7 Ways We Could Change Our Approach…and Transform Our Business

© T. Bolt

We come to the office ready to produce the best work of our lives. And while we may want to collaborate seamlessly, get clear and rational client direction, and work with timelines and budgets geared to a profound solution rather than a temporary fix—this is not the world we live in.

So, we’ve all known missed opportunities. But, while some things are out of our control, many are not.

It’s fun to ask ourselves, “What could we do differently?” Here are 7 approaches we could consider, and might even want to do:

1. Move staffing out of the Iron Age

2. Snap to strategy

3. Open with fire

4. Program the program

5. Make it impersonal

6. Learn from big consulting

7. Don’t stop believin’

1. Move staffing out of the Iron Age

In the mobile, highly developed armies of Iron Age cultures, an all-too-familiar staffing model emerged: the number of troops would grow and shrink to meet the demands of war and peace, conquest and defense. It was a crude but effective method—and, more than 3,000 years later, it hasn’t changed much.

It should. It’s time. We’re in the business of selling hours as well as talent and ideas—and we all know how painful and costly it is to see experienced, excellent workers let go when business takes an unexpected detour.

What if we had a 21st-century plan for those inevitable expansions and contractions? One possible solution: create a new category of employees, not freelancers, who agree to put in minimal hours in lean times and expand their time as needed when things get busy. When flexibility is critical, look for flexible people!

2. Snap to strategy

Clients almost always have a pressing, immediate need—and that tactical urgency can lead to scattershot, standalone work that is not only less ambitious but less effective. One way to avoid merely giving what’s asked for, and not what’s needed, is to work with the client to envision an ideal (or ideaL) and a long-term strategy to which all work must align.

Get the client excited about the possibilities. Take the conversation beyond budgets and deadlines, and talk about what ought to be out there representing a brand.

With a sound strategic framework, even tiny tactics that might have been one-offs can take their place in support of a strategic objective. Clients get a big vision, an ambitious goal to work toward, but one that can be reached through a realistic, phased approach.

One useful tool: workshop a set of objective criteria and use it to evaluate all creative work. You can use those criteria as an art director uses the “snap to grid” function in a layout program: to keep bringing each element of a strategy, a plan, or a piece into strategic alignment. “That doesn’t meet our criteria” is a more productive discussion to have than “I don’t like that color.” (Imagine hearing this: “I don’t like that color, but it’s on strategy, and I’m not the target audience. Purple it is!”

3. Open with fire

The therapy is only as important as the impact the condition it treats has on a patient’s life. When a patient merely reports certain symptoms (say, of overactive bladder), a doctor may or may not take the condition seriously. But when a patient tells her doctor about the impact those same symptoms are having on her life—staying home more, feeling ashamed, frustrated, unable to do the things that are important to her—the response is very different.

We can use that insight. We understand that it’s not only about the drug, it’s not only about the condition itself, it’s about the impact the condition and the drug have on the patient’s life. As David Ogilvy put it: “When you advertise fire extinguishers, open with fire.”

4. Program the program

When is medicine alone enough? Almost never. It’s difficult even to get to the baseline: for a medicine to work, you have to take it, tolerate it, and integrate it into your daily life. And, even assuming better-than-average compliance and persistency, many medications come with a co-prescription for lifestyle changes, often including difficult adjustments in diet and exercise.

Both HCPs and patients need a source of information, training, and educational support. Some physicians may even want a feedback loop. And, in an era of generic competition, a useful program can be essential to a brand’s continuing success.

“Pill plus program” is here to stay. But on paper? It’s time to make that patient program or that web- or device-based physician communication a working, fully interactive app.

While we have to be careful to support therapy, not claim to offer it, computer-based treatment adjuncts have actually been clinically validated. In a pioneering Yale University study, a computer-based cognitive-behavioral therapy program for patients suffering from several difficult-to-treat types of substance dependence resulted in a significant increase in substance-free urine samples (Am J Psychiatry 2008;165:881-888. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2008.07111835).

5. Make it impersonal

Clients can be whimsical. Some want the omelet cooked before the eggs are broken, or even taken out of the fridge. But most will admit that there are natural dependencies in a project—editing comes after writing, shipping comes after printing, hard launch comes after coding.

Of course, some work can be done in parallel. (As we all know, sometimes work that it shouldn’t be possible to do in parallel can be done in parallel.) But most clients will recognize the logic of a natural dependency.

Manage directly to those dependencies. Use itemized checklists for large or difficult projects—they can help set expectations, and are known to work. (The WHO’s Surgical Safety Checklist, used in more than 3,000 hospitals around the world, helps keep patients from leaving the OR with mislaid instruments inside them). Making the most important dependencies into milestones and tying the project schedule to them—with clear, specific requirements for client turnaround—can help keep projects tracking and deadlines real.

6. Learn from big consulting

A project manager on a large IT integration project owns her project: she is responsible for every moving piece—planning, monitoring, controlling, and closing out. In many agencies, this critical role is split between Traffic, Account Management, and even Creatives, with results that are not always seamless.

Here’s one familiar configuration, much simplified, but not so far from the 1950s Madison Avenue:

Business management Planning Account management Traffic Creative Studio
Owns estimating, budgeting, scoping, tracking finances; oversees print or broadcast production Owns the strategy Owns the client relationship, budget(s), project scope, with some project management Owns the day-to-day tracking, routing, scheduling, with some project management Owns the creative execution Owns print production

What if we did it like this?

Business management Planning Account management Project management Creative Production
Owns the finances Owns the strategy Owns the client relationship Owns the project Owns the creative execution Owns the production (digital, print, or motion)

With less overlap and more clearly defined roles, would we work together more efficiently and with a sharper focus?

7. Don’t stop believin’

“If it isn’t moving, it doesn’t belong in the aisle.” So said a sign in a factory I visited in Detroit in 2000. They were making Lionel Trains, made mostly in America since 1900 (now manufactured in China and Korea).

Touring any active factory, you quickly realize that signs like those mean business: putting obstacles in the way of forklifts, carts, heavy machinery, and busy metal-stamp machine or drill press workers (most of them elderly women, by the way) could lead to serious injury, delay, lost time, lost money.

We’re all in the aisle here—so let’s keep moving!

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