Instagram Stories: What’s brand got to do with it?

August 8th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

This post originally appeared on Sullivan’s blog and was quoted in Mashable.

Brand diagnosis: Instagram vs. Snapchat


Instagram was launched in 2010, and made its name on “moments to remember” – allowing users to shoot, filter, share, and save favorite images. Over the years, Instagram has made adjustments to the app’s look, feel and functionality including its newish rainbow tinted icon and it boasts wider adoption and broader reach than fellow-photo-sharing-app Snapchat. That said, the strength of Instagram’s brand isn’t reliant only on adoption, but also on awareness, sentiment, and, of course, the quality of the product itself. Instagram’s simplicity has always made it easier for users (and advertisers) to understand because it has consistently served as a tool for visual discovery. Despite the addition of ad units, video, and even Facebook’s purchase in 2012, Instagram’s product always stayed true to the philosophy of helping users capture moments through beautiful images that ultimately form a collection.


Snapchat’s offering is more complex and constantly evolving. It started as a disappearing messaging app between friends and gradually added features like Stories, which opened the door for advertisers to connect with consumers on the emerging medium. Earlier this summer though, Snapchat announced Memories, which is where it took a bizarre turn.

Because Snapchat has grown organically without establishing a clear positioning and brand purpose, the incremental functionality additions have confused what the Snapchat brand stands for. We’ve been left to figure out what Snapchat’s brand is by the app’s capabilities, rather than its stated philosophy. Now that all messages don’t necessarily disappear and aren’t just between friends, what is Snapchat about?

Brand showdown: Instagram vs. Snapchat

Snapchat’s strategy has been successful in gaining users and its under-the-radar branding is likely a strategic decision. But Snapchat may be on the same winding product road that Facebook took before it found its way to a more focused, more successful approach to its business.

Facebook began by targeting college-aged students, without marketing itself, and then rolled out more and more features, like games, eventually becoming a confusing mashup of functionality that left many people wondering what Facebook actually was (sound familiar?). Now, Facebook has refocused its brand on a core set of capabilities with features like Check-Ins and Live that provide a clearer picture of the fact that the Facebook brand is about connecting people, and all of its incremental functionalities drive back to that purpose.

Snapchat needs to refocus too, and the update to allow for live-streaming was a really smart step in the right direction. By connecting people live at events like the GOP and DNC Conventions, Snapchat is refocusing on the “in the moment” philosophy that they made their name on. Now, Snapchat should coalesce their positioning and unify the brand to be about bite-sized, timely, and ephemeral storytelling curated around people, events, or brands, rather than leave us all guessing.

Despite this criticism, Snapchat has excelled in two significant ways. The ghost icon has been used really cleverly in helping them to develop more brand equity than Instagram’s camera logo. Users have appropriated the ghost and use it to represent themselves on other social media networks, while Instagram ironically, doesn’t have the representative visual brand equity (particularly with the new icon). Another way Snapchat succeeds is in its approach to filters: Instagram’s filters are about nostalgia, but Snapchat’s are personal and playful. As we saw with Ghostbusters, location-based filters and other branded filters, Snapchat has integrated branded content in a way that’s more useful for users than the way Instagram simply slips ads into your feed.

The Round-Up

The Stories update is a confusing move for Instagram and it has the potential to degrade the clarity of its brand. Instagram was meant to be about ‘moments to remember’ – with Stories, the moments are ephemeral, which makes Instagram’s purpose more confusing.

More importantly, Instagram’s disappearing Stories don’t add much to my experience as a user. They’ve been described as a way to overshare and not worry that you’re cluttering up your followers feed. But that isn’t a real need; the curation required to ensure you don’t blast everyone with dog photos (that’s me) is part of the allure of Instagram. Disappearing Stories are a clear copy of Snapchat’s functionality, and Snapchat’s Memories feel too similar to Instagram’s core offering. Each app has its own strengths, so rather than attempting to be everything to every user, Snapchat and Instagram should refocus on their original, separate core values. There is incredible value in having distinct product features and brand values that these latest updates degrade.

Pokémon Go: Augmented Reality’s Big Moment.

July 22nd, 2016 § 1 comment § permalink

This post originally appeared on the Sullivan website.

Everyone is running into each other. People are actually hurting themselves. And the Internet is exploding. Yep, Pokémon Go is giving Augmented Reality (AR) its big moment.

This is how disruptions in technology often happen: a technology is developed to serve a niche market, until it hits an inflection point and achieves mass appeal. It’s so common there’s an entire hype cycle built to document it. And then it gets old (I know I’m tired of hearing about the “Uber of X” phenomena).

We saw it with platforms like Twitter, which had slowly gained steam since 2006 but reached a breakout cultural moment in 2009 after a plane crashed in the Hudson River and its users broke the news. Virtual Reality, which has been around in some form since the 1960s, had its watershed moment when Google Cardboard partnered with The New York Times. And now, Pokémon Go has shined a spotlight on the potential of AR—a technology that has also been around in some form since the ‘60s, depending on who you ask, but is only now getting its day in the sun.

What does this mean for companies with complex communication challenges? Here are some things clients often ask us about new technologies and their potential for businesses:

How do we stay ahead of the curve on new technologies before they reach mass market?

1. Dedicate a portion of one person’s role to innovation. Pick the most inquisitive person in your organization; staying ahead is more about natural curiosity than tech ability. Have them sign up for newsletters from FastCo, PSFK, and Crain’s to keep in touch with what trends are bubbling under the surface.

2. Pick 1-2 key business issues and customer issues, and focus efforts on learning about how new technologies can solve those problems.

3. If possible, hire a Chief Innovation Officer whose job it is to embed curiosity in an institutionalized way across the organization.

How does a business evaluate the right use of these technologies?

1. Make sure it makes sense in the first place. The kneejerk reaction can be to find a reason to use a new technology. 10 years ago, many clients called us asking for help in setting up a Facebook campaign. But in reality, Facebook wasn’t the right channel to reach their audiences. It’s not about being first or even necessarily about being in the game—it’s about getting it right for your customers.

2. Figure out the ROI for your business. Is the new technology a more compelling and efficient way to serve a business or customer need than your current options? Consider ROI over time as well; sometimes a short-term investment will yield long-term value that makes it worth taking a hit up front.

3. Create a culture that values fast failure. You can do the analysis and still realize when you implement that maybe it wasn’t the right way to go, but sometimes the learning is more valuable to the organization than the negative impact to the business. Pick discrete pilot projects to try out new technologies to limit the exposure to the whole business, and roll out successes more broadly once you have the learning.

What is the potential for complex industries?

1. Help employees work more efficiently. For example, Lockheed Martin is using AR tohelp train engineers and increase accuracy and efficiency of the work when they build fighter jets.

2. Help clients visualize the finished product. Real estate companies, for example, can help potential tenants see the potential in raw and unfinished spaces.

3. Make complex concepts compelling. Infosys used AR to show the impact of a plane landing on the landing gear construction and various material layers of the wheel—turning an otherwise mundane and dry concept into a highly engaging and social moment.

