Reach Beyond - Advice from a New-Comer

Peter Wilken (November 2008)

Thanks Coco!

It was Coco, our uber-friendly chocolate Labrador puppy, who introduced me to Louise, the editor of this magazine, in a lick-fest on the beach by the Maritime Museum (the dog and Louise, not me and...well you know what I mean).

By chance, I was wearing an old BBDO Asia Pacific T-shirt. In a former life I ran BBDO's Asia Pacific region out of Hong Kong. Louise commented on it, and we got talking. “How about a piece on your thoughts about what Vancouver can learn from the rest of world?” she suggested.

So, after 25 years in communications, brand and business consulting working around the world, if the Vancouver communication industry came to me for advice, what would I say?

It’s unapologetically subjective and, after only a year here, little more than skin-deep. Then again, when I consult to CEOs on change management, I encourage them to pay special attention to the newcomers. Why? Because they’re the ones most likely to ask the 'dumb questions' that challenge the status quo; they haven’t been brainwashed by the establishment and their cultural naivety is an asset.


Three Themes

Three of my favourite themes appear to me to be particularly relevant here:
1. Stretch your horizons. Reach beyond.
2. It’s ideas that count, not the style.
3. Focus, and collaborate.

Reach Beyond

Smash the imaginary dome over BC that’s limiting your horizon. Brilliant ideas and good strategy aren’t bound by geography or culture. Vancouver has an entrepreneurial culture and, from what I’ve seen, this applies to the communication industry. There are some very smart, talented, creative people here with the power to change the world with their ideas. Today, 60% of British Columbia’s GDP is from small companies, BC is a hotbed of entrepreneurialism, and it could become a mecca for ideas companies.

Why be limited to a BC client-catchment area? And why the tendency to look eastward to Toronto, New York or London?

In my day, the large networked-agency headquarters tended to view their smaller provincial offices as remote out-posts, necessary to keep the local clients happy, but not capable of generating the world-beating campaigns. But that's changed—the currency of the large traditional agency networks is now much diminished, both as a percentage of revenue and source of innovative ideas.

Twenty-five years ago the percentage of total communications services expenditure spent on the traditional channels of television, print and radio, cinema and outdoor would have been in excess of 75%. Today, companies like WPP (which accounts for 10% of total expenditure alone) have 54% of their revenues from 'alternative' marketing services--and are pushing for this to become two thirds of the mix. The diversification of these mega-communication groups has resulted in a rash of specialist consultancies and companies that provide creative services, idea generation and brand consultancy, all traditionally the territory of the advertising agency groups.

Change occurs at the periphery, not at the centre, or by committee. When there’s a fundamental change to the set of rules we’ve become used to (it’s called a paradigm shift but I hate that jargony expression), it’s normally created by the satellites, the mavericks or experts from other disciplines that challenge conventional wisdom with upside-down thinking. Charles Handy likened the change agents to fleas (the small companies) dancing around the ears of elephants (the big companies).

The old set of rules said: ‘We’re small because our clients are small. They're provincial clients mostly with small budgets. We’d like to deal with bigger international clients, but our HQ in (insert Toronto, New York, London or wherever) deals with them.’

The new set of rules says: ‘Every business wants brilliant ideas to build its brands and its business. We don’t have to be big to develop big ideas. We do need the confidence, competence and culture to do it, and we have that.'

Some companies are doing it already. One Vancouver design company I met with set out to target only international clients within a specialist airport and retail niche and has 100% of it’s client mix from overseas, mostly in Asia. Rio de Janeiro, Madrid and Bangkok are recognized centres of creative excellence - Vancouver could become one too.

It’s Ideas That Count

Spend your time creating, recognizing and nurturing brilliant ideas and bringing them to life. Don't waste your time polishing turds.

Lately, we’ve heard the phrase ‘lipstick on a pig’ a lot, mostly in reference to the US’s handling of the economic crisis. But it’s also an apposite reference for the vast majority of communications in Canada (and the rest of the world by the way). Yes, yes, there are some wonderful campaigns out there too.  But let's have a reality check.

When I started in advertising in London over a quarter of a century ago, it was the tail-end of the golden ‘Saatchi Age’ that had created a genuine shift in creativity in the industry that many others rose to emulate. Even then, of the total volume of advertising messages out there, perhaps only 5% were exceptionally brilliant, 20% were good to passable, and 70% were poor to insultingly dreadful.

How has that ratio changed in 25 years? Not much. And that’s a pretty sad reflection on our communication industry—even automotive manufacturers (at least the Japanese, Korean and Germans) have innovated and improved dramatically since then.

Here’s the thing: highly-polished turds are still turds. Superb craftsmanship and expensive technical execution can’t disguise a weak concept or the lack of a differentiating, compelling idea.

I’ve seen very little to suggest the Canadian communication industry isn’t still trapped in the ‘bang ‘em over the head’ mode...go on, repeat it again...talking heads is the thing...the more verbiage the better...spell out the strategy in case they don’t get it...brand name repetition is the thing...add the compulsory un-funny quip at the end...explain the joke incase they don’t get it…” (If you think I'm exaggerating I urge you to record the commercial breaks in a typical show and watch them back to back...or listen to any one of the number of automotive radio ads).

I advocate communications that appeal to the intelligence, rather than insult it. Messages that require processing, that involve and engage - these might actually begin to rise above the litter, actually achieve rule No.1 (get noticed), and then justify the intrusion.

Focus and Collaborate

As with nature and as with brands, the two dominant forces are diversification and entropy (moving from order to disorder, or decay) and diversification. If you use these forces to your advantage you’ll champion diversification and specialization to avoid decay.

Small companies can’t do everything, nor should they want to. Focus on what you excel at and enjoy doing, Celebrate it and be the best at what you choose to do...then collaborate with other ‘best’ small companies in diversified fields. Specialization means collaboration with other specialists to provide security and growth.

There are a lot of fun, confident, go-forward companies out there, and there are a lot of nervous, defensive ones. I believe that Vancouver can become a centre of creative and strategic excellence, and I’d go further to suggest the Portland/Seattle/Vancouver triangle should actively position itself as such.

Smash that imaginary dome over British Columbia that sets an artificial horizon - be yourself, celebrate your difference and conquer the world.

How do you focus? Well that's a whole other story in its own right, but it begins with a strong understanding of how you are currently perceived, then articulating your own compelling promise...

Peter Wilken is founder of the Vancouver consultancy Dolphin Brand Strategy.