A close friend and seasoned sales rep who’s currently looking for a new sales gig seemed flustered and distracted during a coffee meeting last week. I asked him, “What’s on your mind?”. He shared a story: “I’m on an interview this morning with a prospective new firm and the hiring manager – who was in fact the CEO – asks me within the first 10 minutes of the interview: ‘So, how’s your Rolodex?’ You have no idea how much this pissed me off”.
I can relate. It’s a lot like how a woman must feel on a first date if a guy asks as soon as they sit down “So, after dinner are we going back to your place or mine?”. In keeping with this provocative analogy – there’s nothing inherently wrong with that guy’s intentions – we all know they are pretty common. The issue was really more in his approach. Sure, he may have wanted a specific outcome, but he would likely been more successful if he had waited until after dessert to bring it up!
The same applies in the Sales Rep Hiring process. Follow me here. I swear this will make sense.
In the case of the date scenario above, the guy clearly wasn’t looking for a wife. And in the case of my friends frustrating interview, my hunch (I’m likely correct) is that the CEO wasn’t looking for a long term sales person either. He was looking for a pot of new warm meetings. Not a good approach.
First – for the purposes of this inquiry let’s call this The Rolodex Hire – I firmly believe that hiring a salesperson simply on the merits of their Rolodex can be a sign of a very shortsighted organization – or a sign that the hiring manager either has never been a salesperson or they have and simply have little respect for the underlying value of the sales process.
Here’s why: The hiring company is basically communicating that they are only interested in buying your relationships – which for most top sellers are the fruit of literally decades of time, keeping promises, building trust & value – not to mention money, invested in airplane travel, hotel stays, drinks, dinners, golf outings, baseball seats and the like. More important is the investment of one’s integrity, ones’ word, solving problems, fixing screw ups and creating meaning from madness; the things that the best sales people know is their real job anyway.
A sales rep’s Rolodex is the precious cumulative fruit of their sweat and labor. Asking a sales person to simply bring all of that over to ‘my company’ for a salary and a commission is big ask – and can be easily perceived as an arrogant and out-of-touch requirement without the additional offer of a long term commitment and partnership. “Why would I just bring all of my hard earned 20 years of hand-built reputation over to your firm for a salary and a bonus? Is that a truly equitable value exchange? I think not. Make me a partner. Give some REAL equity. Make an equitable commitment to ME in exchange. Have something super valuable and useful for me to sell.” ‘ The Rolodex Hire’ makes practical sense – but it demands respect. Anyone in sales understands the value of one’s network -and knows that it should be respected – not just exploited.
Also, there is another shortsighted component to this: Once any rep’s Rolodex has been exhausted, it’s over. If a rep has a solid list of contacts – trusted buyers with a solid proven foundation – there are still numerous mitigating factors that go into a sale independent of the relationship: timing, budget, organizational and technical conditions notwithstanding. So, a Rolodex is not a guarantee. But it’s a great start for sure – and the one of the most valuable things that a seasoned sales person brings to the table. The hardest part of any sale is building trust. A built-in trust network is worth its weight in gold. So, I can totally understand a company’s desire to hire someone who has a built in network of trusted buyers. But the key is to be upfront about it. Let the sales rep candidate know what you are really looking for: fresh meetings – not a long term relationship. That sets the table more honestly and also provides for a better targeting parameter for your HR department and a more honest and ultimately successful outcome for all parties involved.
But, here’s my second and more salient point: What I think most companies NEED (not want) are relationship BUILDERS. What companies really should hire – aside from a rep’s established buyer base – is an ABILITY to CONTINUALLY BUILD a buyer-base – not just exhaust the one that they have already built. The best reps come equipped with both an established trust network AND an ability to build one in real time. And I’ve seen time and again, that the ability to establish, grow and extend networks of trust is an attribute that is far more advantageous for a company to look for than simply the size of a reps existing network.
So, for Sales Reps: When interviewing, look for these signals: When the hiring manager(s) ask a lot of questions about your rolodex or network, beware. This is a one-night stand situation. So, navigate accordingly. If they want to ‘buy’ your relationships, make sure they know the value of your relationships and determine:
- Is their product or service worth an extension of credit from your network?
- Will this product or service maintain / sustain your current reputation among your trusted rolodex network?
- What is that worth? (That’s how you negotiate your rate)
For Hiring Managers: Do you need a slew of new meetings immediately or a long term sales rep who builds a book of business over time? Make sure you know before you meet with candidates.