4. Help donors envision the impact of their money. In higher education, there’s an opportunity to help affluent benefactors see their names on new buildings, and give mass affluent donors the chance to “brand” areas of campus in a virtual world for big events like reunions.

We’re particularly excited about Google Tango, which is making AR more accessible for businesses by removing the need to have markers in physical spaces. We can’t wait to use this for one of our marquee clients in the next year.

If you are wondering how to adapt to technological disruptions or wondering how to use a technology to help you achieve your business goals, please reach out to Sullivan.

4 Takeaways Ad Age Digital 2016

May 5th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink


At this year’s Ad Age Digital Conference there were a number of common themes across panels about ad sales, content creation, social campaigns, the Internet of Things, and the role of agencies in an increasingly digital world. Again and again, panelists and attendees returned to these key points:

1. Iterate. Valerie Vargas, VP, Advertising and Marketing Communication at AT&T, presented a series of projects targeting younger audiences through social channels. In February, she launched AT&T Hello Lab, a year-long program of original interactive entertainment. The program features 10 original content creators who are building custom fan experiences, all connected by AT&T. In order to build up to the current format of this initiative, she and her partners took an approach that she aptly articulated as, “Try it. Nail it. Scale it.”

In 2012, she started explorations into original programming, influencer marketing, and social storytelling with Summer Break, a reality show built in real time; this was her ‘try it’ moment, where she tested the potential of bi-directional storytelling targeted to a younger audience. After the first season, her team tweaked the format and then tried it again. By season three, they were nailing it. In January her team launched Snapper Hero, a snapchat scripted series. I expect that after trying out Snapchat, we’ll see more iterations coming from AT&T that will lead to a scaled up use of the platform.

2. Understand Your Customers. Core to the development of the social influencer content projects from AT&T was a relentless focus on authenticity, which meant acting less like a brand and more like a consumer. Those of us who grew up working in digital are familiar with the need to focus on user needs over business goals; after all, if you satisfy your user/customer needs, you will by default satisfy your business goals. But a lot has changed in digital over the past twenty years—imagine that a mere 9 years ago we didn’t even have iPhones—and with increasing numbers of platforms combined with the always-on, mobile Internet, comes many more challenges for brands.

Marc Pritchard, Chief Brand officer for P&G, reminded us that “the opportunity to be creative is in infinite supply; how you get it is through understanding what people want.” In other words, it doesn’t matter how beautiful your creative is if it isn’t grounded in delivering what customers want and need. As an example, Pritchard shared the work his team did for Always, which was centered around a campaign called, “Like a Girl.” The campaign took aim at emojis which feature men in various jobs but do not offer many female representations beyond dancing girls. Woman could request the kinds of emojis they’d like to have available and Always created them. The genius of the campaign was that it tapped into the popularity of emojis, but gave them a purpose that was tied to the pillars of the Always brand: empowerment and confidence.

3. Virtual Reality (VR) Is Here To Stay. From Carnival Cruise Lines to Samsung to Hollywood studios, VR was a hot topic at this year’s conference. As someone working on VR projects, it was clear to me that there are still a lot of unknowns about how to use it well, and what tactics will pay off in terms of bringing a brand experience to life. Marc Mathieu, CMO of Samsung, said that, “the beauty of VR is that it goes beyond the frame”; in reality it does much more than that by extending the frame and putting the user at the center. Samsung is clearly putting a lot of effort into bringing VR to a critical mass of people by giving away its Samsung Gear VR headsets with a purchase of their latest smartphones.

More remarkable, and potentially game-changing, is their upcoming release of a theGear 360, a consumer-grade 360 degree camera. Why is this such a big deal? Currently, VR has a  content problem. A lot of the content that is available is either focused on a niche market, not particularly well produced, or pure-play marketing. By allowing users to generate their own content, Samsung is creating a more meaningful role for VR in social channels. Facebook and YouTube support 360-degree video, but until the content catches up, those channels won’t have much of a purpose. It is possible that Samsung will open the gates with its new camera. I won’t be surprised to see Apple and Google jumping on this bandwagon soon.

4. Relevant, Contextual, Conversational, Valuable, Useful, Personalized. Not surprisingly, these six words came up again and again. In many ways, those of us who work in marketing and branding have been focused on these principles for a long time. But, the data and analytics that come with a digital ecosystem allow us an opportunity to go much deeper in providing the kind of valuable content that users want.

Peter Naylor, SVP of Sales at Hulu talked about the importance of providing ads which are relevant and valuable, partly by providing choice in advertising. John Collision, President and CEO of Stripe, talked about the importance of enabling mobile commerce in an age when more and more of us spend time browsing and purchasing online. He noted that those brands that make it easy to buy on mobile devices enjoy deeper relationships with their customers, because they are giving them something useful. Chris Malliwat, Head of Product Management for Warby Parker noted that they “speak in the voice and context of the platform,” instead of having one message blasted out to all channels and platforms. In other words, how you speak to your customers on Snapchat is different to how you do on Facebook. Ev Williams talked about how creating Medium was about allowing people to engage in the world more deeply by providing context around the content. And by rolling out Medium for Publishers, he is making a bet that the context of Medium will be valuable to brands.

To find out more about the Ad Age Digital Conference, check out the hashtag on Twitter or read the round up on their website. Maybe I’ll see you there next year!

This article originally appeared on Sullivan’s blog at 

Why Your Brand Should Take VR and AR Seriously…and How

March 31st, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

This article originally appeared on Sullivan’s blog at


It is hard to argue with the fact that Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are both reaching a critical inflection point in reaching a mass audience. When then 18-year old Palmer Luckey started tinkering with a virtual reality headset in his parent’s garage, not many people took notice.

The basic premise of virtual reality is that it immerses a user in a world that isn’t physically present; through the use of 360-degree video and animation, immersive sound, and varying levels of interactivity, virtual reality seemed like another fadish genre with no clear business application. But when Luckey launched Oculus as a kickstarter-backed startup in 2012 he raised over two million dollars. Oculus was later purchased by Facebook for over $2 billion, making him one of the richest Americans under 30.

The interest in Oculus and the recent release of their direct-to-consumer product (Oculus Rift), which is getting mixed reviews, suggests that the potential of this technology might be more than a gimmicky fad. The rise of Oculus as a phenomenon of fascination was followed in 2014 by Google’s surprise entry into the mass market of virtual reality headsets with their lightweight, low-tech Google Cardboard. Initially launched in partnership with Volvo as a promotional tool for consumers to explore the Volvo XC90, Google later partnered with Mattel on a stereoscope version of the classic View-Master toy, and had its biggest breakthrough when it sent out 1.2 million headsets to subscribers of The New York Times.

While Oculus and Facebook are focused on the uber-immersive end of the VR spectrum, Google is focused on getting as many people as possible to experience thepotential of VR, with beautiful content created by the NY Times and other publishers. In the meantime, a whole host of others have entered the market at varying points on the immersive spectrum: some requiring a connection to a powerful PC (like Oculus Rift, Playstation VR, and the incredibly powerful HTC Vive Pre) and others focusing on untethered, mobile experiences (like Samsung Gear VR powered by Oculus, Google Cardboard, and the Auravisor). In just a few short years, the volume of platforms and content for virtual reality experiences has exploded.

