What the cabbie and Southwest Airlines taught me about agency efficiency

Today’s post skews a bit toward agency management but team productivity is good for all types of managers to think about.

The other day I was taking a cab from the north side of Chicago to downtown. Usually, there are several different ways you can go to get to your destination. And every time, the cabbie asks, “Which way would you like me to go?” For the passenger, it’s like a game of chance. Why should I have to decide this? Shouldn’t he know which way is fastest? Yet, even when I say, “whichever way you think is quickest,” I invariably can’t help but feel I’ve been taken for a ride in a bad way.

But this time, the cabbie did something that surprised me. He took me down a route that nobody else had where he didn’t even have to ask me which way I wanted to go – he just took me. And the way he took was absolutely the fastest and cheapest fare I had ever paid. Amazed, I said, “Why thank you. I’ve never gone this way and to be honest, it’s the lowest amount of money I’ve ever had to pay.”

He replied, “I know. What most cabs don’t get is that the faster I get you there, the faster I get to the next fare. They try to draw out fares by going the long way and taking more time but it never works out in their favor like my way.

Sometimes agencies act like those other cabs my newfound friend was referring to – they draw out each assignment over more time rather than less for the purpose of giving themselves a nice steady feed of work. Hey, we all want steady work in times like these. But if we try to draw out each project as much as possible, we’re only hurting ourselves. If we do a great job and get paid sooner, we’ll come out ahead by either that client giving us additional work or hopefully that client referring us to another potential client.

Note that I’m not advocating speed. I’m advocating efficiency. Agencies routinely confuse the two. If we know a project should be done in a certain amount of time, we shouldn’t milk it for all it’s worth for so much extra time than we need to. It becomes almost an issue of ethics and honesty at that point. So let’s look at this from the positive angle – if we say it will be done in 3 months but actually get it done in 2, we’re opening ourselves to begin new projects with that same client vs. sitting around and collecting money on work that’s already been done.

Southwest Airlines does an excellent job of managing time and expectations. Over the last several years, I have made dozens of trips on Southwest to different parts of the country. Almost every time, a person comes on and says, “I’m sorry Ladies and Gentlemen, but we’ll be taking off a few minutes later than we’d like.” Lo and behold, by the end of the trip, they not only make up the time but actually get there several minutes early. Every. Single. Time. As if they planned to do that all along. Which they probably did.

What will you do with the extra time? Be proactive (a common complaint people tend to have about agencies) and do some brainstorming on additional ways you can help the client’s business without them asking you to. Then you can potentially upsell your client on that work or at the very least, demonstrate how you think outside of what’s requested. Don’t tell me you won’t do this until you get paid for it. That relegates you to “order taker” status and makes you less of a proactive thinker.

Or let’s turn the focus inward. Fill the time with additional new business efforts. Use it to work on your own agency’s self-promotion, which is never, EVER considered slacking off.

Remember, it’s not about speed. If you’re feeling like your team has no margin for error as you’re churning and burning, that’s not efficiency. That’s about speed and turning your agency into a factory. I don’t think there’s much value in being the speed demon of agencies. But there is tremendous value in being the agency of doing things smarter to achieve financial goals faster – even if it’s a matter of hours. I’m talking about understanding what you absolutely need to deliver the kind of product you and the client can be happy with in the most sensible amount of time.

For example, I once told a client that we’d have the ads done to her by “end of day.” But her end of day was different from my end of day. Her end of day was around 3:00pm because she had family obligations at home. To make her happy and meet our goals, we needed to adjust by about four hours to buffer in time for her to review the work and make any possible revisions. She didn’t need to sit with it forever. By getting that work done and wrapped well before 3:00pm, it allowed our managers to think about new business tactics, our designers to check out inspirational websites, even for us to take a break for darts. So you never know the positives that can impact not only your client relations but internal relations.