Oh, and wait until the check comes before you ask about their network.
My mother turns 80 this year, and also celebrates 60 years of marriage to my father (now 83). They are the classic example of commitment, devotion, dedication and traditional values that seem lost and even maligned today by many – particularity our education institutions.
My mother is the epitome of grace and class and was in many ways ahead of her time. She started one of the first nail salons in the metro NY area in the late 70s when the idea of a place for women to get their nails done was not considered a no-brainer. She started the business in our basement and it soon grew big enough to warrant the need for a space in our town. Her store quickly became the social center of our town in New City NY offering extended spa services and retail sales. She had dozens of employees and the place was packed from 10am until 6pm 7 days a week. She sold the business to her friends in the late 80s made a killing. She then became the top residential real estate salesperson in New City. She did all of this while raising three boys who got into trouble, ate twice their weight in junk food and listened to loud Zeppelin music at 2am. Over the last 30 years she’s been the leader of numerous non profit organizations, a community activist and local champion for social and political issues. She never spoke or complained once about “life balance” or “how to make it all work”. She never expressed (nor experienced) any challenges about inequality or unfairness. She just did what she dreamed and kicked ass at everything while being an amazing mom and wife to my awesome dad. They still hold hands when they walk together and make fun of one another. I’m the luckiest son on earth. Thanks mom, for being an example to the world.
A woman calls a leading cardiologist’s office and says, “Hello, Dr. Bernstein, I have acute cardiomyopathy and need a pacemaker. I heard from a colleague that you were an excellent cardiologist and have over 20 years of experience in pacemaker implant surgery. I have a working budget of $12,000 and need the procedure done by next Friday so I can attend a sales meeting that I am presenting at the following week. Can you send me a formal proposal outlining your unique approach pacemaker implants along with a breakout of your costs for services?”
Aside from the obvious, the folly of the above scenario is what professional marketing agencies have been forced to live with for the last 15 years. And it’sour own fault.
Despite the consensus among businesses that marketing expertise is a highly specialized and necessary service (like medical services), agencies cannot get a fair shake. Our expertise has become commoditized; our profitability has become unmanageable and our expertise has become undervalued.
Here’s an overview of why this has happened – and what needs to be done to right the ship:
- Pricing models have become unworkable: Back in the heyday, ad agencies charged a fixed 15 percent fee for all work and services. This allowed the Mad Men to simply charge more for services and make banana-boats full of money. Because there were only three major media channels to invest in print, TV and radio–our services were predominantly creative and the contracts were not very complex. Once the big brands got wind of how much cash agencies were making they demanded that the pricing structure be changed to an hourly professional service model—which was the death knell of the industry. People carry a cost, and it became more profitable to hire less expensive and less qualified staff–and find less expensive people who were willing to spread their hours over multiple accounts. In addition, hourly professional service fees are not an appropriate way to charge for the sort of results that marketers are hired to deliver
- Marketing has become harder – and more complex. Digital media was the big game changer in the late 90s. Increasing overnight the number of investment channels, digital opened a slew of new mediums –search, social, acquisition, performance, web, mobile–the list goes on—making the entire undertaking far more complicated and requiring more expertise, depth in specialization and more staff. Crunched against the new hourly fee model, staff work harder to produce the same results for less money. This recipe has led to diminished results and an overall greater focus on profitability than outcomes.
- Conglomeration of Expertise – Corporate engineers woke up in late 90s with a bold idea: Lets buy up a bunch of small specialized agencies and create a network of global services and revenue streams. This conglomeration allowed room for charging lower fees while making up the difference in volume. International footprints meant cheaper labor costs and globally delivered services and technologies, which also brought costs down–making these behemoths even more competitive and able to charge razor thin margins. This tidal shift turned the marketing services industry into a bottom-line driven business making it impossible for mid-tier agencies to compete. Brands loved the savings as well as the cache of being represented by these world class giants with well-established names and the promise of stability.
- Measurement: A Friend and Enemy – The rise of Digital marketing provided another addiction for brands: measurability. The lure of online marketing was the real-time metrics that they provided. Once given a taste of this new elixir, now every dollar spent needed to be validated—and the metrics and data management industrial complex was created. Of the belief that now all media investments could be tracked directly to sales or clicks, brands stopped spending heavy dollars on creative and strategy and placed their larger budgets on executional services like search and performance marketing. Even brand marketing campaigns could be measured based on views, duration, completion, etc. This addiction to measurability created even more stringent margins–and created the industry of ad fraud, delivering fake results and hence increase profits.