Meanwhile, Microsoft, Epson, and Google have been busy building AR hardware and software that promises to provide powerful mechanisms to overlay content that is not physically present on live environments. Google Glass was a fabulous flop, but that didn’t deter Google from exploring AR further, and later this year in partnership with Lenovo they will release the first Project Tango-enabled tablet. Project Tango overlays digital content on the ‘real world. Using the camera on Android tablets it senses depth, tracks motion, and ‘learns’ to correct any errors it makes in its sensing. Users hold tablets to explore content that has a relation to the physical world but only exists digitally, as opposed to wearing a device as they did with Google Glass.

Microsoft’s HoloLens is an evolution of the Google Glass concept, where a user dons a pair of glasses to see and manipulate objects that are also not physical but are overlayed with the real world. It has inspired a frenzy of excitement, particularly in the gaming community for the potential it has to allow for untethered, mind-blowing experiences, but to date is only available for developers and at in-person demos. Epson’s Moverio Smart Eyewear pairs with a small, handheld android device and features a smaller profile set of glasses, with a professional model that has a depth sensing camera.

Content and practical applications for all of these new AR and VR devices are very much in the early stages, but the volume of activity alone suggests something big is upon us. Today it is predicted that by 2020 there will be over 150 billion dollars of revenue generated from VR and AR, with 120 billion dollars of that attributable to AR alone. It is estimated that there will be over 24 million VR and AR devices sold in 2018. If these predictions are right, a revolution is coming. The question is, why does this matter to businesses and what kinds of investments make sense now while the VR and AR markets mature?

It seems obvious that AR and VR will be huge in the entertainment and gaming spaces as soon as the platforms are mature and the right content is developed. My instinct is that it will be a few years before there is wide enough adoption of one or two platforms by consumers along with content that is high-enough quality before we see real impact in both entertainment and gaming. But AR and VR offer incredible potential for a few specific applications that brands should be thinking about now.

  • Awareness: Because VR and AR immerse users into complete (VR) or partially (AR) constructed environments, they offer huge potential for awareness campaigns. Seeing billboards, posters, or TV ads about drunk driving, for instance, have proven to be effective at raising awareness about why it isn’t great to get behind the wheel after having a few drinks. But it is easy to forget those messages. If you’ve ever been in an accident because of a drunk driver, however, you’ll never forget that experience. VR and AR offer the ability to simulate experiences that are dangerous, hyperreal, impossible (going to space) and to do it in a way that creates a physical, emotional, and phenomenological impact way richer than other mediums. Toyota has done a great job of exploring this through their TeenDrive365 campaign, which includes a VR simulator focusing on the dangers of driving while distracted. This experience goes beyond the use of Oculus Rift by placing users directly in cars so that the virtual experience is married with a tactile one. If you are looking to raise awareness in a way that goes beyond pushing messages at users,  VR or AR should be in your consideration set.
  • Training: Both VR and AR have already started to take off in training, especially in the medical space (with AR) and sports training (with VR). For doctors AR in combination with physical models or props offers the opportunity to practice delicate surgeries without harming anyone. One developer has been working on a tool to train medical students about how particular bones fit together. There are even VR glasses being developed to allow legally or partially blind people to see.Strivrlabs has developed a sports training platform for VR that they have used with major sports teams that allows players to take ‘actual’ trainings with their teammates in a virtual setting. The advantage of this is that it allows for training anytime, regardless of whether the complete team is available, and it provides a safe environment for practicing potentially dangerous patterns. For businesses who have complex training needs, or who require scalable training solutions, employing AR and VR will not only reduce risk and save time in training, but will also ultimately be more cost effective as virtual training does not require a physical instructor be present.
  • Recruiting: In 2014, Sullivan partnered with one of our clients to create an experience that was targeted at recruiting a specialized workforce in a highly competitive market. We focused on rigorous storytelling that provided potential recruits with an experience that allowed them to become deeply connected with the ethos of the company. In addition, by having an Oculus experience at recruiting fairs, especially in 2014 when Facebook didn’t even have any at their booths, we also signaled to potential recruits that this was a company who was forward thinking. We are developing more work for clients that will go into even deeper content, including interactive thought-leadership pieces. In a competitive job market, using VR or AR can be a compelling way to allow your potential recruits to experience your culture, your values, and even the specific type of work your company does in a way that a job description or a simple brochure just can’t beat.
  • Marketing: At Sullivan we believe a brand comes to life in the moments where people experience it. VR and AR offer an opportunity for brands to bring their stories to life in surprising and magical ways. Marriott has been doing a great job of exploring VR as a way to connect their customers to their brand by building on the thrill of adventure and the romance of travel. TheirVR postcards, which are powered by the Samsung Gear VR, allows guests to order ‘VR room service’ in the form of a headset delivered to their room. Once the user engages with the headset, they follow a real traveller on a journey to one of three-four far flung locations. Beyond the lushness of the experience, the notion of transporting a customer to a place they may not ever be able to afford (or may be unable to experience because of physical limitations)   leverages the best of what VR has to offer. By allowing users to virtually travel to unique destinations, Marriott is positioning itself as at the cutting edge of the travel experience. They’ve even launched a microsite to host all of the ways they are seeking to inspire their customers and potential customers.

Both VR and AR offer the opportunity to create deeply immersive content that has a more memorable impact on your audience. By immersing users in rich sonic and visual environments, you have the ability to create emotional connections with your audiences that are deeper than other channels offer. There is also a growing (albeit controversial) body of scientific research about mirror neurons, which suggest that watching someone do something (i.e., a person dancing) lights up the same parts of brain that would enable the person watching to do that activity themselves. The implication of this is that watching and doing have a neurological link. This is magnified exponentially in VR and AR where multi-dimensional sound and visuals, along with physically moving your body amplifies the mirror neuron phenomena.

This is extremely powerful stuff, and it isn’t just for entertainment. If your brand thinks AR and VR aren’t for you, we suggest you look at your whole organization – the cutting edge work being done on these platforms right now is not where you might think it is (gaming and entertainment), but rather where the rubber meets the road. At Sullivan we’re excited by the many AR and VR projects we’re currently working on. If you want to learn more about how VR and AR can help solve your business challenges, reach out.

