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Brand, Business, marketing

I started my marketing journey by building an agency, Rethink Media. It was as clear to me then, as it is now, that in such a technologically fast-paced, consumer lead market, any ‘sane’ businesses should align themselves with the best and brightest marketing expertise out there, the professional agency.

However, the reality amongst many businesses and brands (one in the same) is a complete disregard for the value of collaboration and professional partnering, particular and quite bizarrely in the bit that matters most…

…Brand, Marketing and Sales.

In that order too, because ‘selling’ by itself does not outweigh the brand and marketing demands of a business. Prioritising these two functions is a fundamental shift in the mindset of brands, successful ones at least, and the way in which they engage with the consumer, i.e. prioritising the value given, over the transaction taken. Think of this practice as being the new DNA of brand, aka 51/49.

In this article I’ll discuss a few of the frightening truths behind ‘partner prevention’ as I like to call it. Perhaps frightening would be better defined as suicidal, because it’s a highly destructive behaviour that marks the end for many businesses.

I’ll also tell you why ‘the rise of the freelancer’ lead me to a make a fundamental change in my business strategy, it’s a big shift and it may surprise you.

Let me begin by stating the obvious, in that you cannot do what you have always done. The mere suggestion implies a status quo, of which there’s no such thing, change is constant and inevitable. Even if there were, it would be inconceivable amidst the uncertainty of today’s economies and markets to rely on it.

It’s equally inconceivable that any business would rely on a legacy sales and marketing strategy (loose terms) from the bygone days of reps traveling the length and breadth of the UK in Vauxhall Vectra’s, other countries and vehicles apply.

Today the cost and nature of these resources would be bad enough, but it’s the cost of time and reach, two of our most valuable business assets that are at stake here. Simply adding a sprinkling of that new-fangled social media thingamajig won’t make things right either.

How we create attention around our products and services (the brand) is vastly different from the way we used to do things. This includes huge amounts of digital content distribution, real time ‘intelligent’ communications and the cost-effective opportunity to place your brand directly in the hand of the consumer, in the form of mobile technology.

While this technology has made the consumer infinitely more visible and accessible, it has also introduced significant complexities in the way we position and deliver our communications, aka marketing.

As challenging as how and where we communicate with the consumer might seem, both in the technologies and platforms, it’s what we communicate to them that presents the greatest of these challenges.

Positioning your message so that the content presents itself to the right audience at the right time, is crucial for increased engagement and conversion. Getting the content right is the difference between keeping the targets interested or not.

I’m scraping the surface here and coming off point somewhat too, you can get a more in-depth narrative for the imperative of implementing a modern cross channel communications strategy, by reading one of my previous articles entitled ‘Destination Abs, the pinnacle of marketing fitness’. The article offers more detail on today’s cross channel consumer reality, link below.

Moving on…

There is a significant amount of work required to live up to today’s hyper mobile, technologically savvy consumer expectation. A vast number of businesses lack the vision and expertise to adopt and implement a modern and thoughtful communications strategy.

This is where the brand and marketing partnership comes in.

Firstly, let’s take a look at the sort of skills you can expect from a competent brand strategy and marketing partner.

Agencies that are capable of executing high quality brand, marketing and direct sales strategies, will employ a heady mix of Creatives, Illustrators, Graphic Designers, Web Developers, Programmers, Planners, Writers, Producers, Directors and Data Managers/Analysts.

This mix will vary still, depending on specialisms such as direct mail, tv, radio, outdoor advertising, social media, influencer marketing etc (emphasis on etc).

For internal brand communications work, you may also require some PR & Communication expertise, such as Communication Directors, Change Managers, Employment and Engagement specialists.

These categories are the tip of the brand building iceberg and depending on your individual requirement you may need to partner with numerous specialist agencies for the very best insight, ideas and execution.

Yet, with this in mind, many businesses insist on flogging outdated customer strategies or institutionalising their marketing resources, or even worse having none at all.

As for the rationale behind this somewhat bemusing behaviour, I reckon I’ve experienced the vast majority of situations by now, of which I’m happy to share a few.

Let’s start with the first and most common excuse I hear from heads of business for not using a professional marketing service, it’s a real beauty.

1. The classic copout.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the classic statement “I’ve had a bad experience with a marketing company so won’t use one again”.

Yes, there are some less credible suppliers out there, just like there are some questionable eating establishments, but that doesn’t mean you’ll never dine out again, or that just because something didn’t work that time, it means it doesn’t work at all.

When someone tells you that they’ve had a bad marketing experience, it may be true, and it may have cost them a good deal of time, money and opportunity. However, it could also be code for ‘I got someone to do me a logo and they charged me real money for it’.

It’s just as likely that the person saying it hasn’t had a collaborative marketing experience at all, we may never know. But either way, any successful, sustainable business is the result of having a good product and even better marketing strategy (aka brand building strategy), of which professional partnering is key.

The true measure of this comment is likely to be the true measure of the person making it, so you may want to cut the pleasantries short and bid farewell at this point. Remember, you can’t sell to the unsellable.