- DIY Marketing Platforms/Access to Knowledge – The middle and bottom tier of marketers introduced a whole new industry of turnkey DIY automated marketing tools, designed to allow even the lowliest back office manager feel like a CMO. At the same time, Google evolved as the new encyclopedia Britannica (and Grad School) for the masses and Facebook’s two-click paid ad platform enabled a coffee shop owner to run highly sophisticated marketing campaigns for less than the cost of their linens. With powerful tools and endless info at her fingertips, everyone became a marketing expert. This revolution only further helped to diminish the value of marketing expertise. “$200,000?? My kid can do this for $50 bucks!”
So, what are marketing agencies to do?
- Specialize – The Full-Service agency model is over. The conglomerate’s vision of the one-agency-for-all-things backfired. Heart Surgeons will always be more valuable than Generalists. Not only because healthy hearts are a necessity, but also because the perception (and reality) is that specialists have deeper knowledge, higher acuity, greater focus and hence demand a higher price. Once an agency can take ownership of a specific discipline, they can demand better pricing and set their terms.
- Make Strategy, not execution, the lead – and charge for it – Executional agencies quickly become commodities. They essentially become sweatshops that can be dumped for the lowest bidder. Deep thinking and problem solving is a premium – and represents the most important aspect of what clients need anyway. A trend over the last 10 years is to dangle strategy out as a carrot to get the voluminous executional contracts. This has backfired as cheaper options and DYI automation tools become available to brands. Strategic chops cannot be outsourced.
- Pick The Right Clients – Large mainstream brands have the luxury of choosing among the many – because every agency wants their business. This makes for a one-sided relationship. In today’s world, choosing the right client is as important as choosing the right spouse. Clients must become partners—not revenue sources.
- Evolve and Expand your scope of knowledge – Now more than ever, marketing services are interconnected and holistic. A TV spot is not just deployed via traditional broadcast—it becomes your interstitial, pre-roll and social media content. Agencies must develop a much more comprehensive understanding of how their specialization is deployed, consumed, re-engineered and operationalized in today’s complex marketing ecosystem. Agencies that get the big picture deliver better results and help clients make better decisions.
A recent family vacation provided a fascinating revelation about the current impact of tech. And it depressed the hell out of me.
Here’s the backstory:
We have a cat. Well, more specifically, my wife and kids have a cat. I personally hate cats. But the creature came with the deal. So, I am now a cat owner. Kind of sucks.
One of the cat-owner problems that I inherited was the ‘what do we do with this beast when we go away for an extended period of time?’ problem. I always assumed you just sent the damn thing to some cat hostel and be done with it – but since the cat in question is like 95 years old in cat years, we are unable to leave the thing in some unfamiliar environment or it will die of xenophobic shock. So, we had to hire some kid to come over a few times a day to “be the human” and give the cat some company.
Another challenge we had to manage was feeding the damn thing. The kid we hired couldn’t come over and feed the cat consistently enough to keep it alive so we needed to come up with another solution. So, the geek that I am, I purchased one of those auto-feeder things. This one specifically:
I got the thing set up, timing it to dispense 3 small servings of dried feline nibs 3x a day – at 7am, 1pm and 7pm.
Before the trip, we tested it out for a few days. The cat responded well. It even got to the point that the beast sat and stared at the thing like a horny freak at 6:59 – waiting for it to spit out its portion of dried bounty.
So, we shoved off for our vacation – my wife and kids secure in the knowledge that consistent food and company would be provided to the animal.
Upon returning and seeing that the cat was still alive and properly fed, we collectively determined that the food dispensing wizamajig was so good that we would just keep using it. So now, instead of the kids having to feeding the cat 3x a day, we simply re-filled the food reservoir once a week. One full load was enough to feed the cat for about 5 days. It was a lot easier – and it removed a chore from the kids to-do list.
After a week of this, I noticed something fascinating, and heart-breaking.
Something I really did not fully appreciate before becoming an accidental cat owner is that cats are born hunters. As such, at night, every night – and when we all left for the day – the cat would, well, hunt.