The Rise of the Super Ninja

December 3rd, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

(this was originally posted on LinkedIn Pulse)

The resume is becoming an increasingly useless tool for assessing a candidates fit for a role. Rarely does it tell you anything about how a person thinks, what they value, how flexible they are, what their colleagues think of them, or how they solve problems. Traditionally, resumes showcase a list of jobs, hopefully with some kind of description beyond a job title, a career goal, education, contact information, and possibly a list of skills. None of that is particularly revealing in my experience hiring people. This is made worse by the fact that most recruiters look at your resume for a whopping total of seven seconds – so brevity and impact have become crucial in cutting through the recruitment clutter. If you happen to be an unusual candidate, or have taken a pathway that is not entirely linear, the resume can be a death knell. When people look at my resume, or my LinkedIn profile, they are often baffled by the twists and turns in what I’ve done: video game producer, non profit fundraiser, business analyst, project manager/program director, university lecturer, published playwright, theater director and producer, and executive manager at an agency. It seems like a lot of very different careers all rolled into one. But the truth is I’m just an embodiment of the new breed of modern worker who has a wide array of experiences that all draw on similar skills.
When I hire people I’m often drawn to people like me: people who have done more than a single job in a single industry. At the risk of sounding like an egoist, I do this because I think the modern workplace requires it. We need more super ninjas to handle the ever changing dynamics of corporate America, and especially to handle the pressures that startups have put on the workforce. Although my current title is VP Program Management, what I actually do on a daily basis is extremely varied: I’m a strategist, a financial planner, a client partner, a salesman, and a people manager more than I’m a project manager (who would normally focus on scope, budget, timeline, and quality). I do engage in program management activities but I can’t simply rely on those hard PM skills to get through my day. I use storytelling skills gained from my time as a playwright, manipulation skills I gained while a theater director, facilitation skills gained as a university professor, business development skills gained from running a scrappy startup video game company and budgeting skills from running my own business. My current role doesn’t even have specific job competencies associated with it – and this isn’t a bad thing as this job requires someone who can adapt to the changing needs of the work. I’ve gone from operationalizing Huge’s most complex global account, to repairing a team structure and relationship for an important client, to executive producing the largest, fastest brand experience project we’ve ever taken on. I could not have imagined that this year would have included so many diverse projects or predicted the skills I would need to succeed. But this is not clearly captured in my resume – nor could it possibly be. As a result, when I’ve looked for work, I try not to send a resume out if I can avoid it. I’d rather have a conversation about my background, the role, and what I can bring to a job.
Of course, there are basics required for any role; I would never hire a project manager who doesn’t know the basics of scope, budget, project planning, and people management. Nor would I hire a designer who can’t use the Adobe creative suite. But these basics are no longer enough. Now, I want to hire the unusual candidate who has demonstrated intellectual curiosity, strong collaboration skills, transferable skills from other domains, broad experience from differing sectors, and humility. And these people are no longer rare: this is the rise of the super ninja who can adapt fluently from one domain to another.
So, if you are looking for a new role, and you have to use a resume, I highly recommend not using a generic format. Instead, make a bespoke resume that fits the opportunity you are seeking. Be honest, be transparent, but also trumpet your quirkiness, the diversity of your background and show the whole picture. Tell me about how your passion for origami, your travels, how the meal you love to cook relates to what you bring to your work. Tell me about the projects you’ve done or jobs you’ve had that may seem unrelated (they almost never are unrelated) and look for ways to articulate how that work is transferable to the job you want.
Show your personality.

Be a super ninja.

And do it proudly. We need more of you.

Should You Start Your Own Business?

September 15th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

This is posted over on LinkedIn Pulse.

I was lucky enough to be part of a young, small business in the days before the word startup became ubiquitous for the new entrepreneur. Hyperspace Cowgirls was a video game development company focused on the niche market of children’s (and primarily girl’s) games. I lucked into my role because I had a background in video editing and theatre that was applicable to a game they were making for Mary Kate and Ashley Olson. They needed someone with experience in green screen to help conceive of and direct a video shoot of the twins doing a series of dance routines for a game called Dance Party of the Century. I fit the bill and ended up being part of a team responsible for making games for Acclaim, Mattel, Simon and Schuster Interactive, Cablevision, and THQ and for brands/properties such as Cheerios, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Stuart Little, and Cablevision. It was a fun, intense ride working with amazing people. The company was well run and focused on a market that had unmet demand, but only a year after I left, it shuttered its doors. I was surprised and disappointed that it came to an end, but sixteen years later, I can see why it may not have survived the boom and bust of those times.

My reflections on the brief life of Hyperspace Cowgirls made me curious to see if my observations of what happened still held true. To validate these, I spoke with a few friends and former colleagues who have started their own companies and, while there is no single recipe for success, there are some consistent themes that surfaced. I’ve drawn these together in a list of questions that you should ask yourself before deciding to start your own company:

Are you passionate (and knowledgeable) about the focus of your new business?

If you are going to start your own business you need to be driven by enough passion to persevere when things inevitably become challenging. Without a deep belief in what you are doing, you’ll never succeed. That passion also needs to be partnered with expertise to turn your enthusiasm into something truly remarkable (and profitable). The combination of passion and knowledge is a powerful antidote to the threats that your business will face from competitors, unexpected changes in the market, and operational struggles. It is your passion, at the end of the day, that will encourage you to take the extra effort to make your business succeed. Without it, starting your own business will probably lead to disappointment. For Mark Jarecke, one of the founders of FOUR32C, the desire to keep control over a team that was passionate about the work they make was part of why he left his job as Creative Director of CondéNet (the digital arm of power house published Condé Nast). Mark says:

“CondéNet was managed like a startup. Condé Nast wasn’t really involved with us at all. It was a lot of fun and we had a long leash to be adventurous. But then things began to change and I saw the writing on the wall. Condé Nast got it that they were missing out on digital and CondéNet shouldn’t own that medium. I had a team of 17 graphic designers, user experience designers, photo editors and photographers and I knew it was all going to end. This great team was going to be picked apart and I didn’t want to watch it happen. So I left to start FOUR32C. I wanted to recreate that dynamic, amazing team without the fear that it could be all taken away by politics.”

At Hyperspace, we had passion in spades, but we were all learning as we went. I had never made a project plan and wasn’t an expert in managing people when I started. I was lucky that the environment allowed me to explore and grow, but we were pretty scrappy. In hindsight, we should have brought in more experts earlier on to help us understand the nuances of the space we were entering. But still, passion fueled the company while we built our expertise and it worked for a while.
(For more about the importance of passion to your work (and your health) check out this article from Fast Company.)

What are you offering that is unique in your sector and is it needed now?

Lately, it seems like everyone thinks they have the latest, greatest, idea for an App. In reality, less than 1% of APPS are successful. That is a daunting statistic that underlines how few startups do their homework. The truth is that differentiation is key when starting a new business. What is unique about your travel App? How is your delivery service better than what’s already out there? What makes your agency model better? I have seen many new companies started whose offering is not clearly differentiated from the competition. Hyperspace Cowgirls was brilliant in this area: the offering was totally unique as no one was really paying attention to the fact that girls liked to play games just as much as boys. Having something unique to offer is important, but so is timing. The problem for Hyperspace was that we were too far ahead of our time in this area. While we were offering something unique, the market wasn’t quite mature enough for us to be successful.

