“It’s the people, stupid”

Advertising agencies don’t make widgets and they don’t have factories or manufacturing lines that create tangible goods; they are in the idea business. So it constantly amazes me how many of them don’t understand that their most valuable asset is – their people. Every agency’s success relies purely on the talent it has within its ranks and yet so few companies actually do meaningful things to retain and nurture talent.

David Ogilvy famously said, “If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.”  Sadly, so many companies today, and it’s not limited to ad agencies, seem content hiring and retaining small people. I understand that when times are tough there will be cost-cutting, and things like training programs and other employee perks will disappear but this is just the tip of the iceberg, and frankly, not the only things that companies should think about when trying to retain talent. These things can help in the short-term but do scant little to address the true nature of retention in the long-run. Don’t get me wrong, money is important but most companies believe that it is the only tool they have to motivate and recognize employee performance.

To me it starts with understanding a very simple formula:

“Happy Employees = Happy Clients.”

When your employees are happy, they are motivated. When they are motivated, they go above and beyond and it shows in both the quality of their ideas and their output. When the work shines it tends to resonate with customers, creates brand recognition and preference, which in turn leads to greater sales. When sales increase we have very happy clients…It truly is that simple! This is really the only way to achieve great results, and client satisfaction. Quite simple when you spell it out but extremely hard when it comes to actually getting management in most companies to recognize it or have the courage to execute it.

The trouble begins with two important areas; both of which are misunderstood by many corporations. First, most companies today, believe that making clients happy involves giving their clients exactly what they ask for –  rather than helping clients understand what they really need. I am not talking about getting a clear brief from a client but about literally letting your clients dictate the idea, and much worse the execution. Following this path will ALWAYS lead to failure; without exception. It is simply a matter of time before you will lose the business. Think about it, if clients knew what they needed, leave alone how to articulate it to their customers, then agencies would not exist. It is like going to a brilliant lawyer and asking them to take your case, then insisting on writing the arguments, the opening and closing statements and doing everything short of standing up yourself in court. It defeats the purpose of hiring and paying someone for their particular experience and expertise.

The second problem is in the way companies approach talent retention. Granted these days it feels like most companies care little about their star performers, leave alone the average employee, but let’s for a moment imagine a company that does care and makes a genuine effort to create “happy employees.” The problems still lies in a flawed approach to providing this happiness. Most companies still believe that hard work should be rewarded by simply paying an employee more money. This is all well and good but retaining talent requires much more than dollars. It requires making sure employees are constantly challenged, that they are learning and growing everyday (and I don’t mean purely through workshops or training seminars). Additionally, it goes a log way to know that your company has your back, by standing behind their work and defending and fighting for it with clients. Also, it would really help if companies spent more time making sure that their people are not constantly doing busy work or re-works on every project – nothing kills morale faster.

If companies really want to retain and nurture great talent, then they need to think about creating a culture that promotes these behaviors in management; at every level of their organisation. They also need to hold management accountable and ensure that they are following through on these practices. It is these things that help contribute most to that most powerful and yet hardest to deliver tool a company has in its retention arsenal – employee motivation. Money cannot provide the same satisfaction that feeling appreciated for your efforts does or seeing the fruits of your labour perform in the marketplace.

Advertisements

Why Ron Johnson’s JC Penney Experiment Failed

Ron Johnson is credited with delivering two of the most successful retail models of this century as the man behind Target and Apple Stores. So what went wrong with JC Penney?

It seems that Johnson decided to ignore his own tenants and instead chose the path that many other corporate leaders seem to follow today – he simply changed the most superficial aspects of the JC Penney brand – the logo, colours, slogan and physical retail environment and delivered it via a shiny new ad campaign. He completely forgot to change the things that matter more and are responsible for delivering a successful brand experience; the company culture, internal and front-line employee’s buying into the vision and having the training and commitment to deliver on it. And I believe another thing he missed or underestimated, before rolling out his re-invention, was the core JCP customer appetite for the pace and extent of change.

Many corporations still believe that advertising and marketing can compensate for lack of a quality product or a great customer experience. It is a shortcut that will ALWAYS fail. This is an age old battle we in the advertising industry have fought with clients who do not want to spend the time or invest the money to build a truly great brand. They want quick, easy and cheap ways to a successful brand. There is not one. Advertising campaigns can only sell what already exists; they cannot create what does not. In fact, I would argue that you end up damaging your company and brand more by making promises that your product and customer experience do not deliver. In the end, customers are less likely to forgive or try you again. The man who at both Apple and Target was the antithesis to this fast and easy way seemed to succumb to external pressures with JC Penney and try to deliver a massive turn-around in a few quarters rather than over a period of years.

