Publicise or be damned

As someone who's cracked out more direct mail than you can wave a DL envelope at, the irony of an organisation in the communications industry on strike is not lost on me (unlike most of my love letters from Bouncy Knowles right now). The Royal Mail not only seems to refuse to embrace the future, it balks at the mere thought of even to talking to it. Mulling over this incongruity reminded me of an agency I did a spell with a while back in the capacity of CD. As I was there for a fair old time my commitment to the company cause was stronger than that of a quick project crafting a letter for a direct client and I began to take issue with the Board on one particularly thorny point. Yup, you guessed it, my pet subject of the moment; communication.

Now, if you're the MD of an agency that I've worked with and thinking, 'Hey, that's me you infidel...' don't get all paranoid - unless you're reading this from a distant place where the average temperature is slightly higher than nipple-erecting and Yorkshirish is definitely not the native tongue. And if you’re just wondering who the hell this agency is, you know confidentiality is my only currency.

So what did I notice in my short, but long-enough time there? Well firstly, I was aware that the company had a fairly high and frequent turnover of staff. I then soon became aware that the people who were there for the duration weren’t there out of commitment to the cause but just glad to be in work. Who wouldn’t be in these Spartan times? Then, like a lot of things that come in threes, I noticed the humdinger; this organisation did not hold any company meetings. Not one. Nada. Zilcho. My God, they didn’t even hold production meetings but don’t get me started on that.

Naturally, as a concerned and (albeit temporarily) committed member of the team, I queried with the Board the reasons behind the lack of information-sharing with the rest of the staff. And, like a Jack Russell with a serious bone of contention and a heavy dose of small-dog syndrome, I did this more times than I care to remember in the short time I was plying my trade there. Here are some of the responses I got:

“We’re not here to have a get-together, we’re here to service our clients.”

“What do they need to know? They get their briefs. They do the work.”

“They’re not the people who make the decisions.”

“Why take up valuable time chatting when we should improving the standard of our work?”

So why did all this matter to me? Why do those of you that do know me now see why I’ve got one or two more grey hairs than I had just a little while back?

Because, you know where this is going. Or more to the point, you have a fair idea where this company is going. That’s right, absolutely nowhere.

Because if you don’t involve your staff, it will feel uninvolved. People will believe they’re on the fringe because that’s right where you’re sticking them. And as such, they’ll naturally break away from the core group. If you don’t tell your people where the agency is going how can you ever expect them to drive in the right direction? If you don’t explain where the company could do better, how do you propose to improve in those areas? Or expect others who are doing well to step in and help? If you omit to reward success why should people strive for its dizzy heights again? If you don’t nurture the idea of individuals talking about the different work they’re producing in the name of the company how can you expect the cross-pollination of great ideas over different sectors and media to flourish? If you don’t take your people with you, how can you expect to create a brand that will be great, that will have serious equity and that you can sell to future clients and owners alike? The answer is you can’t.

Just like many of the clients this industry works with, you can’t ever hope to build an attractive, fully-rounded brand that future stakeholders and management teams will be crawling over themselves to inherit without your biggest brand asset – your people. It’s your people who have to live and breathe your brand values; your people that deliver your brand to the outside world. Yes, you may produce decent work from time to time but eventually that will suffer the symptoms of a conveyor belt of personnel delivering it. And yes, you may have an enviable client list but hey, that’s made up of people too – people who’ll soon cotton on to ever-changing account handlers and an inconsistent creative product.

So, if your exit strategy is to go on to bigger and better things or even if you’re hoping to spend the rest of your days on a lilo in Lloret nursing a pina colada, the only way to leave your agency in great shape for a sale and subsequent success is to lead your people to victory through the power of communication.

Ouch tip #999: If you’re raring to go for your next company get-together, remember you haven’t employed a bunch of accountants – avoid doing the financials in Swahili.

Tweet. Welcome to the world of self harm - agency branch

How strange. Agencies spend a bucket-load of time (and cash) building up their reputations, their credentials and their client base. Then along comes a relatively new and spangly thing that the very same agencies seem desperate to be seen to be using before a) fully understanding its implications and b) setting any kind of guidelines to staff. So desperate in fact, that all sensibility seems to have been knocked off its perch. Yes, I’m talking Twitter.

