Andy Grove taught us all to be professionally paranoid; to understand that continuously changing technology and relentless innovation will dislocate, disrupt and dethrone the patterns, pathways and players we know and love. Nothing in the agency business is a sure thing. We dance on the high wire, usually without a net, every day.
For most of us, every day is a test. Agency leadership is a high stakes poker game, not for the feint of heart. So if the iffy global economy isn’t keeping you up at night, consider these six things to be paranoid about in 2011.
1. The Next Big Thing. It’s not a matter of if but when. It wasn’t so long ago that Apple was struggling under the leadership of a guy from Pepsi. Google was two nerds in a dorm room. Microsoft was battling for attention and market penetration and Zuckerberg was finessing the Winkelvoss twins. We all remember when AOL, MySpace and Netscape were monster players and we wonder what new thing will skyrocket out of the blue and change the game again.
Nobody expects today’s dominant players to maintain their streaks indefinitely even though many of the so-called “killers” haven’t amounted to much so far. Will it come from China, Romania, Switzerland, and Israel or from a dorm room at L’Ecole Polytechnique, Stanford or Moscow State or out of a garage in Sheboygan or Seoul? Will it stitch together or mash-up familiar concepts or will it come at a problem of content, networking, transmission or translation in a way we never thought of before? You can read a million blogs and trade publications and never see it coming. But the next big thing is on the way headed directly at changing the status quo and forcing all of us to scramble to recognize, understand, react and adjust to it.
2. Chasing the Shiny Object. Every day somebody creates a mash-up of technology and design that is visually arresting, unexpected and broadly considered cool. Too many of us rush to copy or copycat the latest cool app, effect, ad, promotion or design sometimes without asking ourselves how it fits with business or communications strategies. The beauty of our business is that there will always be a next new creative thing. The trick is not to be seduced by it, overwhelmed by it, stymied by it or envious of it. Instead we have to learn from it, adapt it, finesse it or riff on it in ways that serve our clients and their brand objectives. We have to be on guard not to chase the shiny new object just for the sake of momentarily appearing to be cool.
3. Not Thinking 6 Moves Ahead. Somebody is out there planning to eat your lunch. They covet your clients, have a better idea, grasp end user needs better or deeper, can mobilize newer more impactful technology and they understand the markets, the politics, the players or the industry better than you do. They are hungrier, more aggressive, have fewer inhibitions and may already be talking or pitching against you using a back channel. We play a fluid 3-D game where competitors come at you 24/7. You need to be vigilant, ahead of your clients, conscious of the skills and motivations of your people and be willing to blow up your own ideas before someone else does it for you. Client service and account management demands the foresight of a chess master, the savvy of a master spy and the guts of a field general.
4. Early Warning Radar. Social, video and mobile media have captured clients’ immediate attention. Cloud computing, complex data collection, transmission and real-time processing, plus increasing marketing automation and triggered communication is on the horizon. Agencies need not only know the buzz words, but understand the working parts and practical implications of the technologies at play and in the pipeline.
Agencies need to know what’s happening now, what’s coming around the corner and what’s a few years out. This information has to be understood on its own then placed in the context of financial and market development, industry trends and sensibilities and compared or contrasted with the perspective of client leaders and decision-makers.
Sometimes a great team of strategic planners or researchers is called for. Other times technologists, business strategists or even daydreamers are necessary to see far enough ahead and to do the math necessary to see how the pieces, parts and theories might come together. Clients expect agencies to know this stuff, but rarely want to pay for it. Creating a sufficient early warning radar is an investment on the part of agencies who expect to reap the rewards downrange.
5. Inadequate Partnerships. No agency is truly expert at everything. We all have our sweet spots. So we need reliable, insightful and trustworthy partners to flesh out the full array of services and tactics that clients need. The process starts by understanding clearly and without self-deception what you are truly great at. Too many agencies kid themselves about their core competencies and, as a result, don’t find enough or the right partners to fully serve their clients. This is an issue of skills and attitude.
Clients do not believe that a one-stop shop gives them the best of everything. Increasingly the one-throat-to-choke promise is falling on deaf ears. Clients string together their own daisy chains of resources to get the best performance in each media, channel, market and technology. They expect everyone to play nice in the sandbox. Many clients incent intramural cooperation as part of evaluation and compensation formulas. Agencies that don’t appreciate and deliver on this reality and either try to do it all themselves or aggressively switch pitch for other assignments find themselves on the outside looking in.
6. Myopia. We all get used to our own ways of doing and seeing things. We get too comfortable, too complacent and too wedded to our own perspective. Agencies need to worry about getting too caught up in their own stuff and not sufficiently caught up in the things clients and prospects see or care about. We work in a personality rich business where individual skills and individual points of view often frame an agency’s unique selling proposition or become an agency’s point of differentiation. This can be as much of a trap as a competitive advantage. We must work vigilantly against egoism, insularity and cronyism. We have to look outward, get beyond petty office politics and find ways to overcome the natural tendency to do it the way we’ve always done it.