It would bring us offerings – mostly stuffed animals from the beds of the girls, and leave them in the hallway; strategically placed in front of doors or in the middle of the living room – as if to say, “Thanks, man, for the food and shelter and shit. Here’s some fresh kill. Let’s keep it coming. You all rock.”
This nocturnal hunting ritual was accompanied by a loud series of yelps and meows. This night yelping and hunting became a ritualistic moment for all of us – and it became part of the regular cacophony of sounds associated with our NYC apartment living.
Despite my dislike for cats, this nightly hunting observance struck a chord with me. Listening to the cat, I connected to this primal activity – and how the animal’s vestigial instinct carried on even in this modern urban environment.
What had happened is that once we set up the feeding contraption, the cat stopped hunting.
No more night yelping, no more stuffed animal eating, no more, well, cat balls.
What I came to realize is that by simply automating a helping of dried cat nuggets 3x a day, we essentially removed its need for instinctual survival behaviors. We gave the cat a techno-neuter.
The hunting ritual was the cat’s own internal way of maintaining its instinctual connection to its own survival. On some level – pre-contraption -the creature associated its hunting ritual with us providing its food.
The “animals” that the cat “killed” were not edible, but they nonetheless satisfied its feline instinct. Somehow this ritual linked us humans to its survival. Pre-contraption, the cat took an active role in its feeding. This “relationship” was part of its instinct engine. It was part of the cat’s identity – tied back to eons of evolution.
And the techno grub-feeder made all of this obsolete.
It was depressing to witness.
Upon coming to this realization, I immediately removed the batteries from the device and told the kids that the auto-feeding respite was over.
Damn if the beast didn’t start hunting again that evening. Its primal directive re-activated, almost within hours.
In addition to the cat neutering, the introduction of the grub-feeder also eliminated one of the core responsibilities from the kid’s chore rituals. This realization brought to focus how this was happening in other areas – that the same had been done-in by the dishwasher, and the auto-coffee maker, and the remote controls. These devices had turned my kids into lazy blobs of couch beef.
Here’s where it gets even sadder.
I have an older stepson, who is 21, and like most throbbing young men, he uses Tinder and other dating apps.
He was over for dinner last week and I watched in amazement – like an old grizzled fart looking at a TV for the first time – as my son casually swiped away pictures of babe after babe, determining which one he wanted to slay that evening.
After my initial amazement wore off (‘holy mother of moly, if we had this when I was a kid…’) it was replaced by despair. I realized that with this contraption he and his ilk would never fully appreciate the value of the hunt. And even worse, he is being stripped of a scarring ritual that made me – and my entire generation – who we are today.
The heart-pounding act of walking straight up to a girl, face-to-face, looking her right in the eyes, smelling her perfume, and asking her on a date – and getting rejected – is just as inherent a part of the human experience as a cat hunting for its supper.
Primal interpersonal rituals like courting and proposing (and breaking up) build character, create skills, and formulate the rites of passage that we take into our adult lives. I saw that hidden behind the protective veil of these digital dating gizmos, his generation will miss out on an entire component of personal development. Learning to navigate the pick-up ritual is as critical to young people as the eggshell is to the baby chicken. The mere act of breaking out of the shell builds strength and provides that initial proving rite to development.
Technology is stripping us of our connection to human trial and error. Human connection is no longer necessary. We have become encased in a soft, fluffy protective shield from the very things that gave our ancestors the grit to endure and propagate. Our reliance on technology is propagating a society of soft, untested, pantywaists.
Mind you, I am not saying that this is the end of society. Being a mobile technology advocate and self avowed nerd, I am fully aware of how advancements in technology have made the world as a whole a better place.
I have simple become more aware of the reality that the rise of the mobile era is making our kids miss out on an entire spectrum of developmental experience – who will never fully appreciate what these rites of passage provide. Sure, more is possible, and the wonders of mobile and automated technologies are endlessly fascinating and brilliant.
But at what cost?
Great Brands are Born that way.
Great Brands, like great sales people, are born.
The idea is quite simple (sort of). Here’s how it works: Someone with an idea, or inspiration and some talent – creates a product. It delivers value to its users, remains consistent, and stays true to its inherent promise. The product, its name, packaging and associated imagery become entrenched in the hearts and minds of its satisfied consumers. A Brand is Born. That’s it.
It’s not a chicken and egg sort of thing. This formula is like gravity – or time.
The sequence of events is simple:
Product or service is created.
Product or service is awesome.
Product or service consistently delivers on its promise no matter what.
