Let’s Truck In Some Sanity, Shall We, Restauranteurs?

The strangest thing about the food truck debate in Chicago is why it’s taken so long to resolve, considering every other town is doing it.

The second strangest thing is why brick-and-mortar restaurants are this upset about the prospect of a food truck parking nearby. Why? If they looked a little deeper into who their audience was and developing their own brands, they probably wouldn’t have the burning desire to turn over a truck. Here’s why.

If I run a moderately priced restaurant that’s built a loyal following, I have a certain clientele who is willing to pay far more than the average meal wrapped in aluminum. This is not true competition for me. I know my guests are going to keep coming because my food is quality and consistent.

If I truly run a restaurant that competes with a food truck, I have to realize that it could’ve just as easily been another type of brick-and-mortar restaurant that opened next to me or across the street offering cuisine within the same category and pricing. It’s the nature of the ultra-competitive business I’ve chosen in hospitality. And it wasn’t going to get any easier, food trucks or not. Does this call for changing up the menu, enhancing the environment, creating a better loyalty program (I don’t necessarily mean a Groupon), hosting events for greater publicity, etc.? What can you do within your establishment that a food truck couldn’t hope to offer? Some of these restaurants are competing on a plane that they don’t have to be and frankly, missing their brand’s vision and target completely.

Let’s also play Devil’s Advocate here – it’s entirely within the realm of possibility that a food truck that brings traffic near your restaurant could spill into your restaurant, driving customers in through the door that otherwise might not have been aware of your presence.

Rather than seeing a food truck as the enemy, better to focus on making the entire dining experience of your restaurant as sensationally memorable as possible. Creative food offerings. Ordering on iPads at the table. Online ordering that remembers the person’s favorite meal from last time. Special appetizers that arrive at the table unexpectedly for long-time customers.

Your biggest competitor may be the one within your own mind that exudes more of the same and traditional. Take your eye off the truck and focus on your own brand. The positive implications of doing so are far more delicious.

Why HR Deserves A Voice In The Branding Discussion.

I just finished Michael Lewis’ fascinating book, Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World about how international economies such as Greece, Ireland, Iceland and Germany dealt (or in some cases, never dealt) with the global financial crisis. What I learned was that my assumptions about fixing the economies of the world were way too simplistic and that it’s a whole lot more difficult than giving bailouts all the time.

Why? Systems are fixable – challenging but ultimately fixable. Fixing cultures so that the mistake doesn’t repeat itself? That’s actually a lot harder. 

You can invest in superior technology and fancy office space. You can move the same people around and around in a job carousel into different roles and tell yourself things are suddenly different as result.

These are moves intended to make you look good to the outside world, but until you invest in developing strategy, culture and people – the very things that drive a company’s energy and soul – something much deeper will remain broken.

Giving a bailout to Greece is like giving a chocolate cake to a 700 lb. person who promises they’re going to exercise right after they eat it. You’d like to believe they’re going to change, but there’s a lot of reason not to. Primarily because Greece as a culture has largely been ignoring its financial obligations in a corrupt economic system for years. Getting a monetary lifeline isn’t going to change history from repeating itself. The only way to do that is through sustained, monitored long-term cultural change.

Entrepreneurs can learn something from this painful lesson on the other side of the world. If we try to put band-aids over deeper internal shortcomings, we’re just going to keep bandaging the patient over and over. That is, if we even do that much.

It’s where you must look inward and begin to be honest with yourself as a company.

What’s your vision and does your staff buy into it, live it and preach it to others?

What do your processes look like? How efficient and productive are those?

Do they help your people accomplish their jobs or do they bog your people down in paperwork?

How’s your customer service – just addressing a complaint at best or turning it into a referral opportunity?

What’s the level of collaboration – is it seamless or do you have departments engage in so much turf war infighting that they might as well be separate companies?

External questions are challenging. I’ve wrestled with these questions for years on the outside as they relate to Advertising.

I find myself asking things in regard to clients like:

What target audience are we for (and not for)?
What do we want our brand’s message to be?

Do we want to be on Google Plus or not?

But that’s nothing compared to the internal questions.