Point being that if you act like that cabbie who surprised me and choose the route of efficiency over milking each project, you may get your client faster to where they want to go and get yourself onto the next project that much faster. If you’re worried about how you’re going to fill the space with work, that’s a new business issue you needed to address a long time ago anyway. In that event, maybe you ought to give someone like Steve Congdon at Thunderclap a call. If it’s an operational flow issue, that would be Rob Jager at HedgeHog Consulting.

What other excuses do you have for not getting to your best ideas more efficiently?

Time for bank brands to get comfortable with The S-Word.

“I’m pulling my money out of the market. I can’t take it any more. I’m content to put it in the bank and get my 1-2% back. At least I know what I’m dealing with.” 
– Father of two, interviewed on ABC7 News, Chicago

There, in that brief snippet of man-on-the-street insight, I realized that the most of intelligent of banks need to embrace what they do best (usually): Provide a relatively safe investment that don’t have wild swings up and down.

That’s right. I’m talking about The S Word: Stability. 

I hate safe things when it comes to branding. I don’t mean taking stupid risks for shock value but playing it so safe that the brand has no emotional meaning to anyone. That’s not what I’m suggesting here either. What I am suggesting is that, regardless of size, there is an opportunity to convey a safe haven of comfort, ease, peacefulness, clarity…a knowing what you’ve got where you’ve got it. A contentment with not necessarily being rich but being comfortable – and the confidence that goes with that knowing.

Banks that convey percentages and rates aren’t capturing that message at all. But there is plenty of room for the bank that essentially says, “we hear you and know you want a safe place to park some assets for the next 6 months, 1 year, 2 years. And here’s why we’re the place you should do it, beyond just what you might have with us in checking.”

Free checking? Eh. Banks that talk in terms of “free” aren’t digging deep enough either. Think beyond the products themselves and remember the real reason someone might come to your institution for emotional purposes. There is emotion in wanting to be stable, is there not? In times like this, don’t you have customers who just want the goal of being able to pay their bills and keep their heads above water? Of course you have those people. Don’t pretend that you don’t. Instead, embrace them. Let them know you understand they’re getting their rear ends handed to them and you want to provide pieces that slowly let them put their money in safer places where they won’t get burned. Forgive my bluntness, but really, when was the last time you stepped out from behind the teller window and lived in your audience’s shoes?

“We’re lending” promises? Come on. You and I both know that a bank can say they’re lending until the cows come home but there’s a boatload of people who can’t qualify for loans like they used to. So why offer something that more likely than not is going to end in rejection? That won’t do wonders for your brand.

Banks have even more of an opportunity with the “stability” message not only in contrast to the market but in terms of other institutions that perhaps aren’t playing nice with the consumer, jacking up rates on them without their knowledge. The World’s First Honest Bank. There’s something to shoot for.

I’m not talking about the tools to convey this just yet. So don’t put the cart before the horse and send your mind racing into potential TV spots or social media efforts. We’re just talking strategic positioning. But this is so important to nail down first.

Money market accounts and CDs aren’t the types of things that immediately cause investors to salivate with glee. But that’s OK. I’m not talking about the fellow in the nice suit who drives a Jaguar and lives in the penthouse in Streeterville. The audience I’m talking about is different.

I’m talking about a redefinition of the American Dream according to your Average Joe Customer, who over the last couple years has been hit where the sun doesn’t shine. I want you to give some serious thought to what the American Dream means to that person.

To that person, the American Dream isn’t about owning their own business. It’s isn’t about “owning a vineyard” (as Schwab pokes fun of and is seemingly one of the few financial brands to grasp the voice of the “real” customer). It isn’t about taking a vacation to some far off country. Or buying a boat.

You want to know what The American Dream for them entails? Wrap your head around this:
Paying the bills on time.
Building the savings account slowly back up.
Being able to make repairs on the car today vs. tomorrow.
Buying groceries for the family without having to trim the list heavily.
Making the mortgage payments.
Being able to go out to dinner with a friend without making up an excuse.
Not even being debt-free, because that may not be realistic, but simply carrying less debt.

