HEY NEIL. HOW DID YOU GET HERE?
I actually come from the media owner side. I’ve never been a ‘planner’ as such but I’ve been working in strategy for a long time. I worked at what was IPC media, with brands like Wallpaper, NME, Country Life. Did lots of digital strategy work, transitioning from print to digital for about 10 years or so. A lot of that was about untangling print based thinking, their way of working as a business and ways of making money. Untangling that, putting it back together in a different way. Got to the end of the road with that… I realise that I’d run out of interesting things to do haha!
So, I started doing my own thing. If I’m honest, at first I didn’t have an idea of what I was going to do but I focused initially on digital strategy, marketing and content. Then started doing more and more client stuff where I was going inside the organisation to solve problems. Of course their ‘problems’ were just symptomatic of more fundamental issues. I did lots of consulting like that, working with lots of different clients. But I’ve also always tried to have this two track thing going on – client side and agency side. It’s interesting how knowledge is developing in these different communities.
WHAT KIND OF RELATIONSHIP DO YOU HAVE WITH THE AGENCY WORLD VS CLIENT SIDE?
Well, in terms of agency stuff, you know Google Firestarters? I curate that, working with Google. I’ve worked with some agencies on their propositions, others on their processes and thinking. I recently did a piece of research for the IPA on the future of agencies. Published a book recently as well, which if I’m honest was an itch I needed to scratch. There are so many books about WHY companies need to change, but very little about HOW to go about doing it. It’s such a massive subject and I spent a lot of time thinking about what to keep in, take out etc.
(Neil’s book published in April of this year is called ‘Building the Agile Business through Digital Transformation’. He was too humble to tell us much about it but if the content of this Q&A is anything to go by – you should definitely check it out!)
In terms of consulting, I’m finding that I am working a lot with leadership teams and then also getting further into the business and working across different business units to help facilitate change. What I really focus on is the mind-set that is needed for change. It’s a lot about culture, a mind-set, ways of thinking. The really big shift that needs to happen in these companies is away from waterfall (which people think is just a project management thing but is actually a whole entrenched ethos for how companies approach work) to a more rapid approach. A phrase that I use a lot which comes from Eric Ries is ‘Think big, start small, scale fast’. It runs against entrenched ways of thinking and working.
WE’RE FIGHTING 100 HUNDRED YEARS OF ENTRENCHED THINKING. BIG CORPORATIONS WANT TO KNOW IT WORKS FIRST. I CAN’T TELL THEM IT WILL IF THEY HAVEN’T DONE IT BEFORE – WHAT ARE THE STRATEGIES YOU’VE EMPLOYED TO GET THAT BALL ROLLING?
Killer question. Strikes at the big challenge leaders have with this. Waterfall says definitively ‘this is where we’re going to be’ – it is based on shaky foundations. Jeff Bezos talks about ‘stubborn on vision, flexible on details’. The things I try to help leadership understand is the importance of the vision, the think big bit, in setting a direction, but then the value of iteration in getting there. When you go into a company and ask ‘what’s the vision for this company?’ too often people can’t answer that question clearly. Even at the top. That’s the first bit you have to get right – without that nothing else can happen. But the iteration towards that vision is about mitigating risk vs building up risk. With waterfall you’re behind closed doors working away at stuff for 6 months, and then you find out that your work is based on a toxic assumption and it fails and you’ve wasted 6 months. But doing it the right way you define assumptions and test quickly to validate them.
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MANY OF US WORK IN THE FUNCTIONAL PART. THE MARKETING SIDE OF THINGS – A LEVEL BELOW LEADERSHIP, PERHAPS 2 OR 3 LEVELS BELOW THAT HONESTLY. ANY ADVICE ON HOW WE MOVE UP THOSE LEVELS TO HELP BUSINESSES TRANSFORM THEMSELVES?
Well it’s not easy for agencies to move outside of marketing functions – consultancies definitely have an advantage here. But you know John Kotter’s 8 steps to change?
That model is as true now as it’s ever been. Without that sense of urgency about needing change nothing will happen. And without the vision… If that’s not done well then the rest of it can’t happen. So if you’re a CMO, there’s a certain amount you can do in your area to support a more agile mind-set but you’re always going to be bumping up against other areas of the business that aren’t agile. Customer Experience and Digital Transformation are horizontal things that run right across businesses, so the need is really to convince someone high up to let you help them earlier in that cycle.