The internal questions are the really hard ones to answer. They take time and they can be painful. They’re so painful that sometimes we’d rather ignore them and pretend they aren’t there (but yes, they still are). They force ego-minded people to address their shortcomings. They force entrenched veterans to admit times are changing and they’ll have to change with them to remain relevant. They force all kinds of people out of “we’ve always done in this way” comfort zones (if you’ve always done it that way and it sucks, then you continuing to do it that way doesn’t work, does it?).

If you hadn’t guessed already, this is where HR needs a more visible seat at the table in the brand discussion. From unique benefits to training programs to how your brand is perceived in recruiting new candidates.

Not enough companies think of this kind of stuff. They use HR as purely a compliance mechanism or view social media as a way to weed out candidates rather than hiring for passion. That does a nice job of preserving the status quo but a lousy job of building a culture – and in turn, building a brand.

Whether that’s a dedicated in-house resource or a consultant, designing programs that are built to reflect what the company stands for isn’t some hokey idea but a smart one. Because the upside for recruiting, retention and most powerfully, advocacy to others, is there.

We often speak about a concept of the brand advocate but it often is viewed solely in terms of the outside customer.

So don’t forget about another set of potential brand advocates that might be right under your nose – the people that work for you.

I didn’t say it was easy. Easy is ignoring the problem. But for the good of living up to how you portray your brand to the outside world, you have to have a conversation about the elephant in the room that is your culture’s current shortcomings.

And if it’s gotten to be so much of a mess by now that you need a bail out, I know a fellow or two who can come to the rescue. After all, if an entire country can get help, you deserve some to help change your culture too.

Is there such a thing as a Chicago ad person?

Lately when I’ve thought of what sort of people Advertising produces, for some reason my mind turns to clothing styles to spot this species in its native habitat. For example, you have the Creative Director, he of the thin glasses, goatee, jeans and blazer. Tends to refer to many things as “crap” and how we don’t do ads like we used to.

Kidding aside (kind of), I went below the surface and got to thinking a lot deeper in asking this question in relation to our environment: How deeply are Advertising people influenced by the city we inhabit and can the work we do be impacted as a result (good or bad)?

It’s an interesting theory. I suppose if cities took on the personas of, well, people, I think this is kind of what it might sound like if they got together for drinks to discuss this very thing. So New York, Miami, L.A. and San Francisco walk into a bar with Chicago in, well, Chicago.

New York: Hey, Chicago. Nice town ya got here. A little version of me.

Chicago: Easy there, NYC. We’ve got some things that top you too. You don’t want to start that pizza debate with me again.

Miami: Do they serve cosmopolitans at this place?

Chicago: No, Miami. They serve really great beer. It’s about time you learned what that tasted like.

New York: So you wanna talk shop here or what?

Chicago: Let’s do it.

L.A.: You know, Chicago, I just can’t figure you out.

Chicago: What do you mean?

L.A.: Well, what are you Advertising-wise? What kind of advertising people do you produce? Like, are you a creative town?

Chicago: Of course I am. Leo Burnett hung his hat here, after all.

San Fran: Yeah, it’s just hard to wrap our arms around you in a neat little succinct way. I mean, I’m a tech client haven in my corner of the map.

L.A.: I’m a whole lot of retail.

New York: You could say I’m the Granddaddy with still the most agencies anywhere so there’s always good stuff cookin’. So I never lack press coverage.

Chicago: Look, fellas. I know I’m kind of hard as an ad town to decipher sometimes. Yes, you guys get a lot of press and sometimes more than me. But if you really want to know what kind of ad people I produce, think about it this way. You can produce one of two kinds of people:

1)   The ones who complain or give up. They complain about how they don’t work on something cool. Or they just give up and use “Well, that’s the industry they’re in” as an excuse for doing shoddy work because that’s what they know the client will like. They’re safe. And boring.

2)   The ones who love being in a box and actually crave the challenge of producing something awesome when given boundaries. An ad in a trade publication? No problem. A financial client that’s full of restrictions? Bring it. Insurance? Let’s do this.

You know what? Sometimes I produce people who fall into Category #1. But I believe at my very best, I produce even more of Category #2 – Chicago produces some of the toughest Ad people around. We’re tough because we have to be.

