was a tad off putting. Rarely do you see a gin that resembles a substantial urine sample. According to the company website, “six rare botanicals give Ungava Canadian ungava-bottlePremium Gin its particular aroma and colouring.” Suffice it to say, it is yellow.

I am a vodka man but love a G&T in the summer. Vodkas are largely undifferentiated to me in taste. Perhaps I have burnt out my taste buds but I cannot really distinguish between a Stoli, Grey Goose or Absolut. Yet, when it comes to gins, I taste the difference.

In the case of Ungava gin, it is distinct. It is both rich and smooth. The marketing speak about rare botanicals has truth to it. There is a pleasing complexity in the mixture. The site claims, “an original recipe is produced in a traditional way: Nordic juniper, wild rose hips, cloudberry, crowberry, arctic blend and Labrador tea are naturally steeped until the gin takes on its complex flavour and distinctive sunny hue.” Sunny hue is a much kinder description than urine.

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Remember When Marketing was About Selling?

Checkout these thought posters and share them widely. They address brand storytelling, the loss of meaning in branding, the need for real results, and how marketing must get back to selling.

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Social Media Officially Failed on February 7, 2009

I often joke with clients and audiences at conferences that social media officially failed on February 7, 2009. It is a completely arbitrary date. My point is, around that time it became clear that the promise of social media would go unrealized. That promise being that social media would be premised on conversation.

Instead what happened is brands and their agencies feared lack of control over dialogue. Ceding that control to customers was a scary idea. So they reacted by using social media as just another broadcast tool. They fell back on their comfort zone as in television, print and radio. Years later this persists.

This is not to say brands are shying away from social media. In fact, Forrester predicts $16 billion in spend in social media by US marketers alone in 2016. Lithium, the owner of Klout, that tracks social media influence, commissioned independent research firm ComBlu to take a look at social media. According to their site, “Combining hard numbers with human analysis, the State of Social looks at eight industries and 85 Fortune 1000 companies to determine how strategic and effective brands are across their social ecosystems.”

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Before we get to the insights it is important to state that though I am on Klout, I am not sure of its ultimate value. An aggregate score based on my social media activity has not caused me to alter anything when it comes to social media. And it is clear this report has an agenda and that is to further advance the idea that influencer marketing is valid and works. Social media was always intended to be an egalitarian grassroots tool. Obviously some will attract more followers than others but that should be based on their value and relevance rather than by a campaign using brand dollars.

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