Back in 2007, I was part of a pitch team that tried to convince HBO to stream its videos online. We were told in the process that we were pretty much crazy as HBO would never break its model of paid cable subscriptions. Little did HBO know that the same year they turned down our proposal to include a streaming as part of their offer, Razorfish, the agency where I worked, was helping to develop and launch HULU. For NBC, AOL, Yahoo, Comcast, and Myspace, 2007 was the year of streaming. For HBO, it was an idea ahead of its time. Only three years later, things shifted dramatically and HBO launched HBO GO, a highly successful streaming service for subscribers akin to what we pitched back in 2007. This year, it finally launched the stand alone service HBO NOW, allowing cable cutters access to its premium service. So, the right idea may not also be right for your sector, or your company, right now.

For the founders of the Vancouver agency Modern Craft, they see their business model as the thing that is unique and timely. Co-founder Randy Siu says:

In an era of increased specialization, we saw a gap forming — one that we believed we were uniquely well-placed to fill. Specifically, we saw an emerging need for a strategic partner, grounded in both brand and technology, that could help modern marketing leaders connect the dots across a growing array of channels, methods and tools. After many years of working with big clients such as Starbucks, Nike, Microsoft, Bacardi, lululemon, P&G etc., we had learned a thing or two about how successful companies have adapted and transformed themselves for the age of digital disruption. The three of us had built our careers helping these organizations do the right things (and not do the wrong things) in digital. Together — with our overlapping expertise across brand, business and technology — we believed we could bring unique value to marketers who are hungry and intent on change. This, we decided, was the work we want to be doing.”

Sometimes what is unique about your business might not be the product itself, but the approach you take. There are a lot of agencies out there and, on the surface, many of them offer the same things. But the product is always influenced by the culture it comes from. For Dennis Plucinik, co-founder of NYC-based agency ATTCK the best thing about creating his own agency has been the ability to shape the agency in his own image. He says,

“Your company culture is your own personality and values, amplified.”

For Dennis, and many of the people I talked to for this article, the desire to create a unique way of working that avoids politics is a major motivator in starting up something new. Dennis goes on to say,

“We wanted an environment free from unnecessary layers of management, tedious policies, and office politics. It had been difficult to find that elsewhere so we decided to just do it ourselves.”

What connections do you have that will help your business to succeed?

When you are starting your business, the first place you are likely to find your customers and your support network are from the people you’ve met along the way in your professional career. Every interaction you’ve had is suddenly a potential contact to help your business grow. When I started Proto-type Theater in the late 1990s, I raised my first few thousand dollars from friends and family. From there, I expanded to other contacts I made through work until we were eventually able to be financially sustainable through grants and touring revenue. There were many scrappy years when we first began, but whenever we needed help we almost always found it amongst our closest friends and family who chipped in to help set the company up for success.

Look at your network closely: Do you have a strong group of people who you can call on to help you turn your dream into reality? You may find them in surprising places, so don’t discount any network you belong to including alumni associations, social networks, and friends, and family. For Mark, his first client at FOUR32C was the company he left behind, Condé Nast. For Modern Craft, some of their early work came from former colleagues and clients from Blast Radius. Dennis at ATTCK has used his connections as the cornerstone of his business model. He says,

“Our business model is our secret weapon. We don’t hide from other agencies, we align with them. In fact many of them are our clients and partners and many people we work with are also close personal friends we’ve made through years of consulting.”

This aligns closely with Modern Craft’s experience. Randy notes that he has been surprised to find “that other agencies would genuinely be more interested (and less threatened) to partner.” 

Sometimes support might come from highly unlikely places – even your competitors.

Can you survive financially if you earn less money for the first six months to a year?

Every business sector is different, but within the digital realm it is common for the first year to require the founders to reinvest at least some of their salary, resulting in reduced personal earnings in the first year. In year two, you can aim to be back to where you started in terms of salary, and by year three you may be able to earn more. I like to use the five-year rule, which is that you shouldn’t expect to make significant money until somewhere near the five-year mark. And that, of course, is if you are successful. In order to protect yourself, be sure to start your business with a small nest egg that you are willing to part with if necessary.

Of course, my advice to come with a nest egg is the conventional, safe approach to starting something new. But sometimes, the potential reward outweighs the risk. The folks at Modern Craft left their jobs at Blast Radius at the top of their game and, though there have been some ups and downs, they don’t seem to be looking back. Here is how co-founder Randy Siu described it nine months after starting Modern Craft:

“My partners and I all had busy roles at our agency, and at home we each have young kids. So trying to moonlight a new business just wasn’t an option. Maybe it was impatience. Maybe it was stupidity. But for me the simple act of planting a seed — the very idea of starting something new and exciting — put things in motion. I could have waited to see if my bonus would come through. I could have tried to do it a bit later, after the kids got a little older. I could have waited until my wife went back to work. But I didn’t. It just felt like the right time to take the blue pill.”

A year and a half in and Randy remains bullish. He adds,

“We bootstrapped our company and (gasp), paid ourselves and everyone we employed or utilized services of along the way. So in that way we have forced ourselves to validate our offering quickly. Fortunately, we’re doing something right because we’re not only around but we’re growing and winning work we WANT to be doing.”

If you are starting with a partner, have you stress-tested your working relationship?

Starting a business with someone is the same as getting into any deeply personal relationship, so chemistry is key. When you consider who you want to partner with, be sure to choose wisely. You want someone who you can be honest with, and who will be honest with you. They should share your values and bring something to the partnership that you don’t already have. How do you test whether you’ll be a good partner? One way is to start by coming up with a list of core values together and seeing if yours align. If they don’t align, don’t be afraid to walk away. Better to do it before its too late. For Randy, having a solid partnership has been the cornerstone of Modern Craft’s success.

“We hadn’t planned on starting an agency, but the idea of doing something together excited us far beyond any other options. Individually, we would be all right wherever we landed. But together, we could collaborate and utilize our collective strengths. We could lean on each other. We could spread the risk and share in a (hopefully) greater success.”

Do you have a long-term vision?

Getting started can be difficult and it is important to get it right, but too often companies only focus on the immediate opportunity or challenge. This may have been what ultimately ended Hyperspace Cowgirls as we didn’t have the capital to sustain a highly volatile business climate and we didn’t have enough income coming in from non-project based sources. We did have a business plan but, in hindsight, it was missing many of the core components of a strong plan. We were also probably overambitious, growing too fast without enough revenue to cover aggressive growth, which is a dangerous trap to fall into. Knowing what size you ultimately what to get to and focusing on your core values can help you to shape your long term vision and ensure that you aren’t lured into taking on work that degrades your unique selling point. When asked what the future of FOUR32C looks like, Mark has a smart response:

Doing what we’re doing now. Not a lot more people. But able to maintain a very high quality of work for great clients. Maybe another studio in Stockholm, Ljubljana or Ho Chi Minh City would be nice. More time going gallery hopping or hanging out on the High Line.”
The allure of starting your own business is that it gives you total freedom and the ability to create a product or service that you really care about. In the current climate, especially, when it seems a new set of millionaires are made every day and where there are incubators, and venture capitalists, and accelerators in almost every city, the call to make the leap can be strong. But while it may be tempting, be sure you are ready to work hard for something you believe in and that you have something truly unique to offer. For a great personal reflection on what one year into a new agency looks and feels like, check out this post from the guys over at Modern Craft.

