Sunday, 21 February 2016

Brave New World

A version of this originally appeared on the CMO website in February 2016.

In recent years we’ve witnessed not just dramatic creation of value — Instagram, WhatsApp, Uber and Airbnb being the poster children — but also cataclysmic value destruction. Pottering around on Daring Fireball the other day, I noticed Gruber reminding us that Nokia had a market cap of $245 billion as recently as the year 2000. $245 billion. It beggars belief, and they’re not alone — several seemingly too-big-to-fails have, well, failed. We salute you Kodak, Blockbuster and Borders, and on the technology front we’ve bid a speedy hello and goodbye to the digital point and click camera, the un-smartphone and the all-conquering iPod. Even in the software world, iTunes had a monopolistic lock on the music scene, and moments later Spotify and Pandora provided stiff competition.
But no-one cries for that long because, well, they deserved it, didn’t they? We all know that companies that fail to innovate eventually get disrupted, and dismantled, and we all purse lips and nod knowingly as they go down. After all, it’s always been the nature of business to go out of business. I’d say go and ask the original Fortune 500 companies what they think, but only 60 of them are still on the go. The only companies with genuine longevity are those who are always evolving and adapting.
And most CEOs know this. They always save a segment to talk about how important innovation is, and if they’re smart they’ll talk about the value of their R&D portfolio (although maybe don’t look too closely at those numbers). Building resilience into the business will always be a top table priority, and rightfully so. But if that’s the case, then why do so many large companies struggle to drive the patterns of innovation that produce genuine results?
The fact is that many large companies have built their success on a certain way of doing things. Even though many CMOs talk about the fabled 70/20/10 budget split, in my experience it’s more like 90/10/0 - even though it’s the riskiest work that makes the biggest impact. It’s human nature to keep doing things that have been successful in the past even though, to coin a phrase, 'what got you here won’t get you there’.
So, what to do? In my experience, the challenges can be grouped into one of three buckets: culture, people and process. Let’s look at these one by one.
Culture is usually the appropriate starting point, and the hardest one to fix. There are usually some tell-tale signs. Does the company support and promote innovative practices, such as experimentation and test-and-learn? Does it adopt agile software development practices, driving focus on delivering the highest value first? Does it focus almost exclusively on the same practices it was doing ten years ago? Is there wiggle room for line managers to identify and support the interesting activity that might generate new value? How close are people to customers and their changing needs? By working through these knotty, political cultural issues, and resolving the patterns of communication that suppress innovation, seemingly insurmountable obstacles can start to erode.
And while fixing a culture is hard, finding the right people comes in a not-too-distant second. It can be as scary as hell to change tried and trusted methods, and the people involved need support, training and encouragement. At the same time, you can’t wait around too long to find the right people — especially if the culture is unlikely to attract them — so partnering with someone who can help turbo-charge innovative behaviour, and can help bring your people up to speed, pays quick dividends. No one has a monopoly on good ideas, and so extending the diversity of the team outside your business will generally pay off.
Finally, there’s the process. Boring but essential — it’s the difference between doing innovation, and doing it well. How can you generate the right ideas, and make sure the right ones are selected for advancement? This is one situation where you don’t want the HiPPO to dominate, because they’re often less well connected to the emerging markets. And once you’ve identified interesting ideas to explore, how do you test and learn your way to validation? What time frames should you work to, and what funding and endorsement gates are put in place? For one of our clients we run a regular process that goes from identifying a promising challenge to a customer-tested prototype, a business model and a commercial sponsor in 10 weeks. Your mileage might vary, of course, but getting everyone to understand the process is half the battle won, and de-risks activities from slipping into more conventional, expensive and time-consuming sinkholes.

We’ve seen from recent years that the cycles of disruption are getting shorter and shorter. This should terrify and excite us in equal measure, and spur us into action. One thing’s for sure: the longer we wait to make change, the greater the prospect of someone else doing the disrupting. Just ask Nokia.

Death by a thousand tags

This post first appeared on the DigitasLBi blog, What's Next in September 2015.

