The feedback loop

There is one definitive characteristic that separates the competent from the mediocre; the practice of giving, seeking and acting upon constructive feedback.

I was fortunate enough to get good bosses early on in my career who were kind and thoughtful with their feedback. I learnt a great deal from them.

One of the most valuable artifacts I have, is a printout of my ‘yearly evaluation’ by my then boss, Anirban, who took the pains to write multiple pages worth of insights about my work. He saw the good in me that I was not aware of. He kindly pointed out areas of improvement that I was afraid to even acknowledge. Without feedback like that, I would have remained insecure and incompetent. But I was lucky to get good bosses. I shudder to think about those who work in companies that do not have a culture of giving, seeking feedback at all. And there are many companies like that – I have worked in one where the bosses never gave any constructive feedback at all, they would just sit on judgements. Young creative guys would not know what will hit them. The creative process became a religious process – blind, fraught with terror and delivered with superstitious hope. Superstitious folks are not the ones to reason and improve. It was a terrible place with low morale, high insouciance and middling prospects. I was at my busiest in that agency even as none of the work we did was worthy of going in anyone’s portfolio. We were a factory of uninspiring ads.

Don’t be at such a place. And rescue your own workplace from becoming one.
A good place to work is where the boss provides kind and thoughtful feedback often. A rookie might not even know what he needs to know, so the onus is on the leadership to cultivate a culture of thoughtful dialogue, of thoughtful analysis of our work.

Without feedback, there is no improvement.
Without improvement, there is no growth.
Without growth, there is only existential dread and career insecurity.

Why subject yourself to it? If you are senior enough, get in the habit of engaging your team in thoughtful feedback dialogues. If you a junior, get in the habit of asking for feedback.

Feedback is a lot of work – you have to think hard, analyze… most are too lazy to do it proactively. So demand a feedback from your superior after every project. No other education/ ‘training’ is needed if you have a culture of thoughtful feedback.

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Advertising industry’s new ‘Pivot’

No planet for old businesses

Exhibit 1:

On 16 June 2017, Amazon.com Inc. announced that it is acquiring Whole Foods Market Inc., for $13.7 billion in an all-cash transaction.
By the end of that day, Walmart, Kroger, Target & Costco had lost their market caps by 5.8%, 7.1%, 9.1% and 15.7% respectively.
On the eighth day of the announcement, Amazon’s market cap had increased by $18.9 billion.

In a sense, not only did investors reward Amazon by funding the acquisition, they also punished the competitors of Whole Foods for not being acquired by Amazon.
The situation is such that as soon as Amazon enters any category, leaders in that category lose market valuations almost instantaneously. That is the promise/ threat of platforms like Amazon.

Exhibit 2:

“In 2017, almost 80% of every incremental ad dollar spent globally will accrue to digital. In their domestic market of the US, Google and Facebook are capturing more than 100% of this growth, up from 85% in 2015.” So read the 2017 Redburn Report titled, ‘Ad Agencies Marginalised.’
“More than 100%…”

If someone captures a share of more than a 100%, it means that that share came at someone else’s expense. Certainly, many digital advertising companies and ad exchanges saw decline in share of digital ad spends. Advertising agency holding companies too bore the brunt of Google and Facebook’s growth. 2017 perhaps has been the worst performing year for WPP since the recession of 2008-09. For the latest quarter Q3, the firm reported a 2% drop in organic growth.

Essentially, growth is almost a zero sum game now in which platforms are winning. This is in stark contrast to the nature of growth in the last century, where globalization created avenues for many to grow: It was not a zero sum game then. The monopolistic ‘Platforms’ are stealing lunch of legacy businesses – ours too.

Platforms are winning in today’s zero-sum game of growth. The monopolistic Platforms are stealing our lunch.

What are platforms?

