Monday, August 22, 2022

Two Things I Learned About Running My Own Agency from Reading History Books.

I ran across, not too many months ago, a book by a guy called Robert D. Putnam titled: "The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again".

About 50 years ago, I read another book, by a Duke University professor called James David Barber. The book was titled: "The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House". 

A lot of people on various social media sites bang various percussion instruments talking about this business book or that business book they've read. Or some three-day symposium. Or some powerpoint that was forwarded to them somehow. 

There are legions of un-cynical Sinek followers. Gladwell glad-handers. And Godin-for-nothings.

I'm not one of them.

I don't care who moved my cheese. And I don't need anyone to remind me what I learned in Kindergarten.

I believe that advertising is an age-old business. At its best based on simple, timeless human truths. And the most essential truths about our business often come not from a myopic and microscopic look at the vagaries and interstices of our often self-referential world. Rather they come from looking at broad, universal concepts and applying them to the micro-concerns of our business.

I believe you're more likely to find advertising truths from general purpose books than from books on advertising. Just like I believe you'll probably get more solid advice on getting along from Shakespeare than you will from some pop-culture self-help pablum.

But, back to where I started, the two books I've mentioned above.

From Putnam's "The Upswing," I've found myself saying this to my clients. There are two ways a company can act. And they are absolute and discrete. There is no middle and blurry ground between the two behaviors.

One is YOYO. 

You're On Your Own. 

Problem? Meet our inscrutable and unhelpful phone tree. Wait for an hour. Awful hold music. No real help. 

That's the way most companies behave. Phone companies. Cable companies. Airlines. 

Ever have a hotel room in an up-to-capacity where the A/C doesn't work? YOYO. Ever have $3000/year internet service that goes out right before a big meeting? YOYO. Ever have a flight canceled with no alternate way home save spending nine hours in an airport? YOYO.

The rarer alternative is WITT.

We're In This Together.

The rare occasions where brands put their arms around your shoulders and take care of things they should take care of. Or, what? they do a little extra. Or, they smile and are actually kind and proactive.

Agencies are the same way. They treat their employees accordingly. YOYO--95%. WITT--4%. WWTQ*--1%.

*What Was The Question?

I ask my clients--who are you? YOYO or WITT? Pick one.

The second thing I ask my clients I learned from Barber's "The Presidential Character." Barber divided leadership styles of presidents like this:

You can determine for yourself where you'd put trump. Or FDR. Or Obama. Or anyone. Depending on your knowledge of history, politics and your political orientation.

I happen to believe brands as well can be classified by this simple methodology. 

Are they energetic and good? Are they energetic and bad? Are they meh and bad? Are they meh and good?

Like optimism, how a brand behaves is up to the brand. They can invest in progress and fairness. They can make payment systems simple and invest heavily in the quality of their service. 

Or, they can be slovenly and cheap. Active negative.

Hiring low-cost workers. Treating their employees and their customers as if they're easily replaceable. I remember reading when Sprint, the telco was in business, they lost something like 250,000 customers a month. The purpose behind their millions spent on advertising was to gain 250,000 customers a month. To make up for the 250,000 they lost.

Maybe it never occurred to them to fix their bad service and not lose 250,000 customers a month.

Here, of course, the evaluations are a bit more subjective. One person's positive can be another's negative. And terms like active and positive, while they can be defined, seldom are. However, it's usually pretty simple to add things up in your own head.

As a matter of fact, we do it all the time with people we work with. Do they run away from pitches and big scary assignments, or do they run toward them? Does their work win business and the hearts of clients, or are they often rebuked? We can ask clients to look at themselves the same way.

Do they make their customers' lives easier? Do they explain things simply and with patience? Are they easy to buy from?

I suppose you can boil this down to some sort of metric like an NPS score or something. But I'd rather deal in broader strokes. They fill my spiritual canvas better.

I guess, really, what I've learned about advertising from history books is that writing ads is important. 

But helping brands see themselves is even more important.


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