2. Their ambition is your reality.

This one comes in a few of flavours, some of which are perfectly reasonable.

When I first meet with a potential client to discuss their marketing strategy, I start by asking them what their personal and professional ambitions are, this assumes they are the senior decision maker. It’s not a habit I always adopted, but I realise now just how important it is to get a measure of the cheque signers’ aspirations before any other discussion.

The fact is you will always be at the mercy of the guy or gal that controls expenditure. If their sights are set on short term gain, either for themselves or the business, and a quick exit strategy, then you can bet any talk of customer loyalty and lifetime value is going to fall on deaf ears.

If the customer is in it to make a quick buck and move on, then you may want to move on too. alternatively, you can turn this situation into a more sales orientated conversation of ‘how can we help you make money fast’.

3. It’s just naivety.

This may come as a surprise, but a ridiculous number of business leaders make terrible decisions, take it from me, I’ve bought enough of the t-shirts to last a lifetime. Although there will be countless excuses on hand to account for these ‘errors in judgement’ the majority are simply the result of naivety and a lack of experience, judgement, wisdom etc.

Unfortunately for the marketer, a lack of understanding or appreciation for the benefits of partnership and collaboration, will all too often top the naivety list.

I agree there’s a job to do in educating the customer on the benefits of implementing a thoroughly modern marketing strategy, and the skills necessary to support one… but come on people, it’s 2018 (or beyond) and if you find yourself explaining the benefits of marketing in general, then the business is already lost, in more ways than one.

I simply will not give this person any more credit beyond what I have already stated. It is absolutely essential that the key decision makers in business have a reasonable understanding and appreciation of modern marketing principles, and the necessity to build their brand in a way that maps to consumer expectations. In other words, we don’t live in caves and there is no excuse for ignorance.

4. Commitment and Consistency – the dark side.

I listened to a great audio book recently called ‘Influence’, written by the author Robert B. Cialdini. Apart from being a fantastic listen that I highly recommend, there was one chapter in particular that struck the proverbial cord with me, mostly because of my own observations dealing with customers. This chapter concentrated on the human traits of commitment and consistency. On the face of it we recognise these two conditions as being positive characteristics, that bring with them reliability, dependability and generally doing what we say we will do, often.

However, what Cialdini goes on to explain, is that “Once people make a decision, take a stand or perform an action, they will face an interpersonal pressure to behave in a consistent manner with what they have said or done previously”. In other words, we are highly susceptible to ‘stubbornness’ and an inability to ‘rethink’ our past decisions.

It’s an unfortunate reality that many decision makers, at all levels of business, will consistently champion their actions based on past decisions, irrespective of the current rationale. For the marketer this situation is compounded by legacy successes, such as “we made a lot of money selling in traditional media, through coupons and vouchers”. That may well have been the case, but perhaps this and many strategies like it aren’t working anymore, hence the general decline in profitability and sales for many longer standing businesses, no exceptions.

One area in particular that I see the interpersonal pressure of commitment and consistency coming into play, is that of recruitment, and the institutionalising of resources. Let’s be honest, if there’s one practice that businesses have been historically prolific in, it’s the act of recruitment, and understandably so. However, the last 15 years has seen a massive shift in the demands and requirements for businesses to successfully market and position themselves with the consumer.

A failure to accept the depth of this requirement is what leads to the fantastical job descriptions we see all too often, as businesses navigate their historic ‘comfort zones’ with the recruitment criteria of myth and fantasy. The reality of course is a need for modern businesses to form expert marketing partnerships, now more than ever.

5. What were you thinking?

This is short and sweet and obvious, I’ve learnt to avoid selling marketing services directly to in-house marketing personnel. For obvious reasons these employees are the most likely to rebuke your partner touting approaches. It is essential for the marketer to pitch their services as high up the organisational ladder as possible, those are the people that need to buy into the value of the service. You will rarely infiltrate the institutional ranks of the in-house marketing team without a decree from the higher powers.

For all that I believe to be true on the subject, I’d like to make it equally clear that I’ve worked with companies that employed some fantastic marketing directors, but only where there has been an organisational edict on the value of seeking out and nurturing skilled supplier relationships. Under these circumstances there is a respect and appreciation of the ‘power in partnering’. Managing these relationships is exactly how the modern marketing director can deliver real value to their employers.

I accept that I’m presenting what appears to be a pretty macro overview of the challenges faced by marketers and customers alike. Of course, there are other factors that come into play, both for and against professional partnering…but not many.

Clearly, I’m a passionate advocate for partnership and collaboration. It allows brands to double down on their core competences and trust in the expertise of others when the requirements fall outside of their own. After all, how many of you perform you own surgery, rhetorical question I hope.

The next chapter.

