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?

SEO trumps social on driving traffic? Not so fast.

A post today in Crain’s comes from an SEOer who claims that SEO is what drives traffic above all else, not social media.

I certainly don’t disagree with him on the power of search engine optimization to be a big traffic driver, but I’ve got at least one case study that says social media can be a primary traffic driver, even over SEO: My own.

First and foremost, let me add one gigantic disclaimer: Everybody’s website and blog is different, with different audiences that behave in various ways. Some people are more searchers and have a great idea of what they’re looking for. Some don’t and stumble upon something they like, then share it with others.

My audience is a little more of the second variety. They find a post of mine, hopefully like it and share it. This isn’t to say my SEO isn’t good because it is. It’s to say that my results from social media have been even better. How so? I’ll list my top traffic drivers over the last 90 days, as thankfully with your help, this blog has continued to go up and up in readership. So for that, I sincerely thank you. Now to the list:

#1 Traffic Driver: Facebook
For me, Facebook is by far the best referrer of traffic to this blog. It’s not even close. It’s like Mark Zuckerberg called up a bunch of fans of mine, put them in a semi-trailer and drove them to my site. Then he turned around and did it again the next day.

Facebook isn’t just tops in referring people to my site but in share-ability of posts.

#2 Traffic Driver: LinkedIn
Again, this is where you need to pay attention to where your audience “hangs out” online. While it seems obvious, I really have to wonder if people factor this into their equation. It’s why I cringe whenever someone says, “You need to be on _____(insert site here)” without ever sitting down with the customer and getting a feel for who their primary target is. Not just demographic stuff but real behavioral targeting. Would you give a potential bride any old wedding dress off the rack without talking to her, getting to know what she likes, understanding what her budget is and taking her measurements before you know what you can recommend? Since many in my audience are businesspeople, it’s no surprise that LinkedIn is a popular place for referring traffic and sharing posts.

It’s right around here that my search engine optimization traffic comes in as a #3 referrer for various terms used. It’s very close with LinkedIn, but L.I. does edge out my traffic from Google slightly. Even so, Facebook crushes it – almost triple the amount of referring for all search engine terms.

Again, before you run into your boss’ office saying, “we need to be on Facebook and LinkedIn” remember that this is the way MY audience is behaving. Yours may be completely different and very search engine oriented.

Other strong Traffic Drivers: E-mail and Inbound links

Behind these three but still very valuable to me in terms of traffic are e-mail and inbound links. You know e-mail, that supposedly ancient method that continues to keep on giving. When a company has interest in a post and wants to share it, they may or may not be a company where social media is widely used. So the next best path is, naturally, e-mail. I’ve had many posts shared this way with traffic coming back to the blog. After Facebook, e-mail is the second highest way my posts are shared among others.

Inbound links have been kind to me as well. I’m referring to sites that picked up my posts and linked back to my site in their own posts. If those sites have high traffic themselves, I get high traffic. This is practically tied with e-mail for refer-ability.

Of course, as the tools of social media are always evolving, I’ll be interested to see how Google Plus plays into the mix as I revisit this list over the next month and quarter. I only expect it to gain more traction over time.

The point of sharing all this is simply that in the case I’ve just outlined to you, both social and SEO are working together to play a fundamental role in increasing traffic and sharing for me. The audience data tells me so. To suggest one or the other is always the go-to method for people is a blanket statement that doesn’t often apply. For some, SEO may be #1 and for others, social may be #1. But rare is the case where both shouldn’t be high on your list. They certainly are on mine.

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.

First look inside State Farm Next Door : An environment in an innovative State.

As I started to make my way up Diversey Avenue, I heard the clamor of a jazz band playing near Trader Joe’s grocery store.  That couldn’t be coming from State Farm, could it? Surprisingly, it was. And already in that moment, I think that maybe, just maybe, I experienced a small piece of what State Farm is striving to do with its new community-based effort, State Farm Next Door.

The "teaser" wall is down. We're going in.

State Farm was nice enough to invite me to a pre-launch party for select guests to come experience Next Door for themselves. I’m happy to say it did not disappoint. It honestly exceeded what I thought I would see. Along the way, I got to sit down with the managers, planners and vendors who showed me what people could expect from Next Door when it officially opens on Thursday, August 11th.

Is it OK if we have fun in here? Cool.
If this was some thinly-veiled approach to selling services, I seriously didn’t feel it. Really. The subtle references to finances and planning are there, but you get the sense that State Farm has been extra careful not to come across as heavy-handed in selling. If it was too pushy, it just would not work. Period. And thankfully, they know it.

