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How NOT to be a Dodo

Posted in: Best Practices, Culture, Industry  |  By:

We count on our friend Francine Hardaway for unfailing reality checks on what works and what doesn’t in business (and much more). Often her thoughts resonate with issues we’re discussing at Eastwick, or concerns we have about (and sometimes for) Valley companies or business models.

Her latest post for Fast Company – “Why Agencies are Going the Way of the Dodo” – shares her signature tough love. In essence, Francine calls out agencies for ruining (my word, not hers) social media by replacing branding and conversation with performance-based social strategies. (To translate: many agencies are shilling “pay for results” social strategies, meaning they only get paid for their work when a brand’s friend, fan, or follower jumps through some brand-ordained hoop. A “Goal!” bell rings and the agency gets a coin. Essentially a CPM approach to social media.)

For anyone considering this approach, I offer a short word: DON’T. I agree with Francine that this model is inherently flawed and will go the way of traditional online ad models (and other dodos). What to do? Allow me to offer some perspectives.

1. Learn from experience.

Observe the evolution of online advertising and read the writing on the wall. The category is growing but engagement is waning. As Francine says, nobody pays attention. I see dozens of thoughtful articles each day on how online ad models are failing and how companies are scrambling for the next thing that replaces them. We talk to countless companies looking to ship the next “aha!” that will save the model: incent response, increase efficiency, generate broader terms, etc. For a while, maybe. But most won’t sustain; on that I agree with Francine.

Looking for “solutions” to the waning ad model “problem” suggests that the goal really to help the digital (or social) marketer to rush breathless into their CMOs office proving that they’ve scored the numbers that signal “success”? Maybe they can’t get that 0.0X clickthrough rate on banners anymore, but dang it, they’re going to get in on social, and, good news: they only have to pay their agency if they get that result.

Beware, marketers, the danger of this thinking. As the saying goes, each time I hear about it, a kitten dies. To think of relegating social media, an unparalleled platform for true conversation, interactivity, and trust-building – all of which build momentum and action – into…what?  Compare your favorite farmers’ market to QVC and I think you’ll see what I mean.

Eastwick doesn’t do that, and we won’t. We believe that social platforms give brands an unparalleled way to communicate openly and honestly, to ask for input, and to track the way conversations evolve over time.

Based on these conversations, we learn about sentiment (how people feel about our clients or their products). We learn about concerns. Competitive issues. Opportunities – heads’ ups on things they should know about or even places they should go. We track how this shapes things like Share of Voice, topicality, and preference over time (that’s the NEXT thing I’m going to write: my manifesto on measuring success), and we watch, sometimes literally smiling, as these conversations get generous. People openly sharing with each other. Responding and helping. Providing information that otherwise would be hard to find or expensive to source.

And we track how this leads to actual engagement and conversion: to filling sales pipelines, driving online sales, and otherwise building business results. Sustainably.

Think flock, not dodo.

I’m not saying it happens overnight, but with vision and commitment: it happens. Our clients see it and acknowledge the momentum, the results. And I’m ready to assert that – unlike the waning efficacy that Francine forewarns in her post – this type of social interaction will grow in value and impact over time.

2. Share the LOVE.

Francine calls agencies to help their client/partners “design love into the product or service.” Thank you again, Francine. At Eastwick, we use the word “generosity,” but heck: “love” works too. Differentiate with openness and proactivity. Invite. Collaborate. Encourage.

Don’t those words hit you differently than things like Drive, Incent, and Close? I’m not saying that we don’t use those words: we do. But we put them into context of a generous, proactive strategy that begins with serving an audience’s best interests (AKA “Love”) and not simply seeing them as “consumers” of what we want to push or serve.

How does this work? By understanding the people who are part of the audiences our clients serve: what interests them, what matters to them, what’s essential to their satisfaction or success. Then: story development – how we talk about this in terms that reflect our grok of and respect for these audiences. Sure, Francine: journalists CAN go straight to the source…but if the source hasn’t evolved the story to the point where it connects with the audiences, that access doesn’t matter.

This, by the way, is very different for a communications agency than it is for an advertising or even digital firm…but that sounds to me like another future blog post….

3. What killed the Dodo?

I’ve waited a long time for this. Now I get to share some tough love right back at Francine.

Francine, it’s easy to blame agencies for what you describe in your post, but we all know better. Agencies are like any other business: they need to be a business. That means selling something (typically services, aka “people’s time”) at a price that the market will bear.

For most agencies, that means pushing work down to the junior ranks, minimizing strategy, and willingly saying “Yes!” to business relationships that don’t position them as intellectual and implementation partners to their clients.

We all know what I’m talking about. Eastwick team members have written about the phenomenon in recent posts asking if “tech PR is broken” and challenging marketers to demand more out of social (and themselves). It’s also why I declared my independence as one of the few hold-out agencies in Silicon Valley who continues to do things a different way (I loved the positive feedback on this, by the way).

If agencies are going the way of the dodo, Francine, then we need to remember what caused their demise. Dodos didn’t stand up for themselves. They stood there looking dodo-like as they were hunted to extinction.

 

In a way, what Francine describes in her post reveals a much larger problem in business today. The online world’s inherent connection to data, and the ease with which we can access, analyze, and understand it, has created a “hyper-quantitative” approach to marketing that I believe undervalues qualitative insights in determining success. As a good friend says, “Analytics are the pepperoni slices on the pizza of business results.” I’m no vegetarian, but I wouldn’t want an only-pepperoni diet, or even an only-pepperoni pizza. It’s the balance of the ingredients (quantitative meets qualitative, if you will) that makes the pizza taste great and worth ordering again.

As you read about the Dodo, think about the big picture that’s causing agencies to choose a role that they probably know is a fail-in-the-making. They’re scared as they watch their traditional models being disrupted and by direct connections between businesses and the audiences they serve. They’ve lost sight of their true value as data and analytics (awesome as they are) have shifted the shape of their craft. And they’ve let that happen by reacting to demands rather than committing to the value of their work and upping their game to make it even better.

So they’ve let themselves get cornered into accepting roles that ultimately shrivel up and die, like that dodo, almost like some twisted self-fulfilling prophecy proving that their models don’t work.

Here, Francine and I agree. THAT, actually, is the brokenness of most agency models: the “servitude” that prevents them from being of true service. How did that happen, and why did some of us allow it? When agencies can sit across the table from clients and share perspectives like I’ve shared above that say, “Actually, I don’t recommend that. And here’s why,” in a way that helps these clients make better decisions?

That’s when the model will get unbroken. That’s when it works.

Thanks to Francine for a thought-provoking post, and for helping me articulate another reason that I’m committed to sustaining the way we do things at Eastwick.


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