Outcome: Great Brand. Or Born Brand.
This dynamic remains consistent throughout all industries.
Take music, for example.
Led Zeppelin simply wrote and performed the greatest sound imaginable in the history of rock. (Go ahead, argue). Four guys in a room, banging it out. Making magic and delivering the goods – time over time over time. My children’s children will be listening to Dazed and Confused (a live recording, I hope) and will no doubt be experiencing the same feelings of awe that I did back in 1974.
They BECAME a brand.
A Born Brand.
And here’s the key: They never set out to become one.
They just did what they did, solved what they solved, delivered what they delivered – and did it better than anyone.
Their resulting Brand was an OUTCOME of their excellence and consistency.
Then something happened.
Corporations got their hands on this great new thing called Brand Marketing.
“What a great brand!” “Let’s build a brand!”
This spawned the era of the petri dish-ification of Brands. Scientifically researched, focus group approved, pre-packaged brands – built just for you.
A good example of this reverse engineering is Blue Moon Beer. Masquerading as a hipster microbrewery, Blue Moon is actually produced by suds-giant Coors Brewing Company. Blue Moon is the spawn of a Brand Strategy team at Coors who were looking to appeal to the artisanally inclined, home-spun, Billyburg / Portland set (and all of the poor lost souls who for some bizarre reason aspire to emulate them). Blue Moon’s Belgian White recipe with the trademark orange-slice garnish and “Artfully Crafted” product messaging are all components of a marketing scheme engineered to capitalize on the then-burgeoning beer-craft hoopla taking over universities and farm-to-table restaurants in gentrified neighborhoods near you.
The brand’s TV spots expertly tell a story about a basement grown beer product and feature two local hip-meisters regaling the story of how the orange peel garnish accidentally became the crowing identifier of the brew. Cutesy, folksy, accessible, home grown, the messaging emulates a sense of organic discovery. But it’s all smoke and mirrors. Now the product itself may taste good, but this is not a truly Born Brand.
Modern Brands are engineered in a lab by Corporate Marketers and Product Engineers in the pursuit of category representation in new or emerging markets.
Invariably, and not without irony, most of these new markets (like the micro-brew market) were inspired by the emergence of authentic products made by people who simply wanted to share their passion or clever idea with others – or, by Born Brands.
Markets that were created by Born Brands:
- Starbucks: Coffee Bar
- FedEx: Overnight Delivery anywhere
- Coke: Soft Drinks
- The New York Dolls: Punk Rock
- Sony: Personal Music Player
- IBM or Apple (let the argument begin): Personal Computers
- Levi Strauss: Blue Jeans
- McDonald’s: Fast Food
- Disney: Animated Entertainment
Each of these Born Brands spawned a new market and each quickly became populated by competitors and imitators.
Some of them succeeded in creating a brand following, others did not.
However, one thing is certain: Born Brands are here to stay – even long after they are dead and buried. Born Brands bring something to the marketplace that a run-of-the-mill Corporate Engineered brand cannot: Legacy.
Born Brands in their pristine form cannot be engineered.
But some would argue that this is not the case.
Is a test tube baby a “real” baby?
Was Neo a “real” human?
Hard to make the case against both for sure. Purists would argue that Born Brands are “true” and “authentic” brands. And it makes sense. A 2014 study by Cohn & Wolf on Brand Authenticity revealed -among other things -that 63% of global consumers would buy from a company they consider to be authentic, over and above competitors.
While suckers are born every minute, consumers are savvy to fakery and pretense. They may take a bite, but they don’t stick around and order another plate.
Brand Marketing as a science has spawned a galaxy of products and services that have no soul. And we marketers have become their enablers.
Despite my focus on mobile marketing for the last 7 years, I am at my core business development person. Selling was how I cut my teeth in the digital space in the mid-90s and how I evolved into my current role. It stands to reason that one’s ability to successfully sell professional services offerings will ultimately result in one becoming capable of delivering them. You sort of have to become the product. Which is what happened over a period of 10 years. It wasn’t really until the mid -2000s that I began to take on more of a SME role as my level of seniority developed. This has afforded me a unique perspective of the professional services industry in which we both dwell.
Marketing / Creative services are either tactical (we build/make stuff, we have some black box technology, we create rich media units, etc.), consultative (we get hired to think and solve complex problems), or a combination of the two (we solve strategic problems then have unique solutions for implementing those strategies).