New York: Get outta here. Tougher than New York? Ya gotta be kidding.

Chicago: Think about it, NYC. Stay with me on this. We’ve got some industries here that don’t always fit into high glamour. Like CPG. Pharma. Manufacturing. Health Care. These are not industries that are known for being particularly…well…

Miami: Sexy?

Chicago: Sure, Miami. Sexy. They can be more regimented and speak their own language. But nonetheless, they’re awfully important to the American economy, right? Somebody’s got to serve them – and in reality, not just serve them but do great work.

Miami: He’s got a point.

Chicago: It’s just that some people see great work defined by whether it gets a Gold Lions at Cannes or a Clio. No doubt that’s very creative, but I don’t believe it’s the only way you define great work.

San Francisco: Surely you’re not suggesting creativity doesn’t matter.

Chicago: Oh, hell no. If you’re not trying to be creative, you should pack it in and go do something else. What I’m saying is we need to have many different measurements of creativity beyond the “who has the most awards” measurement.

Let me give you an example. I think as a town, I’m as good as anyone when it comes to doing work within a very challenged space. For example, let’s take an industrial client needing a campaign within a trade publication. Not everyone in the world is going to see that campaign, so it doesn’t answer the cute cocktail party question, “Have I seen your work recently?”

Yet there’s a huge opportunity to stand out within the publication.

Why? Because, let’s face it – a lot of the stuff in that pub is going to dry, ordinary and matter-of-fact. Which means all the more of a chance to do some really great brand development.

Some might turn their nose up at that and think they’re above that kind of work. But in Chicago, we don’t do that. And we don’t want to be seen as that.

San Francisco: But doesn’t it frustrate you knowing that some of the industries you mentioned aren’t necessarily in a rush to embrace new directions like social media wholeheartedly?

Chicago: Sure. But they’ll get there. Some industries are slower moving than others, but as a city, I’m producing people who are gently shepherding them into it. And trust me, they’ll get there out of necessity. Take manufacturing, for example. You have some people questioning the viability of social media in upper management, but that’s not necessarily the feeling of those coming up through the ranks. They’re comfortable with these tools. So change is coming in these industries too, even if it’s a bit slower pace.

Again, we can be an “aw shucks, that’s the industry we’re dealing with” kind of town or we can seize the challenge and lead them into technologies that make sense. We can do great work in any category and we’re tough enough to do great stuff anytime.

New York: You know, Chicago, when you put it that way, I’ve got a new respect for the kind of Ad people you produce.

Chicago: Thanks, NYC. Bottom line – if you want to know what makes this town tick, it’s our ability to turn the traditionally “unglamorous” into the appealing and captivating. We’ve got the thicker skin for that kind of challenge.

Or maybe it’s due to the windchill temperatures. Probably a little of both.

What do you guys think? Is there a Chicago kind of ad person? Can the city influence the ad people working in it? Let’s hear from you.

(Special thanks to Steve Congdon, agency new business guru at Thunderclap Consulting Group for letting me re-post this guest post I did for him here)

You’ll Never Have Enough Time. Thank Goodness.

This blog post would be better if only I had more time to write it. But the window I have to write it is now. And I like that. Because it mirrors the nature of a crazy, fun and manic business we chose to be a part of. The “Hurry Up and Wait” state of advertising agencies and marketing firms is something I’ve had to deal with in every culture I’ve been a part of, including my own.

Agency people like to imagine a perfect scenario like so:

Agency creates product. Client approves product. Product goes out into the world. Everything is on time. On to the next project.

Gosh, that was a fun daydream. Now let’s see what happens in the real world.

Rounds and rounds and rounds of tweeking and honing the creative product in the eyes of the Creative Directors, Account Executives, Executive Creative Director, Head Account person, etc.

The creative product gets beaten up more than Rocky Balboa before it even goes out the door.

Then it goes to the client. Client has to take it to their boss. Product sits on boss’ desk for a while. It’s a priority, but there are even bigger priorities to attend to. Agency waits and gets antsy – “Why haven’t we heard from them?”

Hours pass. Days pass. Then…BOOM! Client gets feedback back from their boss and tells agency to change A, B and C before the end of the day.