With every brand re-invention you have to start by answering two fundamental questions; what still works for the brand and should be carried forward, and second how far can you move forward without losing your most loyal customers; while ensuring you gain new ones. This is not about finding the best possible compromise but it is about ensuring that you don’t throw the baby out with the bath water and lose your most valuable customers by creating something that is so alien to them, so unfamiliar that they no longer have an emotional connection with the brand. Also, you have to be cognizant of the fact that old brands have a long history and bring with them baggage, so you have to move them forward and update them in ways that do not allow you a totally clean slate, like Mr. Johnson had with Apple Stores. Perhaps, Mr. Johnson decided to try and re-invent this old brand like he had a clean slate, without understanding what worked and what his most loyal customers would not be willing to live without, at least in the short-term. As a result he alienated his most loyal customers before he had the time to attract a new customer.

Mr. Johnson should have spent his first year simply unveiling his vision with internal management and employees with an aim to start building support, passion and committed to delivering this vision to customers; while taking time to study JC Penney’s brand history and better understand their most valuable customers. All this much before any shiny new ads and re-designs hit TV channels and store shelves. One thing I will say in his defense is that Wall Street is responsible in large part for creating an environment of quarterly results mentality; where CEO’s are under tremendous pressure to deliver growth every few months. This is simply not the way you can ever build a successful company and brand. It takes time and years of investment and management commitment to create the likes of an Apple, Amazon, IBM or American Express. That said, there will always be external pressures and corporate leaders also need to push back (on Wall Street and investors) so they can take the time to bring all the stakeholders on board with their vision, before leading the way in executing it on far more realistic timelines.

Art and Science of the Business Plan

If you are starting a business, you need to begin by writing a business plan; this much is obvious. However, asking people advice on how to write one can often be more complicated than writing it! Today, most people will tell you that investors (for whom most business plans are penned) are extremely time starved and have very short attention spans. Both these facts are true. So the logical conclusion one would reach is keep your business plan short but make it interesting, which also means not writing pages and pages that cannot be read on an iPhone screen.

That said I still strongly recommend to every entrepreneur I advise to always start with the old fashioned long form version BUT never to share that with investors. So why you ask should they bother? The reason it is really important to start with the long-form is because it helps accomplish two very important things; first, it forces you to really research and do your homework to explain and defend why the world needs your business, to study your competitors in-depth, to understand who would buy you and why – and explain how you think you can make money. Second, it is a great exercise (albeit painful one) that literally forces your brain to go through the rigorous process of thinking through your business fundamentals in the context of studying your category, customers and competitors in a way that helps you gain a depth and perspective that few entrepreneurs have when they start out. Trust me when I say that having a command of, and familiarity with this knowledge at your fingertips, will impress every potential investor. Once you complete the long-form version file it away and start work on the investor version. This should be no more than a 10-12 slide distillation of your long-form business plan.

It truly is a valuable process that one cannot appreciate unless they go through it. Not only will you feel more confident about your pitch but also have the laser focused essence of your big idea. Now there are good and bad ways to create slides. I suggest you start by thinking about it as a story; one that is personal and one that you have told millions of times. Your presentation should come across with this level of passion and familiarity. You should be able to bring the slides to life with rich details and anecdotes that help make it more real for your audience. Before you start to write the slides, imagine that your business is a short story and build an interesting plot around how you tell it. Think about an opening sequence, adding some tension and build-up before you do your great product unveil. Find ways to help your audience relate e.g. have interesting and real people to bring to life your target consumer(s), etc. Finally, remember that your slides are not there to do the talking – YOU are! This means that you should NEVER be reading off your slides (your audience can do that for themselves). Your job is to bring them to life by talking about all the things the audience cannot see or read on the slide. The slides are merely there to provide a point-of-focus for the audience and to move your story’s plot forward. You are responsible for making the story more interesting and exciting until your audience is so engrossed that they are clamoring to know how it ends. Most of all remember to have fun and don’t forget to be you. If you come across like a rehearsed robot, no matter how great, your idea will suffer too.

One final point to remember is that all smart investors make investments in people (and teams) and not an idea per se. The success of every idea is entirely dependent on how well it is executed; which is determined by the team’s passion, experience and combined talent. Investors already know that 90% of start-up ideas they invest in will fail but if they believe in the people, they also believe that one day these people will find success, even if it is not with their original idea.

Marissa Mayer and The New Yahoo Employee Policy

Marrisa Mayer is absolutely right that real and meaningful relationships cannot be built purely from behind computer screens, via email, or over the phone. I don’t care what anyone says about the proliferation of technology and the ease-of-access it has provided for an increasingly mobile workforce, and it has, but it is still not close to being a substitute for face-to-face contact and the casual in-person encounters in lunch rooms or other parts of an office that form the intangibles of building human relationships.