Ever had that experience where you follow a link from Twitter or Facebook on your mobile, and you stare at a blank screen waiting for it to appear? It’s a frustrating experience, especially when the page finally loads and it’s clearly been well designed. Why would an organisation spend so much money and energy building a site that looks good but which takes ages to load?
There are many well known reasons why performance suffers – high image sizes for retina devices, the use of weighty javascript libraries, and underperforming platforms are pretty well known – but there’s an emerging issue that’s harder to control, certainly within the context of a web build project. One that, for the user, could make the difference between acceptable load times and I’m-not-waiting-for-that. One which makes browsing the web on a mobile device far more painful than it needs to be.
I’m talking about web tracking tags. As you wander around the web, sites collect what they know about you so they can serve up more relevant adverts. Then of course there are analytics tags, which ping the server every time you visit a page. And in recent years, the leading content management platforms have evolved into experience management platforms, driving the seductive promise of personalised customer experiences, dropping even more tags to enable the mapping of people to content or functionality.
These personalised experiences are sometimes a pretty good deal for the user. Done well, you end up with a service a bit like a waiter in a top restaurant, where the website can anticipate the needs of the customer and offer a tailored experience.
But the problems start when a page has too many tags, slowing the site down and greatly offsetting the benefits for the users. One random page clocked in at 14mb worth of tags – hardly noticeable on powerful devices using broadband, but painful on a mobile with a weak cell signal.
It’s surprising just how many tags are being used these days. Try installing the Ghostery Chrome extension and you’ll see that your favourite sites use a whole host of tags. Here are some examples.
From the Guardian:
From the BBC:
From the New York Times:
NY Times
And I think we have a winner from the Sydney Morning Herald:
Sydney Herald
Google has zero tags. Loads quickly, doesn’t it?
It’s no secret that mobile users have zero patience for slow sites. And why should they? Customer experience champions such as Apple are updating their browsers making it easy to block tags such as these – no big surprise. The experience related tags could become collateral damage in the face of these blockers.
So what can be done in the meantime? A few things come to mind.
1. UX people, stand up! Educate yourselves, and ensure someone on the team takes responsibility for managing this issue. Fact is that you need to drive success for both the business and the user experience, and occasionally there will be trade offs. You’re well positioned to hold a view on what these look like – you’re responsible for the overall user experience. Do what you can to counterbalance any abuse of these opportunities.
2. Developers, set yourself a performance budget – a page size (including tags) above which the page load times become unacceptable. The amount devoted to tags should be limited to a mobile, low bandwidth world as the lowest common denominator. Influence the design process to impact the design-related aspects of page weight. Ensure the page loads promptly as a priority. Understand how tag management systems work, and make sure they compress and optimise the way tags load.
Also, consider that one tag might have a larger initial load but make fewer async calls while another may be small initially but then pull down a big subsequent load from the server.
3. Testers, understand the impact on the user experience, and test on low power mobiles before and after launch over low bandwidth.
4. Managers, develop a tag management framework, whereby existing tags constantly have to fight for their place alongside new ones. Your marketing team needs to be kept under control, otherwise they could try to exploit the opportunities without understanding the impact. Kill off dormant tags to keep your site lean and mean. Determine whether tracking tags are the culprit – it may in fact be tags that attempt to load additional content…tracking tags tend to load only a 1x1 clear gif. If you’re developing a culture of continuous improvement – and if not, why not? – then build this consideration into your cycles.
5. Leaders, start developing your fallback plan. If blocking these tags becomes a thing, then you won’t necessarily be able to track users as they surf the web anyway. What’s your plan B?
Tags aren’t going anywhere for now. Advertising makes too much easy money, and it’s a harsh customer who would begrudge a company’s efforts to understand web traffic or deliver a better experience. And it’s ironic that the very act of improving an experience using tags actually has the potential to negatively impact the experience itself.
But the fact remains. Developing a great customer experience is everyone’s concern. We fought so hard for it in the 2000s, and to me it feels as though tag management – and other issues – are coming in uninvited through the back door, circumventing the user experience design process. The average page size has doubled since 2012. It’s time to fight back!

How to run a digital agency

This post originally appeared on Medium in April 2015.

Considering how many digital agencies there are in the world, there’s a surprising shortage of advice for how to run one successfully. Which is surprising when you think about it - for such a relatively young sector, undergoing such constant and dramatic change (especially in recent years), you’d think there’d be more words of wisdom out there in the digital space. 

I’ve just completed a three year tenure launching and running the Sydney office for DT, a terrific Australian digital agency. So I thought I’d jot down a few notes on things I’ve learned, things I wish I’d done differently, and things I wish I’d been warned about beforehand. You might think some are obvious, but for me their relevance and application became more apparent through experience - so they’re listed here. You be the judge.