It’s here that the measure of a creative person is taken. They’ll complain right off the bat with a “What? Now? Before what time? You’ve got to be #$@*ing kidding me with this.”

But then, they’ll settle down, realize that the impossible is actually possible, come together and come back with, lo and behold, a better product than last time.

I’ve seen it happen over and over and over again. It does no good to complain about the pattern or try to wish for a more efficient production path. Instead, we have to embrace the beast, not fight it. And realize that yes, things don’t hit our desks exactly when we’d like them to, but it also gives us an opportunity to shine in the eyes of our client once more. Many of them do realize that the time they have to give us what’s required can be somewhere between tight and insane. They’re not clueless. But they’re also looking for partners who can make them look good in the eyes of their bosses, their peers, their board. The last thing they need is a group of whiners who lecture them by saying, “We could that better if only we had more time.”

We all wish we had more time in business and in life to do the things we want to do on our terms. But the funny thing is, when we are given more boundaries, we find ways to excel within those boundaries.

I truly empathize with any creative person who has to be suddenly brilliant on the spot. It’s not ideal and there’s a great deal of pressure involved with that. I suppose that’s why I’ve always favored teams brainstorming concepts rather than forcing one person or one partnership into their corners and telling them to bring me their deliverables like I’m the king of the throne. When we can be fighting the clock together instead of individuals, we can beat the clock, create a smart solution and go with the flow as our clients need us to be.

There will never be enough time. But we have to accept that fact and consequently set the table for an environment where one writer or one designer can have the reinforcements they need to take on Father Time. This kind of efficiency is good for the individual, it’s good for the agency from a business perspective (hello, we do have to bill sometime!) and it’s good for the client.

When it comes to prioritizing what to do, my friend and colleague Rob Jager from Hedgehog Consulting looks at it this way – “There are 6 things that can be done in a day. List them out in advance and put the least important thing 6th. That way, you don’t feel so bad if you have to kick it to the next day, but make that thing #1 the following day.”

Time’s up. Gotta run.

Maybe You Don’t Need a “Tricked-Out” Office.

I’m writing this post from a Starbucks, where I just had a meeting. Tomorrow, I’m having a one-on-one at a Panera. When not at either of those, I can be seen at Caribou Coffee or Einstein Bagels.

Seriously, I should just replace my regular office address with those 4 logos.

I know it’s a cool talking point to have an office with a basketball court, foosball tables, tiki bars (I’ve had that one before) and more. But do we really need it to be creative? I’m not suggesting everything has to be steel and grey in our workspaces. Far from it. I’m just wondering if we need so much excess in order to 1) impress clients and 2) come up with good ideas.

More often than not, I find myself going to their turf, not mine. Or I find us meeting on a neutral turf, like the aforementioned coffee/bagel places. And the more I’m going to their place or a neutral place, the more I’m wondering about the importance of having an office that’s “sick,” “tricked out” or whatever else you want to describe an office beyond belief. It may not matter as much because lately, I’ve noticed business is really becoming an Away Game, not a Home Game.

All of which leads me to put some things in perspective. Seems to me that when they do come to our place, they should see the work, the work, the work. In all its splendor. First and foremost. Yet some agencies are hiding behind it in their toys.

I don’t doubt that fun items aren’t good conversation pieces either. But consider this: If you had to pick one thing they talk about later, do you want them telling their peers about the ultra cool and swanky (whatever item here) in the lobby or the cool campaign/ideas/brainstorming session the agency had with that client?

The former is nice, but the latter is killer.

It’s entirely possible I’m just in a Monday sort of mood but sometimes it feels a little too fluffy for our own good. I’m not talking about small items that show personality here and there. I’m talking about items worth thousands and thousands that are more distracting. A conference table that used to be the wing of a jet plane is cool to look at, but again, do we need it to be successful? I like seeing and sharing pictures of fun office environments as much as the next person because it’s not my money on that overhead and in the back of my mind I’m wondering – what if that money was used on something more practical that people could benefit/learn from?

The ideas we come up with are worth far more. All I’m saying is let’s make those the star more often. That’s what helps build trust. Not the 50 foot lava lamp.

Agree? Disagree? Looking forward to your thoughts either way.