Trends in Association Branding

Years ago I spoke at a conference focused on crafting association business strategies. This was in the late nineties while in the Marketing and Customer Management Practice at PW (now PwC). My work to that point focused on professional service businesses and consumer products. To tell the truth I was filling in for a colleague who fell ill.

The presentation went well but it was the conversations following that stuck with me. In short, I was rocked by the complexities of the industry and the challenges faced by these entities. iacpconferencephoto1-520x346Associations have always been “up against it”. All share certain issues. After working with four associations in the past two years, we have discovered the following:

Cost Not a Benefit: in many cases, members join to maintain accreditation or there is a penalty for not keeping membership but not necessarily claimable upsides.

The “Nonprofit” Label: it suggests a softer culture, less talented employees than the private sector (but stronger than the public sector!), and lack of depth and sophistication in leadership, management and planning. Let me be clear…this is perception not reality.

Overlap: one only has to look at the marketing and advertising industry to see that an agency in the United States could belong to easily over twenty different associations. Imagine being a retailer or in healthcare and that number is many times higher. This makes it important for associations to differentiate. When you think about it associations are competing against every other association out there and be held to the standards of the best. Also note there are associations for every conceivable group in the world…there are even several associations for associations!

Read more

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.

Read more

An Ad 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.

Read more

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.

Read more

Ad Agencies Confuse Public Relations with Branding

Perhaps we can lay blame on the Creative Revolution in advertising from the early 1960s. That era of broadcast communications produced, on a relative basis, the largest volume of advertising we have ever seen. It is viewed as the pinnacle of Madison Avenue’s influence. At the same time, the public relations profession was having its own golden days. The masters of spin were as sought after as the martini-soaked mad men (apologies for reinforcing the stereotype).

Soon competition among ad agencies grew in the late 1960s and the phone stopped ringing. Work dried up so agencies turned to their public relations cousins for help. From the mid ‘60s on, this meant pumping out press releases and cultivating media to cover agency activities. Most of this trumpeted new business wins and awards gained at the ever-increasing number of shows. This contributed no real or meaningful differentiation especially given all agencies followed the same playbook. The biggest innovation agencies introduced in subsequent decades was hiring public relations professionals to work in-house.

TheOffice

Read more

Brand Names are Illiterate

The last season of the comedy, Parks and Recreation, finished up in 2015 but was set in 2017. Much of the plot focused on a fictional business named Gryzzl that is a thinly veiled amalgam of Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Google. Gryzzl employees tout collapsible transparent tablets that can be used as a skateboard, use treadmill desks, and don’t really appear to work. Their tagline is, “It’s the cloud for the cloud.” and the hI773Ke-company mantra is, “Wouldn’t it be tight if everyone was chill to each other?”

People surf free Gryzzl Wi-Fi, communicate through Gryzzl’s social network, and Gryzzl drones deliver creepily personalized gifts. A youthful executive of the company says, “I hope you can see now there is nothing scary about Gryzzl. We just want to learn everything about everyone and track them everywhere they go and anticipate what they’re about to do.”

Satire aside, the reason I bring this up is because of the name, Gryzzl. It alone made me laugh when I saw it. The name captures the silliness in brand naming these days. Granted, it is extremely difficult to find an original name so for the sake of legal ownership and URLs, many companies are bastardizing spellings and meanings.

Read more

Agency CEOs Are Chief People Officers

I recently had lunch with an agency CEO. It was revealing because the content was raw and real. In short, he lamented the lack of hours in the day to deal with everything on his plate. There was little I could recommend short of cloning and ruthless prioritization.

If you are an agency CEO or if you marvel at the responsibility they take on, then you know that it is overwhelming. CEOs have to be a master of the balance sheet, superior in business development, aware of technological developments, substantive in interaction with clients, Biz Mensavvy in the press, excellent public speakers, tireless in the pursuit of growth and profit, and role models for the agency’s brand.
And all of this depends on people. Any variable in performance is due to the collective talent of the agency. What this proves is that the CEO is as much the Chief People Officer as anything. Every industry and business can claim, “Ours is a people business” or “Talent is our greatest asset” and that would be fair, but it is especially accurate and evidenced in the agency world. The loss of a key person can sink an entire office. The right person leading the right team can propel an entire agency to dazzling new heights.

Read more

Seagram’s Ads Predicted the Future

If only The Seagram Company could have seen the future they would avoid what Charles Bronfman called, “a disaster, it is a disaster, it will be a disaster…It was a family tragedy.” He was speaking of the demise of his family’s business founded in 1857. Before the company’s ill-fated forays into entertainment and its breakup of assets that were acquired 1979_seagrams_adby Pernod Ricard, Diageo and Coca-Cola, Seagram’s developed and owned nearly 250 drink brands and was the largest distiller of alcoholic beverages in the world.

They were also one of the coolest holding companies of all time. The Seagram Building, the company’s American headquarters at 375 Park Avenue in New York City, was designed by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe with Philip Johnson. Seagram’s made Canadian whisky a must-have. Crown Royal, 7 Crown, 83 Canadian Whisky, Five Star Rye Whisky, and Seagram’s VO were seen as luxury liquors.

My dad drank Crown Royal exclusively. Open a particular closet in our home back then and you would have drowned in royal blue felt-like bags with a gold tasselled drawstring (later they would be purple). Crown Royal was sold in these keepsake sacs. Kids would keep marbles and other toys in them. Ladies used them for jewelry. My dad housed scores of golf balls in the plush bag.