Living and Working in the Age of Distraction

September 8th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

This weekend the Metropolitan Museum extended their opening hours for visitors to see the Costume Institute’s blockbuster show about Chinese-inspired fashion, China: Through the Looking Glass. I’ve been wanting to see the show since it opened but never seemed to be able to make the time to check it out, so I was excited about the possibility of a late night visit. After meeting up with a good friend for dinner, we walked across the park to the museum, debating whether it would be busy or not; given that it was a holiday weekend, we wondered how many New Yorkers would still be in the city. I had forgotten my phone at home before dinner, which is unusual for me, so I was untethered as we walked through the park and up to the entryway of the Met. To my surprise, it was completely packed.
The show was beautifully curated and revelatory (to me at least) in the connections that it made between contemporary fashion and Chinese textiles and designs. I won’t go into full detail about the exhibition, because that’s not the point of this post, but it is useful to know that the experience was incredibly visually arresting – from the LED video wall that played The Last Emperor on a loop, to smaller screens with the films of Wong Kar Wai and Mao-era propaganda films, to the dramatic headpieces by Stephen Jones that sat atop vibrant clothes in stark lighting. There is a great video of the show narrated by the curator online on YouTube if you want to get a sense of the exhibition for yourself.
Amidst the sensory overload of the show and the large crowd, the thing that struck me the most, however, wasn’t the beautiful clothes but the number of cell phones, digital cameras, and tablets that blocked every view as people documented each tiny detail of the exhibition. Because I had forgotten my phone, I was in the minority of people at the exhibition: I was actually looking at the clothes, and not through a screen. I found myself becoming frustrated with the number of people who ran into me as they frantically posted their images to social media and by the crowds of phones blocking my view of the art. Why couldn’t people just enjoy the show? What have we lost in our desire to document every moment and post our every move for others to see?
Most ironically, I had a moment of reflection where I realized that I couldn’t judge any of these people because, sadly, if I had my phone I’d probably be doing the same thing.
This experience made me wonder, “what is the cost of living and working in a hyper-documented age”, where the value of an experience is judged by how it is immortalized via image, video, and text and where distraction has overcome focus as the modus operandi of life and work? We eat dinner with our cell phones on the table, ever tempted to steal a glance at email or social media or news to ensure we aren’t missing out. We reply to messages within moments to ensure we don’t have someone waiting on us on the other end. We document every moment to the point where synchronous experience is interrupted continuously by the snap of an image, where memory is shaped by a trail of accumulated documentation. We attend meetings at work with our laptops open, typing away while ‘participating’ in the meeting. What does being distracted, fragmenting our attention across modes of engagement, and constantly leaving a trail of documentation behind do to our ability to engage thoughtfully and productively in the moment?
Our conscious construction of who we are obviously has implications for the modern worker. Here are some of the ways I try to adapt to working productively in the age of distraction:
Turn Off, Tune In:
It is easier said than done, but tuning out distractions while at work is probably the most effective way of staying productive throughout the day. Turn off notifications for your social networks on all devices so that you don’t get pinged and tempted to feed the stream of digital data. I also block out time on my calendar to work at my desk so that when people try to schedule meetings they don’t fill up my day with meetings, leaving me with no time to actually do work. By turning off notifications and blocking time out on my calendar, I find I’m able to resist the seduction of checking in to see what is happening in my networks when I don’t need to; I provide myself short windows of time to tune out on social media, but I keep these very brief so that I don’t fall down a rabbit hole. At night, on weekends, on and on my way to work I allow myself to indulge, but while at work, I try to keep the buzz away.
Don’t Be Managed By Your Ego:
It is very easy to feel as though you are your number of followers, number of likes, and quantity of comments. Social networks encourage us to measure ourselves against each other (and even ourselves) with data points that are not entirely context rich or accurate. I’m as guilty as anyone of this (“Why did my post from a few weeks ago do so much better than the one from last week?”). Instead of making meaning out of who you are solely through these means, it is important to recognize your successes at the work you actually do; it might seem odd or obvious to suggest it, but it’s worth reminding yourself that your social media rankings are not the only measure of your worth. Take pleasure in the small accomplishments throughout the day and allow the work itself to be what brings you satisfaction.
Practice Humility:
Resist the urge to trumpet every success you have. We all have Facebook friends who have mastered the art of the humble brag. You don’t want to be that person and you don’t want your online persona to be perceived as egotistical. If you are looking to make connections for work, or looking for a new job, your potential partner or employer is likely to search you. The last thing you want is for them to find out that you’re rude, offensive, a complainer, or cocky in how you conduct yourself online. Instead, practice the art of congratulating other people (genuinely) for their successes and participate actively in online discussion with humility.
Use The Five Minute Rule:
Work is stressful and it is easy to vent inappropriately and then regret it. I try to practice the five minute rule before sending an email or a tweet or a response to something that I feel passionately about. I usually write the response, save it as a draft, and walk away. While away, I try to give myself some space from whatever it is that I was responding to, so that I can reflect on how I really feel, and often, to cool myself down. More than half of the time, I find myself revising what I was going to say; sometimes I decide not to say anything at all. I’m sure this has saved me from embarrassing myself more times than I care to admit.
Living and working in the age of distraction has real implications on how we behave: at work we are less productive and struggle to complete tasks of longer durations, and our personal lives are digitally available to any employer to search at any time. George Orwell would be both horrified (and gratified?) to see his dystopian future come to life via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and yes, even LinkedIn where we chronicle a highly curated version of who we are that has a lasting impact on our public and private identities. Who we are personally and professionally has always been made up of external opinions of our behaviors and beliefs and our own internal sense of self. But in the current age of distraction, the factors at play are much more complex: our lives are searchable, traceable, easy to fabricate, difficult to erase, and the desire to control how we are perceived by others directly impacts in-the-moment experiences to the point where it is difficult to draw the line between the real and the manufactured. That famous ad from the 70s and 80s comes to mind: is it live or is it Memorex? Just like the protagonists of those commercials, I am struggling to tell the difference.

Chai Tea Gin and Tonic

September 5th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Now that I’ve made some bitters, I need to use them, so tonight I whipped up what I’m calling a Chai Tea Gin and Tonic. I think it’s yummy. You?