It was really just dumb luck that at the beginning of my career that I fell in with some very smart people who took a consultative approach to selling creative services. I was very very fortunate to start out immersed in selling problem solving services (thinking and doing) as opposed to selling a new ad widget or video rendering technology. I mostly worked for small boutique firms who offered some sort of highly specialized solution within a focused discipline (gamification, multi-media, Pharma marketing, etc.). Most of these firms were still small enough that they did not have the benefit of an established marketplace reputation or an adequate level of brand awareness to drive inbound leads. So, we had to cold call: identify appropriate target brands, find the names of the key stakeholders who held the budgets, get their attention and force them to consider our expertise or solution. I did this for years – calling, emailing, networking, cajoling, and harassing brand managers and CMOs to take notice give me a shot. The nuances of this process seemed laborious at the time – we would literally spend weeks tweaking phrases and words on outbound prospecting emails, honing, fine tuning, optimizing until we hit the exact note needed to drive a response. Once we were able to distill the message down the to perfect pitch we would save these intros and use them across all of our sales channels: elevator pitch, phone calls, website copy, PR, etc. There was something about this process that became fun, game-like and rewarding once the message worked. This process enabled me to get the attention of some extremely hard-to-influence executives. I became quite effective – I once got legendary auto executive Bob Lutz to respond directly to one of my emails –which prompted a 3 year relationship with GM on a host of strategic programs to help usher Chevy, Pontiac and Cadillac into the branded gaming space. Doing this for so long afforded me not only a valuable set of skills- but more importantly it provided me with a different perspective on selling – and specifically the process of selling in our industry and how to grow professional creative / marketing service businesses.
Large agencies conglomerates (WPP, Publicis, Omnicom, and their ilk) are NOT by nature sales-driven organizations. The nature of these organizations is built on sheer size, capacity and the resulting reputations that are fomented as a result. Most of them (I’d go out on a limb and say all of them) lack a sophisticated business development and sales process. I am sure that there are people within these organizations who will passionately disagree – and be pissed off at that notion. Please note: this is not a knock on the many great and extraordinarily competent folks who work in the BD departments at these monoliths. Not at all. They are not the issue. It’s the nature of the industry and the structure of the large agency business in which they work that is the issue. The sales process issues we face are not germane to one single agency – it’s an industry-wide affliction. BD in its true nature is just not part of the big agency culture. Mainly this is due to the place that large agencies hold in the market. Their size and reputations afford them a spot on the list of ‘go to’ options for large brands and corporations who are looking to spend big sums of money on marketing services.
When Amex or Pfizer or PG have a new marketing initiative, they all have the same short list of agencies that will automatically get the RFP. Hence, the business development culture of large agencies is by and large a reactive model – where entire teams are hired to respond to RFPs. An entire industry has been created around RFP creation and RFP response. This ecosystem includes a myriad distinct support services and organizations. A simple search for RFP support services on Google brings up a slew of offerings: rfp response templates, rfp consulting services, rfp response software, rfp contract negotiation platforms, rfp pricing software, rfp presentation solutions, rfp mediation services – and the list goes on.
We frequently work with a consulting firm whose entire business is a RFP development consultancy – who evaluates the client need, writes the RFP, identifies the target providers, and manages the entire agency vetting and assessment process for the brand. It’s their whole business. How did we get to this point? The culture of RFP response is now so ingrained into the fiber of the agency industry that it is nothing short of an addiction. But it makes sense: how can any agency not respond to a potential $100mm revenue RFP? It simply has to.
The reality is – and this is not a secret – the vast majority (90%) of RFPs are really nothing more than self-indulgent fishing expeditions on the part brands who KNOW of this culture and rely on this process to verify and uncover invaluable marketing expertise from agencies at no cost. For the agencies, it’s a huge resource drain that expends an incredible amount of human capital with minimal return. Imagine if you were sick – like deathly ill – and had the opportunity to have a world-renowned medical specialist come to your home (after having prepared hours upon hours of vast resources of expertise) to present you with critical information on the state of your health and include in this assessment free diagnosis and strategies to improve your health. Now, imagine if you could have 10 Doctors offer the same thing, each with a difference approach, a different set of research and a unique perspective. At the end of these 10 presentations you would know more about your own health than anyone in your entire age group. And it wouldn’t have cost you a dime. As a matter of fact, each of these Doctors would be clamoring to have the opportunity to share this information. Doctors who went through years and years of specialized training, paid top dollar to go to the most specialized schools and spent countless hours working in emergency rooms to hone these skills. And they give it away for nothing so they can win you as a patient. What brand wouldn’t participate in this process? They would be dumb not to. But we are the dumb ones. We are the doctors, the specialists, and the experts. And we give away our stuff for nothing. (Now, of course we don’t save lives or perform heart surgery, but brands pay top dollar for the important role we play in the lifeline of their respective businesses).