We’re really making a conscious effort to let people come in, discover Next Door for themselves and make it their own,” says Stephanie Reynolds, Next Door’s Store Manager. “Our atmosphere here is all about making it the most creative and collaborative experience possible. It’s not our goal to try to sell. But when they do ask, we want to make consumers more educated and confident about their financial future in a very comfortable space.

Like a Good Neighbor, State Farm is There. With a cool lounge area.

Wander over to the cafe for a gourmet espresso.

Some of the features of Next Door include:

  • A cafe area serving gourmet coffee, tea and espresso as well as baked goodies
  • A main lounge that features large red, black and grey couches with coffee tables
  • A smaller “creative” area featuring little white tables you can draw on and a projection wall that can show TV shows, movies…anything
  • A huge community chalkboard calendar that promotes all kinds of monthly events, from classes to pizza parties
  • 2 conference rooms with flat-screen TVs and whiteboard wall dividers (which you can rent for free, by the way)

And of course, those Pods.
A lot of these design elements are, dare I say, fun and creative. Still, you might be wondering, “OK. But let’s get real. What if I want to get into some sensitive financial stuff? I can’t just discuss this out in the open in a cafe.” State Farm considered that. A financial planner named Adam showed me one of the “Pods” that a planner can take a guest or two into to get more privacy for financial-related chatter. This is probably my favorite feature of the place – these things look right out of the IKEA catalog and are just as functional. You can roll them to different parts of the store if need be.

When you want to chat about finances, step into a Pod with a planner.


“You learn from us. We learn from you. We’re all smarter for it.”

We’re entering a new phase beyond just the “pop-up store” where people can try products for a few days before a temporary store is disassembled. It’s a phase of Store As Audience Research Tool. Maybe you think you’ve seen this before but trust me, you probably haven’t. Very few stores if any have been set up almost exclusively for the purpose of learning and understanding the behaviors of its audience in the way Next Door has.

I’ve heard a lot of questions about ROI and metrics of success for Next Door. So let me just say this – there’s absolutely nothing more important in branding than knowing what your audience is thinking. It’s elusive. It’s shifting. It’s hard to interpret. If it was easy, everyone could do it and I’d have to find another way to make a living. So when you effectively set the stage for that audience to come to you and tell you their thoughts and feelings, you’ve got an invaluable environment worth keeping. Some of us have run focus groups where we’d have to practically bribe people to show up, right? Well, how about someone who voluntarily comes into your environment, has a few questions, winds up signing up for a seminar given by one of your people and returns with 5 of their friends to learn more?

For Brett Myers, a key head at State Farm behind Next Door, this represents months and months of intensive, detailed planning. It’s not a stretch to say every single table lamp, book, piece of glassware and paint color has been obsessively considered prior to entering this space – by the way, do you think about your own environment in reflection of your brand with this kind of detail? Maybe you should.

Strange as it may seem to some marketers in such a research-driven world, it’s not about number of meetings taken in the Pods. It’s not about guests converted into customers. Or number of cups of coffee sold.

It’s about getting consumer feedback and lots of it. It’s about understanding the real fears and questions that a young target has. And it’s about taking all that feedback and reporting it back to State Farm corporate so they can use it for all kinds of initiatives – undoubtedly to ensure that the brand is speaking in a voice these consumers want to hear.

Anybody can rent one of these conference rooms for free. Really.


Partnered with Doejo

To get the cafe portion of Next Door off the ground and give it a feel authentic to the neighborhood, State Farm partnered with Doejo, a digital agency whose founder is behind several independent Lincoln Park/Lakeview coffee shops, including Kickstand and Noble Tree. As Darren Marshall of Doejo explains, Next Door will revolve and evolve around those who enter.

We’re very interested once people start coming in because their feedback will help shape this space,” says Marshall. “When you think about it, a coffee shop looks and feels different one week to the next because of the people inside it more than anything. It’s the same way here. In some respects, this store may look different 30, 60, 90 days from now and if it does, that will come from what the consumers within it tell us.”

While Doejo will concentrate primarily on the cafe portion of Next Door, their team may very well collaborate with State Farm when necessary on ideas involving the overall environment.

Special thanks to Desiree Fuzak, Stephanie Reynolds, Brett Myers, Darren Marshall and many others on the State Farm Next Door/Doejo team who helped provide me with their insightful thoughts for this post.