Let’s get started.


I’ve heard this from a few people, that a business goes through a significant period of pain when it breaks through the 15 person threshold, then again at 40 and 100. I inherited a business of 20 people, so I never experienced the 15 person threshold, but the 40 person threshold hit us like a truck. I’ve tried to figure out why, and I believe there are a few factors at play. Not only do these numbers represent the thresholds at which the reporting structures tend to increase from 2 to 3 to 4 levels, but also the people involved change from doers, to managers, to leaders, under significant pressure. The leader has to change too. This happens in stages across different parts of the business, with some people stretched to breaking point by the increased volume of work and the change in their role. Tempers fray, people leave, and it can take months to get through.

Is it worth it? Maybe. We found economies of scale kicking in once we made it through, with people being better able to take holiday and training (and less late nights) because high quality deputies were in place to hold the fort. We didn’t quite make it to 100 people during my tenure, but experience elsewhere tells me that the business would become more sustainable as a result once we made it through that threshold too. That said, margins were affected by having a higher percentage of well paid leaders who weren’t 100% billable rather than highly recoverable doers. Getting the balance right is a challenge, to put it mildly.

What can you do to limit the impact? Part of the answer lies in recognising that, just because someone is a specialist in a particular area, it doesn’t necessarily make them a natural manager or leader of similar people. Our industry has grown so quickly that relatively inexperienced people have been pushed into positions of responsibility, with mixed results. The best thing a leader can do is recognise that this transition into manager and then leader can’t be taken for granted, and extra support is needed during this time.

Incidentally, I’ve now got a whole lot more respect for independent leaders who refuse to grow their agency above a certain size.

Manage your energy

I’ll go on the record here and say I’m bad at this! I used to check my email all evening, send replies (setting a bad expectation with others), write proposals at the weekend, even answer calls while on holiday. It’s unsustainable and makes you worse at your job - it’s that simple. What’s worse, it damages your health and your family relationships. My advice? Stop checking email after 7pm and at weekends. Tell others that you’re doing this - it sets the tone for the business. Take holidays out of town and resist the urge to check in. And take up hobbies. Unplug! Spend time with your family! And come back to work well rested and ready to take on whatever comes next.

What kind of leader are you?

I must’ve asked myself this question a hundred times over the past three years. It’s easy to recount the obvious areas of focus - setting a clear and well communicated strategy, making a plan and following through, building a great leadership team around you, work on the business, not in the business. etc., etc. - but other elements are more esoteric, less easy to grasp, define and achieve. The truth is that leadership means different things to different people, especially amongst the Generation Y talent populating digital agencies, and no one person can be great at all of them. Identifying your shortcomings and working on them - really working on them - is the hardest part of leadership. Having a style that can adapt to different circumstances and people is highly valuable. What got you here won’t get you there.

Give me something to believe in

The team I inherited three years ago had been beaten into submission. They were the passive recipients of decisions made elsewhere, with deadlines, scope and cost imposed upon them without consultation. Failure was rife and systemic. Simply introducing the DT values and brand into the equation made a big difference to some, but it was important for me to also declare my own values - if you have shared beliefs, people are more likely to have your back when the chips are down. My values revolve around quality, a drum I kept on banging. This resonated with some, others decided to leave, and that’s OK. 

I kept coming back to Simon Sinek’s excellent TED talk, but when I first watched this I didn’t appreciate that it applies to everything you want to do - not just company strategy, but project work, individual mentoring and direction, even personal relationships. Remember a good sign of strong leadership is how people behave when you’re not present. If they're aligned with a core strategy and set of values and beliefs, there’s a far greater chance of success. And if you can engineer things so all individuals in the business formally agree (say, through career development plans) how the business strategy aligns with their job and career goals, then you’re in a great place.

It’s all about relationships

Perhaps another truism, but this really is a question of nuance. Before leading an agency, I understood how important client relationships were in the completion of work, or running of accounts, but this changes when you’re leading an agency. First it’s harder to establish relationships with clients because you’re not involved in the day to day (and nothing builds relationships like working together on a project), and inevitably you need to focus on finding new clients, but also the relationship needs to be built well in advance of problems occurring. You need trust in place before you can talk candidly about the problem and solve it together. Relationships need to be nurtured, constantly, internally as well as externally.

