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?

Recognizing ideas made to stick vs. ideas made to stink

As a bookend to my other post this week on who doesn’t belong in the brainstorm room, your mission isn’t done when you have a collection of people who could generate great ideas. You also need to be able to recognize a great idea. I wouldn’t begin to suggest that this is easy nor would I suggest every idea I ever had was great. But I can say that by now, I’ve found there are a certain factors at play that help enhance the chances of building a better idea as well as factors that almost doom ideas from the start.

So let’s talk how to better understand what it is when it’s an idea made to stick and an idea made to stink.

Idea made to stick:
It’s got a whole lot of brother-and-sister concepts in a giant concept family. 

In another agency life, a truly great former (and sometimes current) mentor of mine would have me pump out one concept after another to hang on the wall of his office. The ideas would begin to pile up until what was under the wall faded. It became concept wallpaper. And that was a very good thing. If he only had one idea to look at at the end of the day, I imagine John wouldn’t have been too pleased at all. But because he pushed us to deliver higher quantity in order to discover and unearth those nuggets of higher quality, our collective work as a team was considerable. I’m still proud of that work today.

Idea made to stink:
The “let’s throw it against the wall and see what they say” idea. 

Sometimes really talented people on paper don’t have the stamina to push themselves beyond something they’re satisfied with. Or they fall in love with their own idea and put the brakes on any more thinking. “Can we just show them this and see what they say?” No. We can’t. Because deep down, you’re not sold on this idea. It’s good but you know it isn’t great. But you don’t want to push for great and that’s too bad. Great involves digging deeper beyond what was easy to come up with. As a college professor once told me about generating better ideas beyond the first ones, “You never worked so hard to tell them something so simple.” You have one or two ideas that you think are good? Maybe they are. Now let’s see more. A lot more. The concept that high quantity and high quality can’t live on the same page is a total bunch of BS. You show me a high quantity of ideas and I’ll bet there are some winners I get pumped about in that mix.

Idea made to stick:
You feel nervous about it. And that’s a good thing.

There’s something about it that gives you at least a little twinge of nervousness – perhaps not on the level of drinking Maalox, but it definitely feels less certain than something that feels safe and comfortable. Why? Because if you’re going to present an idea that someone feels no emotion for, it’s probably a fairly lousy idea. Wait – let me get this straight – you want people to buy into your goods or services with an emotional response but you don’t expect the person in the room approving the work to have an emotional response? Of course you do. Some people aren’t comfortable presenting the one idea that makes them the most nervous by itself and surround it with others that might be “safer.” I understand that thinking because nobody wants to be shot down and have nothing left in reserves. But maybe, just maybe, that idea that makes you nervous yet excitable can be the first one out of the bag to be presented – and if the response is so good, the others might not even need to come out. Personally, I go one step further. My opinion is if I’m rooting against one of my ideas to not be chosen because it doesn’t get me as excited, I shouldn’t be presenting it in the first place.

Idea made to stink:
Crafted primarily for the person approving the work instead of the person buying the end product or service.
You do a preliminary presentation to someone underneath the top person approving the work, because they requested it. They see the idea, their eyes get big and they say, “I just know Carl doesn’t like the font Lucida Grande or feminine colors or shots of people smiling directly into the camera, so we can’t have ideas that involve that.”

Oh boy. Ideas that are created for Carl instead of the 300,000 people buying Carl’s product are not starting off on the right foot. Look, I get politics. I really do. I get that certain things have to be sold persuasively and at times delicately to those approving parties. But I have found in my experience this is where audience research can be solid ammo. It’s not smoke-and-mirrors to get your way. It’s factual stuff that shows you’ve done your homework on the customer. “We know the new brand we’re talking about appears more feminine in design than where we’ve been in the past but our research shows that 86% of our audience are young women between the ages of 18 and 24 years old, so it makes sense to ween ourselves away from those dark greens and greys.”

Think farther than the person putting the rubber stamp of approval on the idea. Their opinion matters, of course. But even beyond any ego involved, most marketers would have to reasonably agree that their customer’s opinion matters even more.

How else can you give your ideas a better chance of rising to the top as an idea made to stick? Try reading The Do-It-Yourself Lobotomy by Tom Monahan. A former agency owner who has crafted many a great idea, I’ve heard this gentleman speak on creative idea generation and his “100mph” way of thinking might be of great benefit for your next brainstorm.