REAL stuff. Stuff that makes people feel like people again. It’s a large segment of our population that needs to be addressed but really isn’t. Because the message can’t come in the form of rates, percentages and products. It’s got to be a message that shows you’ve been listening and aren’t oblivious to their challenges.

That’s not as glamorous as the standard retirement images of the couple sunning themselves on Hilton Head, I know. But it’s real. With what our economy is giving us (or should I say isn’t giving us), people are yearning more than ever to just be on an even keel with life. And the bank brand that shows how the path is paved through their road of Stability is the one that wins.

Is yours ready to be one of them?

10 Keys To Maintaining Your Brand’s Soul

The idea of greater sales sounds, well, great. But when you think about expansion, have you considered what the consequences of what the move is going to be on your brand, your culture, your people? Many companies don’t. There’s no reason why sales should be on the opposite side of these considerations, especially when it doesn’t have to be.

With this in mind, I created a checklist that can help you decide if a company sale, increase in hiring, large investment in equipment, new distribution channels and ramping up of production will come at the expense of your brand.

10 Keys To Maintaining Your Brand’s Soul

  1. Does a move in the name of greater sales feel at odds with our brand and what we believe?
  2. What does our mission statement look like? Is it iron-clad with character and personality with little room for interpretation by future generations on what we stand for or is it like most mission statements – an ambiguous note of blandness that anyone could own?
  3. Will a move in the name of greater sales anger, irritate or even mildly annoy our most loyal customers (in other words, are we biting the hands that fed us)?
  4. Is our location (physical location, branches, 800 number, website, blog) a “mecca” that people enjoy coming to over and over again, whether they are our customers or our employees or both?
  5. Will a move in the name of greater production risk compromising our quality, customer service and reputation?
  6.  Do we refer to the “good old days” of this company or do we refer to how great it is now?
  7.  Does a technological upgrade feel easier and more efficient but less warm, friendly and true to who we are in terms of a human approach?
  8. Will we still be an organization that likes to have fun?
  9. Will our success be measured primarily in sales volume or will we hold up shining examples to the public of  goodwill we’ve gained?
  10.  What about us will never, ever change no matter how much money someone waves in our face?
Let’s see what we can add to these 10, shall we?

Agencies and marketers can only afford so many trips down Memory Lane

We in the advertising and marketing business like to reminisce about our own industry as much as anyone. We like to look back on the work of Bernbach, Burnett and Ogilvy in reverence. We talk about the “Think Small” ad, the “We Try Harder” ads for Avis, the Levy’s Jewish Rye ad and the man in the Hathaway shirt. I love those classics too.

But we can’t resurrect efforts that need to lie in the grave where they belong. For example, Michigan-based Domino’s is bringing back The Noid for a week. I know it’s only for a week, but why? Some people have had a passing fascination with one of the world’s weirdest mascots ever, I’ll grant that, but I’m enjoying what Domino’s is doing with their “Oh Yes We Did” effort. They’re taking on their harshest critics, admitting where they screwed up and having people vote on the product (“Rate Tate’s Chicken”) like never before. They’re even putting reviews up in Times Square.

Putting opinions of the food one way or another aside, I believe Domino’s is working harder to improve themselves and appreciate putting themselves out there in the truly interactive environment we’re living in. It’s rare, refreshing and gutsy. More companies should be doing it.

Don’t confuse this with mascots that have stuck around for years. I’m not suggesting that Planter’s should suddenly off Mr. Peanut or Frosted Flakes should fire Tony The Tiger. I’m suggesting that if a long dormant mascot/brand effort went away, maybe there was a good reason for it and we don’t have to bring it back. Maybe we can challenge ourselves to come up with a better idea that applies to the current generation instead of becoming Hollywood and remaking classic movies because we know they were great back in the day.