Read more

The Persuasiveness of Great Language

The advertising industry has a rich history. Much, of course, is based on lore made greater with each telling. It is rife with characters both created and those who lived. The Marlboro Man, The Morton Salt Girl, Cap’n Crunch, Aunt Jemima, Mr. Whipple, The Jolly Green Giant, Miss Chiquita Banana, The Pillsbury Doughboy, Tony the Tiger, Mr. Peanut, and the Coppertone Girl are Pillsburyiconic brand representatives. Many of these creations were spun from the agencies of Leo Burnett, David Ogilvy and Bill Bernbach.

These Madison Avenue greats produced intriguing quotes. The thoughts of these revered and referenced gentlemen continue to be trumpeted and contextualized to be made relevant today. Leo Burnett is economical and bit gruff. David Ogilvy was prolific having identified the power of a soundbite from his earliest days. Bill Bernbach was a furious and detailed writer. I know this having sat close to his archives while Chief Communications Officer at DDB Worldwide.

One bit of the latter’s writing recently came to my attention. I had not seen it while at DDB. It Mr. Bernbach’s 1947 resignation from Grey Advertising. It is a delightful but forceful blast of prose. Firm in conviction and clear in intent, the letter is a summary of his disappointment and hope for advertising. It is rant in defence of craft over technique and science. It is a cry for differentiation and distinction.

Yet, what I enjoy most is the emphasis on selling. In recent decades, marketing and advertising has become entertainment. You are hard pressed to hear the word “sales” and “selling” in agencies. That is the industry protecting itself against age-old indictments of being deceptive and manipulative. The irony is, all business communications exist to sell something whether it be a product or idea…so why cover up that fact?

Below is the text from the letter and the original. Read it and come to your own conclusions. I think he does a wonderful job of proving “to the world that good taste, good art, and good writing can be good selling.”

Dear collegues,

Our agency is getting big. That’s something to be happy about. But it’s something to worry about, too, and I don’t mind telling you I’m damned worried. I’m worried that we’re going to fall into the trap of bigness, that we’re going to worship techniques instead of substance, that we’re going to follow history instead of making it, that we’re going to be drowned by superficialities instead of buoyed up by solid fundamentals. I’m worried lest hardening of the creative arteries begin to set in.

There are a lot of great technicians in advertising. And unfortunately they talk the best bernbachgame. They know all the rules. They can tell you that people in an ad will get you greater readership. They can tell you that a sentence should be this sort or that long. They can tell you that body copy should be broken up for easier reading. They can give you fact after fact after fact. They are the scientists of advertising. But there’s one little rub. Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.

It’s that creative spark that I’m so jealous of for our agency and that I am so desperately fearful of losing. I don’t want academicians. I don’t want scientists. I don’t want people who do the right things. I want people who do inspiring things.

In the past year I must have interviewed about 80 people – writers and artists. Many of them were from the so-called giants of the agency field. It was appalling to see how few of these people were genuinely creative. Sure, they had advertising know-how. Yes, they were up on advertising technique.

But look beneath the technique and what did you find? A sameness, a mental weariness, a mediocrity of ideas. But they could defend every ad on the basis that it obeyed the rules of advertising. It was like worshiping a ritual instead of the God.

All this is not to say that technique is unimportant. Superior technical skill will make a good ad better. But the danger is a preoccupation with technical skill or the mistaking of technical skill for creative ability. The danger lies in the temptation to buy routinized men who have a formula for advertising. The danger lies In the natural tendency to go after tried-and-true talent that will not make us stand out in competition but rather make us look like all the others.

If we are to advance we must emerge as a distinctive personality. We must develop our own philosophy and not have the advertising philosophy of others imposed on us.

Let us blaze new trails. Let us prove to the world that good taste, good art, and good writing can be good selling.
Respectfully,

Bill Bernbach

BillB_Letter

Lessons from the Lemonade Stand

The dependable lemonade stand is not only an enduring summer icon but also a slice piece of trade rich with business lessons. This past summer I made a point of stopping at those I spotted. I learned that the exchange of flavored water for a few coins may appear simple but represents aspects critical to business. If you look closely the humble stand provides a mini-MBA covering funding, strategy, production, marketing, customer service and reinvestment. It all starts with thinking about the lemonade stand “industry” which is:

Fiercely competitive with low barriers to entry

Both seasonal and weather dependent

Reliant on a commodity, easily substituted product

Seemingly undifferentiated overall

Unattractive from a revenue and profit perspective

For each of these conditions, one has to tailor the business to succeed. As daunting an industry as it is this has not stopped thousands of young people from starting them up each and every summer. Here are five lessons for your children and your own enterprises.

Delight with a Superior Product

Of course, we will all part with our loose change to help out a tiny entrepreneur. But if the lemonade is tart, weak, overly sweet or thimble size we will force a smile, wish them luck and complain about the product back in our car or as lemonade-stand_5we cycle away. This reaction is no different from any other disappointing purchase. I have gone back to a stand twice if the lemonade is legitimately pleasing in taste.

A superior product differentiates, communicates care and quality, provides value in the exchange, engenders loyalty and prompts word-of-mouth.

Pick a Smart Spot

Location has always been critical to business. As a child, I ran a stand at my home in Winnipeg, Canada situated on a quiet street and later that day while dumping the warm, unsold liquid treat down the drain vowed to learn from the experience. The next time I loaded up my wagon, trundled half a mile, and set up outside the gates of The Tuxedo Golf Club. With that experience I learned another lesson – have adequate stock. My location was so good that the would-be Tiger Woods cleaned me out fast.

Read more