Emotional connections

At one point in my tenure I was informed that some of my direct reports found my style a bit too direct. They were right - I had to work on this. And the advice I received was to work on my emotional connection with them. Take the time to get to know them better. And importantly, show some vulnerability. What I learned though was that there was good and bad vulnerability. An example of good vulnerability is showing how your success is intrinsically linked with theirs - that you need them to do a good job or you’ll fail. 

You can describe what this means in terms of likely repercussions for you. But be careful, people still need a boss who stands strong and remains positive when things go bad - not one crying in the corner. That kind of vulnerability is incredibly destructive. I’ve spent a fair amount of time researching emotional intelligence (another area I’m working on), and have found it very helpful. It applies 360º across your whole reporting line (up, down, across), and worth encouraging in both directions AND through your direct reports to the next level down if you have one. Here’s a good place to start:

Shut the hell up

Oh, this is an obvious one - but so true. When you’re running an agency you haven’t got time to listen to people give long winded explanations and descriptions - it’s so tempting to jump in and give them the answer. But this is a false time economy. If people realise that they’ve been listened to, they’re far more likely to listen back. And learn. And draw the right conclusions themselves, reducing the prospect that they need you again. Plus, it’s just good manners. So if you’re struggling to get something done on a tight deadline, tuck yourself away and get it done - but make sure this is an exception to the rule. Your role as a leader is to be available.

Ask the right questions

I was lucky enough to have a great leadership coach, and he imparted all sorts of useful knowledge. Perhaps one of the best soundbites was that “90% of leadership is asking the right questions”. This ties into the prior item in some respects - rather than solving people’s problems, your goal is to help them figure out solutions themselves. And if you can do this in a group setting, you’ll come up with exponentially better outcomes than if you figured it out on your own.

Hope for the best, plan for the worst - always

Even when things seem to be going well, assume that something, somewhere is hiding the truth. No-one else will. In our case we were growing quickly and we seemed to be coping with extreme change pretty well, but later we found that things weren’t quite as rosy as they seemed. They rarely are.

And if you look and still can’t find the problem, you haven’t lost a damn thing. Go have a drink.

Work that pipeline

In good times and bad. Every agency I’ve worked at has had difficulty managing the peaks and troughs of business. And it seemed to me that, the faster we were growing, the more tumultuous the pendulum swings. The important message though is that, when times are good, you know what's coming next, and you might be the only person in the business with the time and courage to focus on it. You can’t afford to wait for the pendulum to swing back. And even though I knew this to the case, I still failed to do it. Success can be incredibly seductive, especially when it comes off the back of a sustained period of very hard work.

Track commitments

It’s fundamental for you to set the tone for how commitments are managed within the organisation. People have to make their own commitments, of course, but then you need a system for tracking them and holding people to account. If you want the business to be efficient, people need to depend on each other’s commitments. The standard you walk by will be the standard everyone accepts.

The camera is always rolling

Lorks, I learned this the hard way. As a leader, your behaviour is amplified 100x across the business, whether it’s good or bad. One night after a couple of drinks I made an offhand remark teasing a colleague intended as a joke. I remain convinced that, if I hadn’t been a leader, it would’ve been laughed off. But it came back and bit me in my 360º review that I was insensitive. I learned my lesson - always best to work on the premise that people are extra sensitive to the words and behaviours of a leader.

Actually, that’s one of the principle reasons I haven’t been blogging much since arriving in Australia. It isn’t so much that I haven’t had much to say (hopefully you’ll see from this blog post that I’ve had a lot to think - and write - about). It’s more a case that the need to vet content to make sure it can’t be misconstrued is time consuming, tedious, and ultimately very frustrating. I now have a lot more sympathy for leaders who accidentally say what’s on their mind and get into trouble for it. Unless, y’know, they’re racist assholes or something. Keeping the mask perfect is a proper pain.

Manage up

Even if you’re the leader of the agency, chances are you’ve got someone to report to. In previous roles I had gotten into the habit of doing everything possible to solve a problem before presenting the result as an unfortunate fait accompli. But I learned over time that it’s much better to present options because it forces you to find them. This also builds trust.

Quality is everything

As I mentioned before, I believe that shipping a quality product that delivers against strategic goals is the ultimate test of a digital agency. Word will get around if you deliver a poor product, and rightly so. Plus demanding a high quality outcome is a great way to attract and retain the talent that can actually delivery it. The best people want to contribute to something they can be proud of, and this isn’t going to happen unless it’s a shared ambition for the team and the agency.