But what happens when the marketing agencies themselves fall victim to the same constraints that I have passionately argued will face organisations that opt to internalise their marketing resource? This is exactly the situation I found myself in recently. First and foremost, it occurred to me that I was no longer enjoying my work, nothing to do with hard graft either, that’s something everyone should do and be proud of, whether employer or employee. Initially I put it down to the activities themselves, like managing the staff, selling, planning, strategy, copywriting, briefs, proposals, analytics, performance analysis, reporting, brand building, finance, marketing, policies, procedures, wages, overheads … I’ll stop there because this would become a very long list.

In reality, these or similar activities are the tip of the business owner’s iceberg, and although I was definitely outside of my ‘passion zone’ with a number of them, they weren’t responsible for my sudden and rather extreme angst. What had happened in fact was that I had inadvertently created my own marketing institution and the constraints that come with it, in terms of capacity, scalability, versatility and skillset, worse still that I knew it. In truth my agency was now sailing dangerously close to forbidden waters, like fitting square pegs to round holes because it mapped conveniently with our physical and intellectual circumstances, the worst kind of customer value proposition.

To appreciate my sudden change of heart, you will need to understand a new and rapidly emerging shift in the current market. In the same way as we have witnessed huge shifts in consumer behaviour and the rush of brands to meet them, there is an equally exciting revolution taking place on the frontline of the labour market, with the rise of the freelance business model, aka Freelancer. Unconstrained access and availability to remote talent, skills and diversity, means bottomless scale and scope in how these resources can be leveraged. Freelance services can be aligned perfectly with the customer’s brand, marketing and direct sales requirement, budget too. Under this model we’re back to fitting square pegs into square holes again, any shape you want for that matter.

Don’t get me wrong it wasn’t always this way; my agency’s marketing proposition was perfectly suited to the majority of businesses and vastly superior to anything they could implement themselves in technology alone, let alone the skills to deliver on it. Employing and managing the resources ourselves as the marketing experts made perfect sense for our customers, the best and brightest minds need feeding not starving. This brings us back to my point on change and inevitability, I was clear in my view that there’s no such thing as ‘status quo’.

I can’t and never will decry my personal belief and passion for how business should be conducted, with customer obsession at the very core of it. Similarly, when aspects of the market change and become relevant, be them buyer, supplier or resource opportunities, I too am going to rush out and great them, because it’s the best thing for my customers.

Rethink Media’s existing business model no longer reflected my belief on providing best customer value, simply put I could see there was a better way of doing things. I unashamedly recognised that we needed a fundamental shift in strategy, one that mapped to the rapidly emerging benefits of the freelance marketplace, and an unfettered ability to deploy the ideal resource at any scale for our customers. With this in mind I began the process of building freelance relationships and systematically reduced my staffing, all the while offering the same work opportunities to ex-employees, along with the provision of the best desktop machines and software.

The rise of the freelancer brings a huge whitespace on price too, either because of the varying cost of living between countries, exchange rates, supplementary nature of income, reduced overheads, lifestyle and expectation etc. Keep in mind that the freelancer marketplace is global, and don’t be fooled into thinking it’s an unmanageable or intangible one either, far from it. The first thing you realise when you explore this space is the vastness of talent that’s available to you and the ridiculously finite criteria that you can apply to the selection process. You might feel a little shamed at how proficient the majority of the foreign freelancers are in their grasp of the English language too, reading, writing and spoken word, so very little problem there.

In terms of ability and proof, freelancers have been prolific brand builders on social media and other platforms, such as ArtStation and Behance from day one. These platforms have massive reach and content searchability and are the perfect showcase for creative talent, art, illustration, branding, printing, packaging, video production, logo design, web design, app development, digital marketing and countless other disciplines. It’s interesting too that a number of agencies are positioning themselves on these channels in a similar way to the freelancers. Irrespective of them having full time employees, I see more agencies using the word ‘freelance’ in their bios, which is a very clear indicator of market acceptance and an increase in demand for the benefits of freelancer engagement, often predicated on price. In terms of payment, the general rule consists of an amount paid in advance and the balance paid on acceptance/completion. Outside of the UK, currencies will vary, which is perfect for a company PayPal account.

I continue to focus my own skills as a brand, marketing and direct sales expert, on developing existing accounts and creating new business opportunities, as well as my passion for building personal brand. The difference now is a renewed confidence to think, advise and act at scale. I have zero interest in what suits my own resource and can concentrate on the activities that represent best value and best practice for the customer, something I’m hugely passionate about. The freedom that I’ve created through this new business model allows me to spend precious extra time on my own brand strategy, as well as satisfy a growing demand for brand consultancy work (consultant being another word for freelancer – the irony). As for my expanding network of fab freelancers, they get a regular supply of well-paid work and a very capable man on the ground to do the sales and customer liaison work for them.

Best of all, I can confidently say that my business model is once again entirely predicated on my belief, and my business is growing.

It is an absolutely certainty that the face of traditional labour as we know it is going change at an almost incomprehensible rate. Technology removes barriers and can eliminate friction at a number of levels. Whatever you may have thought unfeasible or impossible previously, is entirely feasible and possible in the future.

A final thought: Rethink the journey to achieve your destination.

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