A platform is essentially an enabling infrastructure/ environment that,

  1. Gives freedom to connect with others
  2. Enables valuable exchanges which were not possible outside of the platform
  3. Enables external applications/services to be built on top of it, (APIs)

Platforms like Amazon, Facebook, Google and Uber are enjoying unprecedented growth and consequently unprecedented investor interest, because they allow that egalitarian access to valuable exchanges that were not possible otherwise. By their very nature, the exchanges become more useful, more valuable with expansion of user base. Amazon is able to fine-tune its suggestion because it has access to purchase history data of billions of its customers across the globe. People use Facebook because all their friends use Facebook. This phenomenon, of increase in usefulness and consequently the value of a service with increase in the number of users, is called ‘network effect’.

The sinister consequence of the network effect is the potential of monopolies. The logic of Platform growth inevitably leads to hollowing out of existing market structures. The logical conclusion of Platform economy is a world of monopolies rising upon the ashes of old businesses.

Shift in client priorities

From ad spends to spends for innovations in product, supply chain or marketing.

As if the threat/ opportunity of ‘Platforms’ was not enough, companies these days also have to wrap their heads around 3D printing, Blockchain technology, CRISPR/Cas9 and so on. These are amazing technologies promising revolutionary changes. These technologies present new opportunities that we never knew existed before.  However, many legacy businesses are ill equipped to respond to them.

Thankfully, a whole industry has sprung up to cater to these needs – needs of business transformation in the face of existential threats posed by new technologies. Traditional consultancies have adapted to offer new expertise to clients. Specialist big data analysis agencies are helping companies make sense of their consumers. There is even an AI (Artificial Intelligence) agency now, that helps create ‘intelligent agents’ for brands. Market is demanding newer mutations of agencies like these, mutations that help them navigate the brave new world of the new economy.

Market is demanding newer mutations of agencies; mutations that help them navigate the brave new world of the new economy.

The question that we must ask ourselves is – do advertising agencies matter as much in these testing times? On one hand, the budget allocated by clients for marketing is under pressure. On the other, technological investments, specialist hires and consultancies are claiming an increasing share of the budget. Will this twin phenomenon erode the value of our services? Will the share apportioned to advertising shrink further?

Advertising agencies, if they remain what they are, will secede their privileged partnership status to digital transformation agencies, to business consultants and to platforms like Google, Facebook and Amazon.

One obvious yet terribly difficult-to-pull-off implication of this is – to become an advertising platform. I have discussed this in detail earlier. The reality though is, not everyone can win in that race to become a platform. For the majority of marketing services agencies to survive and thrive, we need a ‘specialist’ strategy, not a generalist one. Here is why.

Age of specialists

Creative agencies are made up of a unique set of people: People who can think laterally, think big, think informally. Apart from a few top tech companies, not many companies have the asset of free thinkers who are not stifled by hierarchies and suppositions. As such, creative agencies are uniquely positioned to create new solutions for brand growth, beyond branding ideas.

For marketers trying to make sense of a fast changing world, agencies need to adapt to remain the priority partners they turn to for help. Can the planner’s customer centricity help companies improve their business plans? Can the creative talent’s mastery over conceptualization propel a client brand’s product and service design?

Why not to be a generalist?

Advertising agencies help clients ‘position’ their products as distinctly relevant. But we forget to apply those lessons to ourselves.

Google and Amazon is fundamentally rewiring our brains – even our clients. The ‘search’ and ‘suggested’ result mentality means that for every emerging need, the client searches for services he/she needs with sharper definition. She is more likely to send out a specific query out in the world – either digitally or among peers – ‘Who is the best at product design in our category?’, ‘Who can help me assess Blockchain’s potential to disrupt our category?’

What results she might get? Would people respond with a generalist agency’s name even if they have the capabilities? Will a generalist be on ‘Top-Of-Mind’ for such queries?

Well, many private agencies can choose to continue doing what they do, with likeminded clients catering to traditional consumer segments. But that set of marketers is shrinking, the addressable opportunity is getting smaller. That means making peace with low growth.

However, for publicly traded advertising holding companies, coming years could be the years of transformation – either willingly or engineered by activist investors who demand growth.

Hence, it is increasingly likely for large advertising players to ‘Pivot’ to go for the biggest emerging opportunities.