Harsh Reality: Most RFPs have been pre-awarded to the winner long before the actual evaluations and dog and pony shows have even started. It’s an obscene system. One of the many outcomes of this process (aside from the waste of human capital and lost hours from key executives) is a lack of sales skills and business development know-how.
Few people know really now how to sell. It’s just a reality. It’s a specialized skill – no different from someone who is an expert in something as specialized as Data Analytics or coding software. And despite its value to an organization, it is a skill that is not highly respected. People hate sales reps. Sales people have gotten a bad rap – in large part due to the ineptitude of most salespeople. Many (I’d say most) are just out for the sale, the revenue, the deal. They don’t offer any added value. It can be said with little argument that the entire idea of a “salesperson”, particularly in the service sector, is an antiquated role. Sales is an art and a science – a process – driven by a well-organized effort of a professional services firm that offers and delivers expertise to a specific marketplace. Of course the best sales people are the opposite of these things, but as there are very few good ones, the bad ones drive the perception of the sector.
I have an entire course in my head as to how to revamp the entire RFP process but in the short-term before anything radical can be proffered, I have some simple ideas that can make the whole process a bit more efficient and a lot less costly:
- Throw back the bad fish. First and foremost, agencies need to create very clear criteria of the type of RFPs that they will respond to. This process in itself is really a re-evaluation of their entire business – and its worth its weight in gold. Who is our ideal client? What level of spend? What verticals are the best fit? What type of businesses do we service best? Size? Location? Once this is established, it becomes easier to evaluate incoming RFPs and know which “bad fish” to throw back. There is nothing more dignifying than calling a brand and saying “Thank you for the consideration, but this opportunity is not a fit for us. Best of luck.”
- Push back. 98% (some would say 100% and would be right) of RFPs are garbage anyway. Most are poorly written, lack clarity and ask for things that the client doesn’t really understand. (Somewhat like walking into a Doctor’s office and saying, “Hi, I’m looking for heart surgeon. Can you please fill out these forms? It will help me determine if you are the right one – oh, and be prepared for a full presentation next Wednesday”). Brands self-diagnose and make things up and create false needs all of the time. Or they provide a prescription of what they think they need and then look for the agency that will best deliver on that assumption. We should be demanding clarity –and offer to re-write the RFP on occasion – in partnership. I know this may sound Pollyanna but it works – I’ve done these countless times successfully.
- Specialization and not commoditization: Successful agencies should not be pursuing commoditized assignments – they should be targeting strategic relationships with clients. Commoditized service inquiries invariably turn out to be price-shopping expeditions. In these scenarios, your value propositions are secondary to the costs – and that is a bad way to start a professional services relationship. Define your area of specialization (digital media services for CPGs, or, Mobile Marketing for B2B, etc.). Deep and narrow roots have stronger footing.
- Fewer people on the RFP response team. Adding more bodies looks/feels good (its “inclusive” and “democratic” and “diverse”), but makes the process painful. While I understand fully that most large RFPs are complex and require input from specialized units, the strategic direction of the response can usually be formulated by a small group of strategists who understand the digital ecosystem enough to weave the larger story.
- Identify the real sales people in the company – and use them. Sales people tend to look at things a differently: A ‘Lets win the account’ context, as opposed to a ‘lets solve their problem’ context will drive a completely different approach and outcome. Sales is 95% a relationship thing – and 5% capability. People hire (and fire) people – not processes and technologies – those they buy or rent.
I recommend you read the book: Winning without Pitching Manifesto by Blair Enns – best book I’ve read on this – ever.
While this story contains most of the standard sci-fi elements, what is interesting about it is the fact that it takes place in the current time — seemingly only 3 or 4 years from now. Most of the techs featured in the story are really only a few simple updates of programs in use today. I’m no alarmist. New X-ray widget? Sign me up. Nonetheless, reading this creepy tome, it occurs to me that like the frog witlessly wading in the simmering pot of water, we too may soon ‘wake up’ in 2015 only to find ourselves surrounded by a network of all-knowing proximity monitors, connected environments, iBeacons, wearables and drivables — all under the auspices of easier, smarter and more personalized lives (and to make us more targetable to offers from Cinnamon Toast Crunch).