Advertising has been called a young person’s business. But you know what makes a young person old? It’s not age. It’s mentality. A veteran ages by the word every time they say things like, “Gosh Ed, do you remember 20 years ago when we worked on the ____ campaign? Those were the days. Somebody needs to do something like that now. Kids today don’t do enough of that kind of work.” OK. So you do that kind of work. Why not? Because agency politics prevent it? Because the client won’t let you? Please. If you’re going to get fired up and passionate about the work that was done in the 80’s, show at least the same passion if not more for the cool technology and applications that we’re just beginning to see. Begin to understand it and embrace it. Get revved up about QR codes and projections on buildings and Google Plus – not because you’ll necessarily DO that for a brand or yourself but because it represents evolution. And evolution can be as exciting as what’s been done if not more so.

In other words, for every time you re-read “Ogilvy on Advertising” (as I am), make sure you’re absorbing a boatload of books, magazines and blogs speaking to the changes in the way we’re communicating and what lies ahead. Until we find the real thing, that’s as good a Fountain of Youth I know.

How big will your company get before you get bad?

As he was pondering the idea of expansion many years ago, the late Jay Chiat of southern California ad agency Chiat-Day once thought, “Let’s just see how big we can get before we get bad.” As such, the volume of work increased, the agency grew and although there were still “home runs” of memorable work in the bunch, it could be argued there were fewer of them.

It’s a question that many wonder but few can concretely define – how big can a company be to reach its peak of effectiveness and brand equity before it begins to be tarnished? It’s one that even us in the advertising and marketing business can’t agree on (5 people? 30 people? No more than 100 people?). How much work should we agree to come through the door in order to balance the quality of what we believe in delivering with what we want to achieve in revenue?

It’s something Goose Island has to seriously ask itself in a new era. One of our city’s greatest beers, the popularity of Goose Island has only grown and grown until it was recently sold to, of all companies…Budweiser. Now, anybody who knows a beer “purist” understands that this amounts to a cardinal sin. But then, on top of that startling twist, came news that Goose Island was moving production of its popular 312 line of beer from Chicago…to New York.

There’s nothing wrong with a beer company wanting to sell more beer. And from what I’ve gathered from client experience, it’s certainly not easy being a craft brewer. You want to stay true to the ingredients that make for a better beer, you want to build distribution channels and you want to do right by the loyal fans who chose you over visibly cheaper options. Yet, as you expand, you have to ask yourself at what level does increased production compromise what you’ve built? Is it worth it if it comes at the expense of your brand’s heritage or your most die-hard fans?

In contrast, take the example of the Boston Beer Company, brewers of Sam Adams. Founder Jim Koch brewed his first batch of beer in 1984, debuted it in 1985 and within a year expanded beyond Massachusetts to Connecticut. He would also expand to breweries in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Now you can get Sam Adams in many grocery stores, yet Jim Koch never sold his company to all the big macrobrewers who came calling.

I don’t expect Greg Koch of Stone Brewing Co. (no relation to Jim) to sell to the Big Boys of Beer either. Yet Stone Brewing enjoys large distribution and has grown by 50% every year. He is a self-described “beer geek” and as such found a calling. It’s not his goal to dominate the beer world. And he doesn’t want to sell to the “generic” consumer because he believes those consumers will only choose safe and familiar – even if they know those choices are not the best choices. Could Greg Koch sell to Budweiser, watch Stone get distributed in even more places and see oodles of money roll in?  He could. Easily. But it wouldn’t be true to his brand’s heritage and values. And since he is the poster boy for craft brewing, it would be hypocritical to his very core to sell to a giant brewer (just view his keynote at the 2009 Craft Brewers Conference, “I Am A Craft Brewer“). You’d stand a better chance of seeing Wrigley Field re-named Cardinalville.

Perhaps a sale to Budweiser and production moving out of Chicago doesn’t mean much to the average beer drinker. But considering the company they keep in the craft brewing community, it should’ve mattered more to Goose Island. Founder John Hall says he hopes to return to all brewing to Chicago within a few years with a new plant that’s built here.

While I look forward to that day, let’s hope he hasn’t alienated too many people by then.

What about you? Have you defined a set of values that guide your company so concretely that increased sales and distribution are always on the same page as your brand without compromise? You don’t have to brew beer for a living – regardless of industry, feel free to share them here.