What is ‘Pivot’?

The purpose of a pivot is typically to go after a bigger & sustainable growth opportunity in the market that can ensure companies’ prospects for near future. You do so by changing the direction of your enterprise if the need be, while staying grounded in your core competency.
Firstly, it requires reassessment of your old business in the context of emerging opportunities/ threats. The reassessment should ideally throw up useful insights about your clients, your product/ service relevance or the way you work. Consequently, you quickly test possible improvements to your service. When you hit on something that works, you scale it up and go to town with it.
You might end up changing something about the way you do your business, while keeping some aspect of the business constant. For example, it might entail shifting to new markets/ consumer segments/ new clients. It might entail prioritizing a different sales channel or to gain new capabilities. It might even mean reinterpreting a consumer need and creating a completely new offering.

At its core, it is about changing with an ear to ground. An ear to the ground tells us of seismic shifts in advertising industry with issues of trust (Pritchard, 2017), profitability, and marginalization (Bianca Dallal, 2017) posing threat to advertising industry’s prospects. Common sense tells us that something needs to give – something must change.

It is about time advertising agency business models change for the better.

The pivots of advertising agencies

At its most fundamental level, advertising agencies exist to help marketers grow (Purpose). They do so NOT by helping make the product/ service better, nor by helping reach more consumers. They do so by helping create consumer demand with distinctly persuasive communications. (Competency) The perspective to understand here is that of two variables: Core competency and Purpose of existence. Hence, to evolve, agencies can either look at radically reassessing their competencies or their purpose.

To evolve, agencies can either look at radically reassessing their competencies or their purpose.

Pivot 1. Core competency:

a.      Marketing services agencies:

Typically, creative agencies’ core competency is in their access to creative & strategy talent. W+K, Droga5 or Ogilvy are well known for their creative rock stars. Yet another agency might be built on the strength of decades old client-agency relationships. A media agency might boast about the scale of media spends that it controls and can influence. A research agency might have proprietary methods of inquiry or access to qualitative data.

The logic of pivot tells us that – for advertising agencies, there is an opportunity to pivot with their creative talent. What is the biggest business growth opportunity for the kind of talent they have? Beyond ‘advertising’ what high-value products/ services can this talent create?
Similarly, a research agency might look at its proprietary tool and reevaluate its potential. How can they augment the value of their intelligence the most? Would tabulation of existing qualitative studies help build an intelligent map of consumer behaviors? Who might be interested in such products? If ‘Big Data’ is the new oil, why are research agencies not making their big data usable at scale?

Here is an example of Pivot thinking applied to creative agency business.

The “If You Build it, They Will Come” agency:

This pivot is about keeping company’s people and their abilities at its heart and purpose. It seeks not to build radically new capabilities or hire radically disruptive talent. Instead, it seeks to find the biggest opportunities that the existing teams can deliver on, with greatest amount of satisfaction for the team.
For a creative agency, that means identifying the distinct talents of its teams and then finding the biggest possible commercial opportunities for them, may it be in advertising or beyond.
Creative talent remains the biggest asset of any creative agency. Yet, there is a growing sense of being overworked and underappreciated among the creative teams. There is a sense of ‘missed opportunity’ among people who see others creative people garnering fame and fortune with digital content. YouTube stars, Vice, Refinery29 and so on, have shown that there are bigger avenues for creative expression that could be financially rewarding too. There is a market for every conceivable creative style, expression, idea, app, activity or content. The creative team’s dilemma is – whether they will be better off with a career in advertising or in new age digital companies or by going solo with content creation, curation or aggregation?
Each creative person grapples with these choices. It would be in the agency’s interest to see the potential of its people before the people themselves do. If their team is passionate about a certain kind of creativity, find the biggest market for that creativity. This logic perhaps would not have been very sound 20 years ago. The surest way to make money with creative expressions and ideas was with advertising alone. However, today, a creative person can do much more with his/ her ideas.