IN THE IPA PAPER YOU WROTE – YOU TALK ABOUT CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE VS BRAND EXPERIENCE. WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
I had a triangular thing, an overlapping Venn between customer experience, employee experience and brand experience. One of the interviewees for that report said that customer experience is seamless and if you’re trying to do that well is really about optimisation. But brand experience is really about differentiation. What’s distinctive? What separates you from everyone else? Sometimes friction is a good thing. So brand experience has to be different. Whilst customer experience can be a real driver for transformation, employee experience is just as important yet in many ways it’s the poor relation. I think agencies have a growing potential role here.
WHAT DOES MODERN CREATIVITY LOOK LIKE IN AN AGENCY? DO THE SKILLS NEED TO CHANGE?
The observation I have is that at Google Firestarters we have two strands of events: one for planners and one for the performance marketing community. They’re quite different but I think each audience could learn a lot from the other. The planning one is fascinating, but arguably more theoretical and ethereal. But the performance marketing ones are very much about the craft of performance. ‘Top of the funnel’ work is often misunderstood by those working at the ‘bottom of the funnel’, and vice versa I think. There’s this silly conflict between the art and the science in our industry but you need both, and of course it is both. I think there’s fascinating stuff there that people can explore around creativity – for example, what does it mean for creativity when you have an incredibly fast customer feedback loop and the opportunity to be far more real-time and adaptive?
DO YOU THINK GOOGLE WILL BUY ONE OF THE BIG AD NETWORKS? OR DO YOU THINK THEY’LL JUST BYPASS US?
It’s an interesting dynamic. The dynamics will keep changing. I’m quite an optimist on the future of agencies. There’s too much agency bashing stuff. My IPA paper was optimistic. But it does mean you need to change what you do.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE SOME OF THE KEY SKILLS FROM CONSULTING PEOPLE SHOULD ADOPT IN PLANNING?
What consultants are really good at are business diagnosis. Planners are good at dissecting the problem given to them by a client and writing a brief for a creative solution. But sometimes the client doesn’t really know what the problem is that they have to give you in the first place. The big opportunity is to get further up the food chain towards diagnosis and help them work that out. The big consultancies have credibility in doing that because they’ve been doing it for years, but the advantage agencies have is that the McKinseys of this world still operate in quite rigid ways. They have established frameworks. Their ‘way’. And although they make a big noise about being agile, the brunt of their work is churning out a 300-page PowerPoint that you pay a million quid for.
Simon Wardley has an interesting approach to mapping and assessing maturity in business and markets. One of the things he talks about is organisations needing Pioneers, Settlers, and Town Planners. From a people perspective you need different types of people in your organisation. Some people are about invention and ideas, others about innovation and commercialisation, others about institutionalisation and scaling. The middle bit, the Settlers bit, is often forgotten. We take new ideas, lump it into business as usual with a big target and then it struggles to survive, withers and dies.
ARE THERE ANY OTHER COMPANIES OUT THERE DOING THIS STUFF REALLY WELL THAT WE HAVEN’T THOUGHT ABOUT?
There are big companies undergoing a lot of change. GE is an industrial conglomerate but they’ve done the whole think big, start small and scale fast thing. So connected world stuff is their big vision, then they started small in some key areas and for example in their appliances division broke the innovation process by asking people to do what would take 5 years in 1 year. So they had to completely rethink how they worked
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DO YOU THINK DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION IS CATCHING UP OR GENERATIONS COMING INTO COMPANIES NOW WILL VIEW IT AS STANDARD?
Well it is truly business transformation. And it’s not simply a phase everyone is going through, or something where you come to the end and say ‘well, we are digitally transformed’. It is of course about changing to a state which itself is about continuous change. About embedding continuous experimentation and rapid innovation rather than episodic. Too many people are focused on doing things like 3% better.