It’s worth pondering: will this new dawn of connectivity really ever take root the way we have imagined? Today we see daily examples of how “transparency” exposes the everyday citizen’s (and celebutard’s) goofs and gaffes: impulsive twitter rants, knuckleheaded photo posts on Facebook, publicly shared personal text messages, IRS email shenanigans, etc. One could argue that these outcomes are a good thing. Corruption is exposed, infidelities are unveiled, errors are debunked, morons are unmasked and all is set right in the world. But do people want everyone to know what they buy? Where they shop? What they drive? Who they meet? Why they like? How they think? I am not too sure. And the evidence seems to point toward a much tougher challenge ahead for those interested in a connected planet.
Point in case: I had the privilege of mediating a panel on Beacons at Media Post’s mCommerce summit in August, where real-world examples of proximity marketing technologies were shared and explained. It was a very provocative discussion and the panel members were a diverse selection of seasoned experts in varying facets of this emerging platform. They included:
Michael Foschetti, managing director, Havas Discovery; Phil Hendrix, director, IMMR; Henry Lawson, CEO, AutoGraph; Scott Varland, creative director, IPG Media Lab;and Jesse Wolfersberger, director, consumer insights, GroupM Next.
One of the prevailing agreements among the panel was the idea that in the end, personal choice is and always will be the final arbiter of any new tech, no matter how intrusive or invasive it may be. Henry Lawson provided a real-world glimpse into how a Beacon-ized installation may soon be like for consumers. He detailed an interesting ‘Minority Report’-like Beacon initiative on London’s Regent Street — called, appropriately, Regent Street. The app connects passersby via Beacons to participating retailers (there are now 120 at last count), which detects those consumers who are within proximity. The Beacons activate the app, which sends personalized promotional notifications with the hopes of luring the potential shopper into the store. The app is showing promise — but the question remains, do consumers want to be electronically nudged when walking down a busy retail area? Its not a pass/fail test. Some will, some won’t, and this is where the real barrier to hyper-connectivity lies.
Here’s the challenge, and it’s a biggie: Many disparate factors need to be in place for these kinds of programs to work — and they all come down to personal choice. People must first download the app, which requires awareness and a compelling value proposition. The user must then activate the app; so again, sufficient value must be present to ensure that this entire process is completed. The user must then we willing to turn on and keep on their Bluetooth connection, which for some can be a battery drain, or simply a pain in the neck to do. The user then must agree to allow the app to send notifications — adding another interrupter into their already cacophonous mix of alerts, reminders, alarms and buzzes. And then of course, the promotional offers themselves not only need to be relevant and valuable but in addition the promise of the offer must be delivered or the user will abandon the new tech into the trash bin of history.
This is a very complex chain to construct, particularly with the overload of so many other competing apps and techs screaming for attention from the average phone. Not to mention the forthcoming slew of purported features due to enter into the marketplace this month will seemingly add an additional barrage of distractions — health monitors, distance meters, payment actions, watch nodes, etc. It sounds exhausting. When is too much too much? Every new tech is competing for our attention. And only a small handful can win.
There seem to be two distinct types of user technologies in the marketplace right now: Uberized platforms and Beaconized platforms. Uberized platforms are proactive — where the user is enabled to communicate a desired request and get immediate satisfaction. These apps rely on an existing network and infrastructure that is essentially dormant to the user until they have that specific need (a taxi, a pizza, an apartment cleaning, etc.), at which point that network is activated to provide the requested service. These platforms are non-intrusive, silent, stealth, low-impact and inherently “need” based. Beaconized platforms are essentially the opposite — and are reactive. The network and infrastructure is intrusive and immersive, and nudges the user to take actions or take notice or become more aware.
Beaconized platforms have far greater potential, but are harder to build, as the user’s participation, receptivity and “open door” is a requirement. Uber only knows stuff about me when I need it. Beacons know more about me than I do, within the context of my location and circumstance. The barriers with Beaconization are higher — and in the end, people can simply choose to shut out the noise if it gets too loud. The tipping point is upon us. Who will win the war for our minds?
Originally published in Media Post’s Mobile Marketing Daily on September 9, 2014