Archive for June, 2013

Don’t count your chickens in a 9 block grid

Thursday, June 13th, 2013

The 9 block grid is Jack Welch’s famous method for evaluating staff.  There are two criteria : Potential and Performance.  Those who excel at both are in the top right hand corner.  Those who fail at both are in the bottom left hand.  If you’re one of the three best blocks then you will be prepared for greater things and new roles.  If you’re in the bottom three then you’re on your way to intense training, or you’re on your way out the door.

It’s a widespread and revered way of assessing staff. 

I’m uncomfortable with it.

One reason that I have been long uncomfortable with it is that it’s a natural and common tendency to rate people who are like you.  It is a rare boss that promotes people who are really different from him.  (Rare but not unknown, of course).  We all have some narcissistic leanings, perhaps more so in our trade.  We naturally tend to reward and admire people that remind us a little bit of ourselves and this can lead to a lack of diversity in the workplace, which can hamper change and growth.  In “Weird ideas that work” Robert Sutton advocates hiring and promoting people you don’t like.  For obvious reason this remains an experimental activity for most organisations. 

I now have a second reason to be wary of the 9 block system.  It is to do with chickens, and it is the basis of an interesting experiment in animal breeding by William Muir of Purdue University, recorded by David Sloan Wilson.  Muir bred chickens, with the objective of improving egg laying, in two ways.  The first involved selecting the most productive hens to breed from.  The second involved selecting the most productive cages of hens and breeding from those.  The results were surprising.  The first method actually caused egg production to decline after a few generations, even though the best egg layers were selected.  The second resulted in 160% improvement in egg laying, despite the individuals within the teams of hens not all being that productive.

Now clearly employees aren’t laying eggs.  But if we want teams of people who can work well together and partner with clients and with media owners and content creators to produce brilliant work then we must question whether the 9 block system is the best way to select our future stars.

What do you learn at an awayday?

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

Recent trailers for The Apprentice show the candidates organising corporate awaydays for “major clients”.  I’ve been to my fair share of awaydays over the years, several of which certainly had elements at least that might have been organised by people with similar levels of ambition and professionalism to those currently competing to go into business with Lord S. 

I still remember my first away day of course (don’t you always?).  It was in fact an away weekend where the participants were put into teams to compete in a role reversal contest.  We had a superb team leader, who did absolutely no work at all, but broke up fights amongst the very opinionated team members.  He also bonded us from the start.  The teams were announced at dinner on the opening evening.  Dave was announced as team leader, and then the names of the rest of us were read out.  None of us knew each other, but Dave went round, found us all, and tied a blue napkin round our arms. “We’re the Blue team,” he told us, “And we’re going to win.”

Which we did, but only after breaking the rules.

The role reversal in question was for us media chaps and suits to be creatives for the weekend.  The brief, was for the fictional (but surely much needed) Sausage Marketing Board*.  We duly set about coming up with a strategy and then executing it for the pitch.  We were working through the night, then, suddenly the team leader, Dave, was called to a meeting with all the other team leaders and given an important message.  He was told that a story had just broken, the night before the pitch, that sausages had been proven to contain poisonous substances by a research lab in the US.  The idea was to throw the teams into confusion and see how professionally they would handle the news on meeting the client with little time to prepare.

My team were furious at the news.  We felt pretty unanimously that the senior managers who were running the away weekend had in some way cheated us.  We were all ready with a smooth pitch and in our view mould breaking creative work, and then they’d thrown this spanner in the works.  Clearly all the teams had had the same spanner, but that didn’t lessen our anger.  This of course was exactly what the management team had anticipated;  they wanted to see how we’d handle it. 

This is how we handled it.  We created a split in the team.  One sub team carried on with the pitch preparation work exactly as we’d planned.  The second sub team spent all night creating replacement front pages of newspapers that we substituted in the morning for all the newspapers at the venue (a hotel just outside the M25).  The front page headlines : “Sausage research proved fake!” with follow up stories explaining that a renegade piece of research had caused momentary concern but luckily the fraudulent nature of it had been uncovered before it had time to do any damage.

We simply opened the pitch with the pleasing reassurance that the stories were fake, then we went on to tackle the brief.

We were the only team that reacted in this way.  We reckoned that if the people that briefed us could change reality, then we could change it back.

There was a massive split in the judges.  Most wanted us to win, we had after all nailed the best sausage advertising, but a couple of the judges wanted us disqualified.  Fortunately for us the people who admired our initiative outnumbered the more disciplinarian judges.  This was after all only advertising. 

So my first, most resonant, lesson from an awayday.  Break the rules. 

*Sausage Marketing Board : Yes I know there is a FB page, of course there is.

The impact of directness

Monday, June 3rd, 2013

One cold dark night, in the closing years of the last century, I and a few brave colleagues (including Matt Mee, then an outdoor expert, now our Global CSO) took an unconventional approach to the marketing of the Converse All Star.  We projected the advertising,  guerrilla style, on to the exterior walls of major indie clubs across London.  It was a first, it was a great talking point, and it delivered good sales on a tiny budget.  We also had to switch venues quite quickly when the owner of the Forum came out and told us off – someone having neglected to obtain permission for the show.

I see that Kanye West has at last followed our lead.  The debut of his new single was on the walls of city buildings worldwide.  And it was announced on Twitter.  Where Kanye has roughly nine and a half million followers.  The single tweet received nineteen thousand plus retweets, and it was one of these that I picked up, although I will admit to missing the premiere at Stables Market Camden, less than a mile from our All Star projection all those years ago.  (Kanye’s projection also ran at other venues in London including Royal Opera House, on Brick Lane, in China Town, as well as in Paris, Berlin and of course all over the US).

To quote one of my colleagues, an expert in entertainment comms, “the Twitter reaction has been phenomenal”.

A successful example of the Artist’s, or indeed the Brand’s voice as the main communication channel.  The idea that we used in a small way for Converse is now a real actionable and accountable communication route for Kanye to enlist his fans as advocates and use them as a media channel.

Here’s another example from singer Demi Lovato.

On May 6, 2013, Lovato asked her Twitter followers to “unlock” the entire album by putting song titles in hashtags.   A special website was launched, displaying all the songs next to a clock that would turn as tweets would be sent. Once a song became a trending topic, its YouTube video was made available on VEVO. All the songs were unlocked within a couple of hours.

Once again the brand speaks directly to its audience. In fact, the audience and the brand couldn’t be closer in these two cases. 

The point isn’t that Kanye and Demi’ s marketing campaigns got them “earned” or “shared” media. The point is that they were absolutely honest and open with their audiences about what they wanted from them and why.

Kanye invites everyone to his premiere.  Demi asks fans to promote her songs.  The objectives of the campaigns are completely transparent to the audience. As are the benefits of getting involved.

No subtlety, it’s all out in the open –  and it has amazing impact..