Technology ‘S curves’ is something that Charles Handy talked about in his book The Empty Raincoat, but Ray Kurzweil really showed using a whole range of examples that a technology’s adoption typically looks like an S curve – slow adoption in the initial stages, a hockey stick growth and then tails off, with another innovation coming along to replace it, in overlapping S curves. So you need to be planning the right moment to move across to the next curve. The trouble is that just as the next curve is beginning you are likely making more money than ever from the existing technology, so there is little reason to change. Yet that is just when you should, otherwise you’ll find yourself on that plateauing curve and eventually it will be too late.
You need to be looking ahead, over the horizon to the next S curve by understanding the differences between fads and trends. Everyone knows AI is going to change everything so start experimenting with it! It’s not that hard to see the successive S curves coming – AI, automation, Augmented Reality and so on. Bill Buxton talks about the long nose of innovation – how most big innovations have a ling run-in time before they really take off. AI for example has been around for decades, but is now on that hockey stick growth period. Google Glass was a great example of how people got caught up in what was simply an early stage prototype of a far more disruptive underlying technology – AR. Google learnt from what they did there and incorporated some of that technology into their self-driving cars.
Lots of people talk about failing fast. It’s actually not helpful. I talk about LEARNING with clients. A learning driven culture where you learn from successes AND failures! No one wants to set out to fail. Pinterest do a really interesting thing called Highlights, Lowlights and No Lights. They celebrate the Highlights, Lowlights which is work in progress, stuff that really worked and stuff that needs more work, and No Lights which is stuff that failed completely but which they’ve learned from. It’s a cultural way of celebrating the importance of learning.
SAW YOU’D DONE WORK FOR THE FT AND TELEGRAPH – WHERE DID YOU COME IN ON THAT STUFF IN TERMS OF DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION?
The FT is making a success out of digital transformation but there is always more work to be done. The pattern of adoption of new thinking in an organisation is often choppy, and it helps to challenge ways of thinking and operating and help people to work out how they can benefit. I did some work about how to approach what they do currently, and about commercialisation of content, how to drive subscriptions. The Telegraph was interesting. Worked a lot with the journalists. A lot of it was about mind-set, getting journalists to think how they’d integrate business goals into their processes. It was fascinating.
FOR AGENCIES TO WORK ON BIG VISION PIECES AND THE TANGIBLE STUFF AT THE BOTTOM, HOW DO YOU GET OVER THE CREDIBILITY FACTOR?
It’s a big challenge. The big consultancies have credibility but also potential weaknesses. In the IPA report we used Charles Leadbeater’s ‘Systems/Empathy’ matrix to show how consultancies come from business efficiency and org design but are trying to become more empathetic and creative. Agencies more are more naturally creative but there is opportunity in broadening out the scope of how they apply their skills. Even though Accenture is hoovering up creative shops it’ll be really hard for them culturally to integrate that stuff. And change management itself is changing. The reality of change in most companies is not necessarily a massive technological implementation piece, but far more about people and process. In the IPA report I talk about agencies as sense makers, but once you’ve helped clients to interpret their position, you need to help them look at implementing it.
IN TERMS OF DIGITAL AND ADVERTISING, THERE’S LOTS OF STUFF WE DON’T REALISE OR KNOW. I WAS WONDERING HOW MUCH PRIVACY PLAYS A ROLE IN THIS?
Technology is getting there before regulation. It’ll always move quicker than governments. In his book The Inevitable, Kevin Kelly talks about how, as much as you try to resist this stuff and force companies to put rules in place, there are some underlying shifts that will always happen. It’s far better to make it work for people rather than hold back the tide. The tech is there. It will be used. Where we’re at currently is not a great place. When we get into utility (servicing people at point of need) vs advertising (which can be clunky and interrupting) we’ll have a better approach to this stuff that won’t be seen as quite as intrusive.
DO YOU HAVE ANY ‘DARK ARTS’ – TIPS OR TECHNIQUES THAT YOU USE TO ‘WOW’ CLIENTS, GET AMAZING INSIGHTS OR IMPROVE YOUR WORK?
Not really to be honest. I could say to go beyond the obvious sources for insight. One thing maybe is that writing, and particularly blogging is a way of thinking out loud that helps me to work through what I actually think about a particular subject related to the job. That’s something I do that really helps.
THANKS NEIL. YOU’VE BEEN GRAND. SEE YOU AT NEXT GOOGLE FIRESTARTERS!
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