  • 1 thumb sized knob of fresh ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon of coconut sugar (raw sugar is also fine)
  • 1 black tea bag (we use Yorkshire Gold; if all you have is Lipton – use two!)
  • 4 ounces Bar Hill Gin (it is made with 100% honey!)
  • Cardamom bitters
  • Circular slice of orange rind
  • Tonic water

*makes two


Steps To Joy:

  1. Pour the gin into a glass or bowl and add the teabag. Let it sit for about ten minutes (it will turn brownish – the longer it sits the more it has the taste of tea – don’t over do it or it will be super bitter).
  2. Rub the rim of the glasses you are serving your drinks in with the raw ginger.
  3. Dice the ginger into rough chunks and toss them into a cocktail shaker.
  4. Add the sugar and a splash of the tea-infused gin to the cocktail shaker.
  5. Muddle until you can really smell the ginger.
  6. Add the rest of the tea-infused gin and give it a very good stir.
  7. Add in 8 drops of the cardamom bitters and stir (more or less to taste – since mine are homemade I did it based on these; if you have store-bought ones you may need more or less).
  8. Pour the gin equally between two ice-filled glasses and top up with the tonic water.
  9. Twist the orange rind over the glass and drop it in the drink.
  10. Serve with a stirrer!
In Process

Gin in the glass!


The Finished Product

The finished product

Effectively Collaborating Across Timezones

September 3rd, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

This is also posted on LinkedIn Pulse.

More and more of us are working as part of remote teams, either with our clients, with members of our own organization who are located in other cities, with off shore service providers, or with telecommuters. Some studies show that there has been a growth of over 80% between 2005 to today in the number of people who ‘telecommute’. In addition, the constant need to keep costs controlled means that larger companies are balancing their global workforce by distributing their staff around the world and are working more and more with off shore talent. In my work, I’ve collaborated with clients based in Japan, Switzerland, Singapore, California, Illinois, Virginia, Philadelphia, and Boston from New York, and internal teams distributed with as many as 18 hours between office timezones. As part of my PhD, I collaborated with a NY dance company over Skype while I was based in New York and while at PayPal (briefly) I had a team who was almost entirely remote.

What I’ve learned is that working with distributed teams can be enormously rewarding as you get the benefit of working with highly specialized talent, often in very different cultural conditions than you live in, and with a greater flow of productive work time (teams from one timezone can hand off work to the next timezone, etc). Ensuring successful collaboration, though, is not always straightforward. It is very easy to slip into the 24-hour workday, where you keep working as each timezone comes on line, never stopping to refresh and relax (I am guilty of having done this), or to misinterpret the context around communications that are often sent in written format, which can lead to unnecessary escalation of anxiety. Over the years, I’ve discovered that there are a few key things that help to make these cross-timezone, often cross-cultural collaborations successful, almost all of which are really common sense but are often forgotten.

Considerations for Remote Collaboration

Meet In Person:

It is ironic, I know, to suggest that meeting in person is important, but, in my experience, starting off with an in-person meeting or workshop makes an enormous difference to the success of working with distributed teams. If there is budget and time to allow it, even twenty-four hours together is worth the effort. Meeting face-to face provides collaborators with a chance to gain a richer understanding of the individual personalities in the group. The trust that can develop in a short time spent in the same room can be foundational to ensuring that subsequent written or phone communication will be more successful; individual senses of humor, approaches to communication, and styles are much easier to grasp in person. There is also a humanizing effect to meeting someone in person that translates to remote work after you meet. If you can’t afford to meet in person at the beginning, it is still worth trying to find a time to meet at some point during the project life cycle. It almost always makes a significant difference.

Take Advantage of Collaboration Tools:

At the start of any collaboration you should select the tools you are going to use; when working remotely this is even more important than when you are co-located. My advice is to choose tools that everyone on the team is comfortable with, be careful not too choose too many, and make sure that they cover the major aspects of collaboration: synchronous communication (i.e., chat), file sharing and collaborative document editing, video conferencing, scheduling, status updates, and project process tracking.

I love Slack as a hub for team collaboration: it essentially works as a chat window but is searchable, allows for tagging of conversations, and integrates with just about any other tool you might use (box, dropbox, evernote, etc). It is great for synchronous communication (chatting) and for asynchronous communication (i.e., leaving a message for someone), and it is a useful tool for collaborative note taking. Tools like Basecamp, Asana, Confluence, and Jira can all be useful as well, but I find that they often became a drag on productivity as you have to constantly update them. With Slack, everything is searchable so you don’t have to setup pages and write descriptions of every single thing you’ve done. The instant messaging that Slack and other tools provide can be incredibly helpful when presenting work to clients with a team that is distributed: whoever is in the room with the client can provide instant feedback and meeting guidance to the remote team to help steer them in the right direction. I can’t count how many times I’ve sent messages like ‘she’s smiling’ or ‘they are nodding their heads’ or ‘please stop’ when I’ve been the in-the-room presence to help guide my remote team. That instant feedback has made the crucial difference between a client presentation going smoothly and being a train wreck of missed and mixed signals.

For project management, timelines, etc, I love Smartsheet, which is a cloud-based tool for managing projects that allows for calendar and gantt views of timelines and is shareable to those who don’t have an account. It also, like Slack, integrates with many other applications so it can sit nicely within an ecosystem that includes tools you might already be using (like Google’s suite of collaboration tools). If given the choice, I use a combination of Slack, Box (for file storage), some kind of video conferencing service (Google Hangout, GotoMeeting, Skype, Uberconference or Webex), and Smartsheet when I am working with remote teams. I also always use a shared calendar (like Google Calendar) to make sure that everyone is aware of time off, local holidays, and important meetings.

Because each team is different, though, I am flexible about what tools I use as long as the basic functions are covered and the tools serve the team (instead of the team serving the tools). Perhaps the most important advice I have is that once you choose your tools, stick to them. Of course if something really isn’t working, than ditch it, but the more you use a set of tools the better they will perform for you.

Set a Strict Cadence (and Follow It):

Consistency is key with remote collaboration: set up regular touch points with your teams that have very clear agendas and capture the outcomes as soon as possible. Do not cancel regular meetings unless you absolutely have to; make sure they become habitual. If you do need to cancel, do it as much in advance as possible (24-hours ideally) so that time can be used for other purposes. At the same time, do not schedule meetings you don’t need; make sure every meeting is valuable. For many of my projects I setup a cadence that includes a daily stand up/check in done over video conference if possible (seeing each other’s faces is really helpful), a weekly or twice-weekly work share, and a weekly status meeting. I then try to have one-on-one meetings with project leads or key players on a rotating basis. Because there is often limited overlap in timezones, it is important that every shared hour be used efficiently – short meetings with very focused agendas work best.

Respect Each Other’s Time:

If you are in really disadvantageous time zones where there is no overlap of your normal workdays, consider rotating who has to work early or stay late when determining your meeting cadence. Alternately, I’ve sometimes seen teams decide to adjust their normal working hours completely to create more overlap between offices. Most important for me is to show respect for each other by coming up with a fair approach to creating overlapping working hours that doesn’t punish one time zone more than others. It is also polite to always include all relevant timezones in meeting invites and notes (not just the timezone where you are located).