If one looks at an idea objectively beyond the context of its birth, it looks much grander. Here is a thought experiment to prove my point.
Think of the last idea you had for a client’s campaign (or if you do not work in advertising, consider ‘what were they thinking?’ for any of your favorite commercial). Now think a logical conclusion to that idea divorced from the brand. Put that idea onto another stage/ context/ medium – see how it expands. If it is a good idea, it will always fill up the volume of your imagination – more than any brand can do justice to the idea.
For example, divorced from Dove, imagine the biggest expressions for the idea of ‘real beauty’. Can it be a movement? Who would like to contribute to it? Which brands would like to associate with it? Would the idea find place in the women’s marches? Would it lobby against skin whitening creams among policy makers? Would it run community centers? What would be the business plan, revenue model for the fullest expression of this idea?

If it is a good idea, it will always fill up the volume of your imagination – more than any brand can do justice to the idea.

Imagine an agency that has a set of issues/ themes/ ideas that it works on instead of set of clients. Will it be more interesting for the creative talent? Could it be more profitable? I believe it can be.

Ideas can translate to bigger things if you let them run free. The digital world has brought down the cost of realizing ideas drastically. It has given us the tools to translate and mutate ideas in infinite ways. Creative shops must make it part of their credo, to not let any good idea go to waste and to bring to life only the biggest expression of it.

The tragedy for many creative people is to see their magnificent ideas not reaching their full potential, being rendered impotent for a smaller cause, smaller venue. Instead, this new agency would recognize the bigness of ideas and put their efforts and capital in realizing those big ideas. The belief being – If You Build it, They Will Come.

b. Holding companies:

Unlike consultancies whose competency is in housing domain experts, holding companies do not have palpably distinct competency any more. A holding company is as good as the companies it has in its portfolio. The value of a holding company used to be in its ability to help portfolio companies to scale. However, it seems to have exhausted its scaling potential, evidenced by lack of organic growth.
Holding companies are trying a few things to improve their value. WPP is hedging its bets on ‘Horizontality’; Publicis is attempting to create an AI enabled personal assistant for its employees called ‘Marcel’. However, unfortunately, both attempts lack vision and conviction.
In an interview for ‘Strategy + Business’ in 2016, PwC Principal Deborah Bothun asks Sir Martin Sorrell, “How far can you take that?”, referring to Horizontality – the effort to get people from different WPP companies to work together for certain clients. Sir Marin Sorrell responds, “Not far enough.”
If the idea cannot be scaled across the company, is it even strategically relevant? At best, it seems to be a tactic to keep key clients happy.
Marcel too seems to be born of a narrow vision; it simply is an internal talent-sourcing tool. Wit AI, and the data that Publicis already has, it can be much more – but there simply is no evident will to create something groundbreaking.
Currently, the business incentives for a holding company are structured in such a way that they cannot radically change their course. However, many of their operating companies can.

Pivot 2. The purpose

In this pivot, we remain true to our purpose of helping client businesses grow. What changes is the ways in which we help them grow. The competencies become variable here. This means for this pivot to work, we must be radically adept at bringing in expertise for most growth needs of the client. If the client requires blockchain expertise, the agency must be capable and willing to provide that expertise. The key focus here is to become the de-facto growth partner of your client.

The “specialized business growth drivers” agency:

This pivot keeps the client base, the market, as constant and re-evaluates its options to seize the biggest opportunities in that market. Therefore, if your client base still feels that their biggest priorities are advertising/ branding to fuel their growth, continue doing the same. However, if your client base feels that their biggest priorities for growth are about leveraging emerging digital platforms or managing reputation in the age of instant outrage, adapt and train your teams to fulfil these needs well. The days for generalist agencies that could do everything for a client moderately well are numbered. Today, marketers need sharper, targeted expertise, which they can get most efficiently by looking at smaller, more specialized ‘vendors’. There is good money to be made servicing these myriad business growth needs. Specialize in driving growth for a certain kind of clientele with a set of competency they prioritize.