Now I guess this is aimed mainly at MDs, Board members and other seriously committed individuals within the organisation but I’m afraid it’s time to get a grip. The amount of tweets I’ve witnessed chirping from agencies all branded up with their lovely logo (a logo that, knowing how agencies work on their own work, also probably took a bucket-load of time, and tears to design) but are actually voiced by individuals expressing their own thoughts and opinions beggars belief.

Obviously, no names mentioned here but recent tweets, badged up with agency emblems, using agency names have included, “Oh no, Monday already”, “Feel like 5hit today, creativity’s gonna suffer” and “Can’t believe the X Factor result last night.”

Don't get me wrong; there are plenty of individuals out there representing their organisations brilliantly. And I’m freelancing right now so why should it bother me? Because the feeling I have for this industry runs as deep as I was when I was knocking out 12-14 hours a day as a Creative Director; because it hurts to see an industry that’s already suffering giving itself one more kick in the budgies and because… hello… you should know a damn sight better. You’re in marketing right? Brand perception?

The solution? Communication. Remember that? It’s what you do. Get everyone together and lay down a few ground rules:

  1. Tweet by all means as an individual who just happens to work at an upbeat, lively and radical agency
  2. Make it obvious your tweets are YOUR tweets and not those of your company
  3. Decide whether you are actually tweeting as a fully branded up organisation and set up the following:

  • At least two key stakeholders who can vet each other’s outpourings
  • A consistent tone of voice
  • A clear reason as to why you’re using this medium in the first place
  • Objectives for what you want your tweets to achieve
  • An understanding that once it’s out there, it’s out there for all to see and, perhaps more importantly, for clients and potential clients to form their own perceptions.

Because guess what: I’m guessing they don’t give two hoots about your views on the X Factor but they may be very interested to hear that a heavy weekend has lead to your staff not feeling as chirpy about their account as they should be.

The expensive phone call (Sultan of Ikea part 3)

Part 2 here. Right on to my bank for the statements. Simple enough task? If only. With two potential bank accounts and two card holders (The Missus and me) trying to second guess what date 5 years ago we bought the Sultan on, what with and by whom was the devil’s only job. And with Halifax charging £10 (that’s right, a whole tenner) for each statement request, this was like Russian Roulette for tightarses – such as myself. Anyway, took an out-and-out gamble and asked for nearly three years worth of statements on the normal bank account. A friendly Halifax rep slipped his hand in my back pocket and made me ten pounds lighter. (I always sweat profusely when any man puts their hand in my back pocket).

To be continued…

The promising phone call (Sultan of Ikea part 2)

Part 1 is here. Phoned up Ikea, Leeds. Got a zillion recorded options that I absolutely love; “If you’d like to speak to anything but a human being, hold, on you’re in luck, we’ve got a trillion options that all send you back to the same battery farm.”


Anyway, finally got through to a friendly lady, and explained my pitiful plight. Rather encouragingly, she mentioned that I didn’t need my receipt. A bank statement showing we’d made a substantial purchase at Ikea would be enough. Right, game on. Thank you for your time – you’ve almost made my year (you know I don’t get out much.)

Brand tOuch score out of ten: 7. Hopes: Optimistic.

To be continued…

The Sunken Sultan

I’ve got a bit of a problem in the bedroom department. Problem is, it dips in the middle. It looks a bit sad and withering. The Missus refuses to touch it with a barge pole.

Our Sultan mattress from Ikea has developed a great, sunken dip. You’d think with a name like Sultan, it would be strong, mighty even… and provide a right royal night’s kip. Not so. Not anymore. Mind you, we’ve had it nearly five years now. But that’s not the point.

The Sultan from Ikea comes with regal guarantee of 25 years.

Cue consumer battle. Cue a customer services test for one of the biggest home furnishing retailers in the universe. And, as I’ve been daft enough to lose my receipt, cue a potential nightmare for yours truly whose back is already starting to buckle under the strain.