Set Clear Roles and Responsibilities:

In all projects having clear roles and responsibilities is important. When you are working with remote teams, however, clarity about what fellow team members are doing is critical because the time that it takes to ask who the decision maker is for a specific task is potentially spread across many more hours. Imagine you are in New York and working with a team in Singapore; this is a timezone difference of 12 hours, which means when it is 7am in NY it is 7pm in Singapore. If the leadership team is based in Singapore, you arrive at work in New York at 8am and realize you don’t know who to ask for a key decision, your question to your leaders team will sit out there on email (potentially) for an entire day. Having a simple roles and responsibilities matrix, or even a RACI (I know many people hate these) can vastly improve the speed at which team members are able to make decisions. Clarity on roles will also avoid duplication of effort and encourage team members to take the most direct route possible to making progress. In addition, with distributed teams, you should consider whether it is possible to split authority across timezones so key decision makers are available for as many working hours as possible.

Stop Working:

Overworking is a major problem that leads to decreased quality and productivity. Many of us (myself included) have a hard time turning off our email and shutting down our devices at night. The research on productivity is very clear: the more time you take off, the more productive you are. But when you are working on a project across timezones the temptation to keep your email active as each subsequent timezone comes online can be seductive. On some of the projects that I’ve led, I felt the fear that I’d be slowing someone down if I didn’t respond to emails all night long. The result was that I completely burnt out in a very short time. To deal with this, I forced myself to turn off at 7 or 8 at night and I didn’t look at email at all after that point. I provided team members with my cell phone number, though, which could be used for text messages if there was something absolutely critical that needed a decision. The more I turned off, the more teams were autonomous, and the more able I was to provide good leadership.


In many ways the considerations above are basic aspects of good project management regardless of where the team(s) are based. In the simplest terms, what I’m touching on here are merely different aspects of effective communication. However, working with distributed teams adds another layer of complexity to projects that reveals the cracks in our processes; if there is any weakness in your communication skills, remote collaboration is bound to reveal the cracks. My advice: take the time to setup your structure and your process right at the beginning, tweak as you go, and enjoy the ride!

The client is never right; the client is always right.

August 24th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

I published this on LinkedIn Pulse today, but wanted it to have a home here as well.
Like many people, my first jobs were in the service industry: working in a bowling alley, a men’s retail shop, as a host at Red Lobster, and in my father’s Italian restaurant. In those early years of minimum wage, the idea that “the customer is always right” was instilled in me as a maxim without question. The logic, as most people know, is that if a customer is paying for something then they should get it the way they like it, regardless of how they treat you or how unrealistic their expectations are. In the world of digital agencies, there is a similar (outward) mantra that says “the client is always right,” although the chatter behind closed doors is often filled with complaints about clients who “don’t get it” or “don’t know what they want” or “are difficult.”
The truth is: clients are always right, but they just may not be able to articulate what they want clearly. Or, being on the agency side may sometimes make us tone deaf to our client’s needs.
The role of those of us who work at agencies is to see through the initial client request to the heart of what they actually need, to their business problem, or strategic challenge. Most of the clients I have dealt with are incredibly smart and are experts in their fields. Many of them, though, do not know how to work with an agency or how to utilize the outside expertise that an agency offers them to productively solve their business challenges. More often than not, the clients I work with have a very real need and are telling me what it is in language that makes absolute sense to them, but that may not hold up in the world outside of their business culture or industry. Our job, my job, is to practice a very deep form of listening that allows me to get to the root of what they are trying to achieve and to steer my agency team towards providing solutions that solve their problems. After all, clients hire agencies for their unique experience from other businesses and for a fresh perspective on the challenges they face, unencumbered by corporate politics.
Here are a few observations for both clients and agencies that will help ensure that the client gets what they want, and can therefore always be right.
Clients: Articulate your problem, not your solution. Often, clients come to me with a solution (“I want a new website”) instead of a problem (“No one is buying our widgets anymore”). If you are thinking of hiring an agency, or if you are feeling the pressure of your business to perform better, you should begin by asking what the root of the problem is and include potential agency partners in finding the solution. This can be challenging as an internal case may need to be made in order to secure funds for a major project. The smartest clients I’ve worked with take this challenge head on and engage a strategic partner to help them to assess and articulate their problem, and even to make the internal business case for budget. This doesn’t have to be overly costly and it can save money in the long term, as it ensures you go to your leadership to ask for the right amount of money for the right kind of solution. Sometimes, you don’t need external help to do this; with the right mix of skills internally you may be able to articulate your challenges in an way that can convince senior leadership to fund a project. But before moving into a tactical, solution-focused project, it is always wise to start with narrowing in on the actual problem. The best clients bring this problem to an agency and ask for help in solving it.
Agencies: Ask questions, don’t make judgements. I don’t know how many times I’ve been involved in projects where there was clearly a dissonance between what the client was saying and what they seemed to want. Presentation after presentation of hard work resulted in frustrated comments from clients. Internally, the agency team felt defeated or annoyed that the client was difficult. “They asked for a blue and red website and we gave it to them. Why are they unhappy?” The answer: they don’t want a blue and red website, they want something patriotic. The key to avoiding the potential communication confusion is to ask questions frequently and to repeat back to your clients what you heard. This process of questioning and then playing back your interpretation shortens the cycles of feedback because you can test your interpretation right there on the spot.
Agencies and Clients: Assess the cultural fit. Not every client is right for every agency. When I meet a potential client for the first time I carefully watch  body language, facial reactions during conversation, who sits near whom, who speaks first and last and loudest, and even how the people in the room are dressed. I notice what kind of coffee people are drinking (are they using real milk in their coffee or powdered?), what they eat, and how many people are smokers. I study every aspect of the interactions to try and create a picture of the client’s culture. These may seem like trivial or surface things, but they tell me a lot about with whom I might be working. Most importantly, I try to test the waters by using humor to see if I can create warmth amongst the group. I start with one or two soft, and often self-deprecating, comments, and then progress to the occasional teasing or playful comment. This testing of limits gives me a good sense of how likely this client is to be a fit with the agency where I work. Clients should do the same thing. If you are a buttoned-up, suit-wearing culture, are you okay with an agency where very few people own a tie? And do you believe you can bring your tie-free agency in front of your C-Suite? Cultural fit is important…you neglect it at your own risk.
Agencies and Clients: Own your mistakes. The projects I work on are often high-stress: a lot of work to do, a lot of money being spent, reputations at stake, and sometimes even the company’s long-term survival is on the line. This can create a panicky sense of needing to get everything right, which is impossible. Every client will make a mistake by giving bad direction or changing their mind after something has gone to production, or having an unexpected business circumstance arise which radically changes the work the agency is doing. And every agency will make a mistake by missing the mark in terms of a deliverable, or putting forward a team member who isn’t a good fit for the client (that person has sometimes been me!). No mistake is too big to overcome, but if you don’t own it by acknowledging it, apologizing for it, and correcting it, you’re sunk. The worst thing you can do, on either side of this relationship, is to hide the mistake, point fingers of blame where they don’t belong, or hold on to an unhelpful grudge that prevents positive collaboration.
I really believe that the client is always right, but that doesn’t mean that they  always articulate what they need in the right way, that they are culturally a good match for your agency, or that they are the most transparent and easy to work with. If you can have an honest and open relationship with your clients, you’ll be able to tell them that yes, they are indeed always right, because you will make it so.