I admit that people can be extremely efficient working remotely. It is easy to interact with various departments, have meetings over Skype and pretty much complete every task you need to, in order fulfill your job responsibilities. I also know many companies today are entirely virtual, and are thriving, but I bet even their CEO’s will admit that with more money (or much lower travel costs) they too would want their employees to meet more often, in-person. Ultimately, every company leader realizes that you cannot create that highly intangible yet extremely valuable thing we call “culture.” Corporations that have it feel more familiar, warmer and more like a home away from home for employees. They provide a common purpose, and those that do it better, create a sense of belonging to a tribe.  Just think about the amount of time we all spend working …

Here the rub; you simply cannot build meaningful relationships with people you have never sat across the table from, shared a latte with or broken bread with. A very wise CEO once told me that “everything that happens after 6pm is far more important than what transpires during the workday; this is where the magic happens.” He was absolutely right. It is during these moments; when you share the experience of having faced an abusively irate client, discuss the dressing down your boss got in front of you, or have a colleague offer to do something for you, so you can leave early, because they overheard it was you anniversary– these are the things that form the bonds that make up the intangible glue of real relationships. And these moments only transpire when you let your hair down, share a laugh, throw out a random idea based on something you just overheard, or because someone confessed a problem they were facing over lunch. Try taking your finance guy out for a coffee and ask him what he thinks of your latest project, and you will start to understand what I mean.

So while Ms. Mayer was right to bring people back into the office, it seems she may have relied a little too heavily on data to drive he decision and therefore failed miserable on how she executed Yahoo’s new policy (source: Business Insider). As much as I have talked about the virtues of being in the office, I feel equally that there needs to be a balance. People should be able to work from home a few days a week, and this is where technology has provided the ability to do it seamlessly (just not all the time). It should not be one or the other. If I were Ms. Mayer, I would have made it mandatory to be in the office every day for the first six months, for new hires, and then three days a week after that.

The most ironic thing about Ms. Mayer’s approach is that while she may have used data to inform and even make her decision, she clearly needs to learn that she also needs the human touch when executing and implementing policies across the organisation; especially when her objective is try and get people to build better inter-personal relationships.

Facebook: Not $$$ocial Enough?

Earlier this week General Motors decided to stop advertising on Facebook. GM made this announcement “after deciding that paid ads on the site have little impact on consumers’ car purchases” according to the Wall Street Journal (“GM Says Facebook Ads Don’t Pay Off”). Albeit, the total amount, $10 million, is but a tiny fraction of Facebook’s whopping $3.15 billion in reported 2011 ad revenues, the timing was not great. It was less than one week before Facebook’s much vaunted IPO.

So while the revenue loss is paltry, there are two larger concerns for Facebook. One, GM is the third largest advertiser in the US and their announcement might lead other advertisers to re-evaluate their advertising spend on Facebook. The second more worrying thing is that it is a major blow for a young company trying to convince the world that “social advertising” is not only effective but provides Return on Investment (ROI). In the short-term the impact may not be that great simply because Facebook is about to reach 1 billion active users (approximately 14% of the world’s population); and this number alone is hard for most advertisers to ignore. But as a public company, with shareholders, they will soon need to prove that they are worth their high valuation, in revenue terms.

Every company feels compelled to have a social advertising budget, even though there is scant evidence that these dollars generate any sales, or return on investment. The advertising and social marketing industry will have you believe they are effective sales drivers but the reality is that there are few independent studies or evidence to support this hypothesis. If you think about the number of times you have clicked on a Facebook ad or decided to make a purchase based on seeing someone’s status update (or wall post), you will likely reach the same conclusion. Facebook’s ad revenue actually fell in the first quarter of 2012 from the fourth quarter of 2011.

Here is something to ponder about Facebook’s current IPO valuation. According to Anant Sundaram (of Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth) the average price to earnings ratio for the majority of US companies, over the last one hundred years, has been around 15. Apple is at 15 and Google is apparently a little bit higher. However, Facebook’s price-to-earnings ratio is 100.

He goes on to say that “at current levels, it would take Facebook 100 years to generate enough profits to pay for itself. That number is so high because investors are betting Facebook’s profits are going to explode. Sundaram says, judging from this price these investors seem to believe that the company’s profits will double, and then double again, and then double again — all within the next few years. For that to happen, Facebook will need to attract 10 percent of all advertising dollars spent on the planet “across all media – print, billboards, radio, television, Internet.”  To put this in perspective he adds that “Facebook had just over $3 billion in global ad sales. TV ad sales in the U.S. alone last year were $68 billion.” (NPR: “Is Facebook Worth $100 Billion?”).