New age, new agencies

It is about time that agencies wake up to the reality of working in the digital world. It is not the time to be afraid and to be defensive. It is time to make bold new steps, to ‘fail fast’ and to ‘pivot’. It is time to start new adventures. The technological and societal revolutions are not threats, but opportunities for growth. It is time to grow magnificently with these new opportunities. Grow by either sharply adapting to emerging client needs or by investing in ideas you believe in. It is a brave new world, ready for the best of our ideas.

The triad of Consultancies, FB and Google will neuter creative agencies globally, unless…

First: The digital disruption.

Globally, Facebook and Google now dominate advertising dollars, not WPP or Publicis or other agency companies. (For comparison about the market muscle – Combined market cap of FB and G was $812Bn as of June 2016. How did WPP, Omnicom, IPG, Publicis stack up? The four combined were at $70 Bn. And the less said about the growth, the better.) So there’s that.

And now consultancies are entering the fray to steal the lunch from agencies. And agencies have largely been too busy in denial to notice their impending irrelevance and gutting of their margins.

Second: The value of ideas.

Adweek recently wrote about the trend of Global consultancy goliaths buying up small agencies to make inroads into the branding industry. And similarly, creative agencies have also been trying to make inroads into consultancy businesses.

Who is more likely to succeed? Which industry will prevail, which will shake-up?

To me the answer is obvious. Why? Here’s why –

  1. Relative Value: Consultancy’s service is typically valued at higher valuations than creative agencies. In another world, where creative agencies didn’t get too complacent early on and put more emphasis on effectiveness beyond awards, perhaps, creatives would have earned more, grew bigger by creatively solving newer and varied problems and given bigger business growth for brands. But we don’t live in that world. Consultancies are good at convincing with numbers how they affect businesses positively.
    P.S. – There should be a research done in success rate of consultancies versus agencies in actually delivering growth.
  2. Positioning: Consulting is positioned as a house of experts. Consultancies typically house ‘domain experts’ that the CXO knows he can access. So, it is not a big stretch to imagine that consultancies house creative experts too. It is a stretch to imagine the chaotic agency to house a supply chain expert though.
    So even if a CXO trusts a creative mind’s judgement in his/her field, I doubt he/she would extend the assumption of competency to other matters of business growth.  As against a typical consultant – no matter how dumb/ smart he/she might be, the CXO trusts him/her to create access to competent people for most business needs.
  3. Ear of CXOs – Both agencies and consultants get to interact and influence CXOs. But, agencies only cater to propaganda need, while consultancies can affect change in almost all facets of a business – supply chain, production, legal etc. So consultancies have a better view of the business and what it needs, and hence better opportunity to offer more services.
  4. Plurality of ‘closed thinking’ projects – Pardon the generalization, but while consultants are masters of ‘closed’ thinking, creatives are masters of ‘open’ thinking. I estimate that there are more ‘closed thinking’ services that a company typically needs help with, than ‘open thinking’ services.
  5. When you can’t innovate, advertise!: Growth in 21st century is about innovations – consolidative tech innovations (FB and G consolidating the ad and comm tech market) or fragmenting tech innovations (innovations in CPG that is creating new breed of many niche players – online or offline.) There is no substitute for actual, real innovation to grow in 21st century.
    While agencies are known for their ‘big ideas’, they are not known for path-breaking ideas that inform a business model or product development. Most of the time, the idea comes from within the company for it to be truly adopted with conviction. And to execute these ideas, they go to the consultancies for help, not to advertisers.
    Can advertising agencies create new business ideas? sure they can. But the evidence is lacking as of now.
    Advertising agencies instead are now becoming home to companies that fail to innovate and then want the advertising to push the ship stuck in the muck.

There have been attempts by agencies to get into consultancy shoes – most recently by R/GA. I wish them best of luck. I really hope someone cracks it and in the process, ‘pivots’ to a higher value service. But so far the trend has not been encouraging.

Here’s an idea for a better future for the industry – start putting your money where your ideas are.

UPDATE:

Two strategies to improve agency prospects –

  1. Agency as a platform
  2. Pivot to go after biggest opportunities