I like to describe this as focusing on outcomes, not outputs. The best people will want to know how their work will impact the client and their business. The worst people will deliver a set of wireframes or some code and consider the job done. Hire the former, change the latter - fast.

Don't stop believin'

Running a digital agency is easily the hardest, most nuanced job I’ve ever done. At first I thought there were too many problems too far beyond my control, and it took time to understand that the methods I’d learned in previous roles weren’t enough for this one. Giving out orders wasn’t going to cut it. Fixing problems myself was unsustainable. I had no idea what I didn’t know when I started. But whenever things weren’t going as planned, I leaned hard on the advice of Chris Savage (COO for DT’s holding company, STW). He channeled Walt Disney, who said “The only difference been winning and losing is most often not quitting”. Back yourself. You wouldn’t have got the job if you weren’t qualified. And like every business leader on the frickin’ planet, you’re figuring it out as you go along - and that’s OK. Keep your chin up, and keep going! “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same…you’ll be running a damn fine digital agency, my Son!" 

Take Courage

This article first appeared in Marketing magazine in October 2014, and then on the DT Blog.

There’s a building near where I used to work in London, by the old warehouses near Borough Market, which had the words ‘take courage’ emblazoned on the walls. Every time I walked by, it always made me smile – even though I knew the sign was actually an old advert for a brewery, it still put a spring in my step.
Sitting as it does in an area with several marketing agencies, it feels prescient for our time. The complexity and opportunity facing the modern marketeer demands a strong backbone, putting it mildly.
At a recent vendor conference, one of the speakers announced the results of a survey; respondents had been asked whether they agreed with the following statement: “Marketing has changed more in the last 2 years than in the last 50” – and amazingly, the results were that 76% agreed (PDF) with this statement!
Even knowing how complex things have become, this is still a staggering response. This result suggests that the popularisation of the internet itself in the 90’s and 00’s had less impact on marketing departments than the events of the past 24 months.
What’s underpinning this dramatic shift?
There are a few factors. One big shift has been the emergence of new tools that not only dramatically improve conversion, but have a bigger impact on the marketing team than ever before, from junior staff right up to the CMO. These new tools help you manage, and respond to, the deluge of data being generated. And this marketing stack demands integration not just at the technical level, but at the cost and organisational level as well.
This doesn’t just mean replacing one CMS with another one. The potential toolset is more complex than ever before – and it needs to be to deliver a seamless customer experience across every touchpoint. Often this involves introducing brand new platforms, adding an even greater burden of change to the marketing team. Not to mention attempts to move a lot of this infrastructure into the cloud.
As CMOs grow their understanding of these platforms and what they enable, complex new skills and processes have become essential. There’s a massive shortage of people capable of performing well in this new environment.
We’re entering a brand new era – one where the entire experience can be produced and managed in real time. Check out the fine work done by Google for the World Cup, from a content perspective (case study). Once again, it impacts people, process and product. And even this can be pushed further – as yet, no-one is overlapping this real time content generation with laser sharp targeting to ensure that everyone gets content that’s not only relevant to current events, but also relevant to their individual profile, context and device.
So what can we do about it?
This will vary depending on where you’re starting from, and it would be foolhardy to try and cover all the permutations here. But from a high level, a lot of the tools that have served us well over the years will support us here too – albeit with a bit more patience. We still start with the development of a solid strategy, typically incorporating a commercial model that takes the financial benefits of the customer experience into account. There’s often a significant cost and risk attached to all this change.
Once you’re through this gate, however, you can develop your roadmap in more detail. This is the point where customer needs will directly impact internal skills and process. You’ll need help from people who have been through it before, to help drive restructure.
It will be tough. People don’t like change, especially when careers are involved. But take courage – you’re not alone! Pretty much every marketing department will go through significant disruption in the next few years, if they haven’t already. And the ones who get it right quickly will reap the greatest dividends.

Image shared by Nathan Williams under a Creative Commons licence. Thanks, Nathan! 

It's been too long

I've always enjoyed writing, and haven't done enough for the past few years. I've been contributing to a couple of other blogs, and writing on medium, but on reflection I think I'd like this spot to be where I store my ramblings.

So I'm going to migrate over a few legacy posts and then write here from now on. Fun!