Facebook recently tried a new revenue generation experiment in New Zealand by charging people two New Zealand dollars (US$1.53) a post to ensure that their own friends see what they write (Wall Street Journal: “Facebook Gets Religion for Revenue”). Are your status updates and posts on Facebook valuable enough to start paying to share it with your friends? I know mine are not and never will be.

Let’s just say I am holding off buying Facebook shares because I don’t believe they have a real revenue model, yet. That is not say that they will not find a Google like search cash cow but let’s just say ad banners on the site are not the Holy Grail that Mark Zuckerberg wants us to believe.

#Netflix and the New Red: Act 2

In July I wrote about Netflix poor handling of their recent price hikes and the seemingly callous and arrogant manner in which they made the announcement and dealt with the subsequent customer outcry. Read here: https://brandsandbottomlines.wordpress.com/2011/07/13/netflix-and-the-new-red/

Since the price hike took effect Netflix has lowered its estimates by at least one million subscribers and its share price has dropped about 25%. Sadly, they did not heed the warning of thousands of negative comments or customer threats to close their accounts. It was not until their share price started to drop that Reed Hastings mea culpa surfaced.

Today, they took their recent actions to an even more confusing level when Reed Hastings offered an apology for the way in which the earlier changes were handled.

“In hindsight, I slid into arrogance based upon past success,” Hastings said. “We have done very well for a long time by steadily improving our service, without doing much CEO communication.”

But then rather than offer an olive branch to customers lost or currently on the fence, which would have been the most logical thing to do, it seems they completely panicked and lost the plot. Hastings  went on to announce that he was breaking Netflix into two companies; renaming the DVD-by-mail service to Qwikster and keeping Netflix for online streaming and gaming.

This change will further inconvenience customers, who will now have to sign up for two different accounts, create two queues and pay two companies on their credit cards each month and not be able to avail of both streaming and mail service from a single provider. Even more embarrassing for Netflix, the Twitter handle for @Qwikster is already being used someone who has a pot smoking Elmo as his photo, and tweets stuff like “Don’t believe that nigga that sed the bought my shyt cuz it aint tru.”

Hastings ended the blog post by saying, “Both the Qwikster and Netflix teams will work hard to regain your trust. We know it will not be overnight. Actions speak louder than words.”  I believe that Netflix’s latest actions just made this task twice as hard.

Will the #Apple fall far from the tree?

First, I want to wish Steve Jobs the best and hope his health improves.

I guess we all knew this day would come. The board, the shareholders, the employees, the analysts and the evangelists; it’s just that we had all hoped it would be much, much later.

Whether you are a fan of Steve Jobs or not, what nobody can dispute is the fact that he single-handedly turned a fledgling company and tired brand into the world’s most envied and admired; one that is now on a path to become the world’s first trillion dollar company. However, what is most fascinating about the Apple story is how he achieved this. His vision, passion and workaholic nature are well-known but Jobs took this to another level entirely. It is said that he was involved in every decision right down to determining the type of wire that will secure MacBook’s in the Apple stores – that is both incredible and insane. Jobs’ is the only CEO I can think of who seems to go against conventional wisdom in every sense and still come out on top, every time. He is a classic example of someone who zigs, when everyone else is zagging.

Most CEO’s will tell you that the key to successfully growing your company, after you become a certain size, is to hire really smart people and then give them latitude to operate and a wide berth to do their jobs – and get out of the way. Not, like Jobs, remain involved in every minute decision; like what glass to use on the staircases of your retail stores. We know Job’s remained involved in every decision, even as Apple blew past Microsoft and Oracle to become the most valuable technology company on the planet.

Even more amazing is the fact that while the whole tech world seemed to acknowledge that the old Microsoft “proprietary” technology model was a failure and no longer sustainable in our new global ecosystem; filled with consumer demand and a need to constantly adapt and innovate in an open source way. So “open” has become the new buzzword for software development and management philosophies. Even companies like Procter & Gamble are now embracing this for rapid product prototyping, development and go-to-market strategies. On the other hand we have Apple who have created a completely closed and proprietary ecosystem for their products – and have been more successful than any other company. It is almost as if Steve Jobs’ philosophy and management style are completely counter-intuitive. This applies right down to the bets Jobs has made over the years. Like launching a tablet when everyone said that there was never going to be a market for a device that was not quite as small as a cellphone and not quite as powerful as a laptop; and we all know how that turned out.

We have been told that Apple has a very deep management bench and that may well be true but when a larger than life CEO like Steve Jobs vacates his position, he leaves a very rare and large hole in a company that few other leaders do.

So the 337 billion dollar question with Tim Cook is; how far will the Apple fall from the tree?