So, to test the burgeoning brand that is Ikea, I thought it would be good to provide little snippets of my anticipated long-drawn out process in trying to get my mattress replaced on the basis of the whopping 25 year guarantee. So if you want to follow my progress and more importantly the performance of Ikea, just check back from time to time and you’ll discover this saga has a whole category of its own – The Sultan of Ikea. Wish me luck.

To be continued...

Advertising? Put your mouth where your money is

A friend of mine is lucky enough to be getting his first book published. Let me rephrase that right away; a friend of mine has expended the right amount of blood, sweat and tears, whilst supporting a full-scale family unit with 2.2, to be able to finally get his book published.
Fair play. This news came to me as I still sit on 16 chapters of a novel after four years. Nevertheless, I still consider myself lucky enough in these hard times to be starting on three major new product campaigns for a global brand with up to 3,000 staff at its UK headquarters.
Just before I went away with my own troop to Center Parcs, my friend asked what approach he could possibly take on the advertising and publicising of his new novel. I said that, whilst chasing red squirrels and a rare and sublime two minutes’ peace here and there, I’d have a think.
All that week amongst the stunning Cumbrian backdrop of Whinfell Forest it became blindingly obvious to me. To a man, to a woman, every single member of staff was exemplary in the execution of their work (and let’s face it, if we’re talking blood, sweat and tears here, putting up with 500 holidaying families week in, week out is real work). A couple of examples; despite my protestations, the missus ordered me to call the Service Centre after a mouse sighting in our living room – not for extra cheddar but to see what our eviction options were. In less than ten minutes a lovely lady was round with some humane traps for Ronny rodent and a bottle of red for red-faced yours truly. Nice touch. She also offered us a lodge upgrade to an executive number with a sauna and hot tub. Very tempting but with three rug rats under four, we naturally couldn’t be arsed moving. However, the good intention from Center Parcs was there. Hiring the obligatory bikes and Ben Hur-style chariot was a heart-warming experience too. The chap was more than happy to explain the nuts and bolts of it all and even gave us a good lower-option-for-the-sorry-troop-that-drags-its-heels-and-doesn’t-hire-‘til mid-week price. Now that’s more than fair enough.
And I tell you it was like this every day, everywhere we went throughout the 500acre oasis. I wouldn’t have been surprised to have been handed a free gin ’n’ tonic on my way down the Canyon Ride at the pool – if I’d have been able to remove my hands from my crotch, that is. Suffice to say that the good people of Center Parcs were almost Stepford Wives-ish in their customer service diligence.
The sardonic old bugger in me asked, “Why?”
The marketer in me answered, “Think about it. You’ve got 500 families in every week, each with an average of at least two people who can then pass on their experiences to fellow holiday budget holders. And that ready-made free advertising base has a weekly churn, 51 weeks of the year. From a brand point of view, times what's going on in Cumbria by four other UK Center Parcs sites and it's not to be sniffed at by any means.”
Cynical? Maybe. True? Definitely.

Trust will always be King
This notion was further reinforced whilst still on holiday when I received a weak signal dodging through the pines on my mobile. An ex MD wanted the low-down on a colleague I used to work with at another agency before he went to the effort of getting the guy in. After all why use email or snail mail when you can get a straightforward answer over the phone from someone you trust? You can grasp the honesty from the tone, pick out the truth from the very existence of the relationship. This never more true than on the very day an Actimel TV ad has been banned by the ASA for lying. Yup, they claimed it could prevent illness. In my book, that's a bare-faced whopper that deserves to be scrapped for its sheer dishonesty. Danone have now gone down in my trust stakes and no doubt the estimations of thousands of others. I want to know the score straight from people who've not only experienced what I'm considering, but who are also prepared to put their reputations on something with a big, fat endorsement. Just as the old saying, 'In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is King' goes, so too in marketing it should follow that, 'In the land of the shark-infested overclaim, the warm and furry trust mouse will always win out.'
So what will I be advising my fledgling author pal regarding his approach to advertising? Exactly the same thing I’ll be saying to my client with 3,000 staff: before you go blowing your marketing budget on unsolicited ads in untested media, tell every last man, woman and child you know about your launch and get them to pass it on because there never has, and never will be any substitute for good old word of mouth.