Friday, March 14, 2008

Nobody knows it all – be nobody

I was sitting at the Changchun airport (North East China) a few weeks back when one of our colleagues from another office opened his notebook and started asking our other colleagues about what we all thought were the key developments in Asia Pacific that could influence the fate of consumer markets in the next few years. He started slow but at the end of it he had more than 25 points to save before the last boarding call.

Recently I wrote a point of view on Amazon Kindle and shared with a group of friends and I realized that what I added to the original piece after the feedback from my friends was perhaps as rich, if not more, than the original piece that I had penned.

Amazing experiences both of these. They just reminded me how group think was turbo charging knowledge and creativity.

To me, it seems that the meaning of a creator is morphing to stand for a group than just an individual. Or should I say – a carefully chosen group that has the potential to quadruple the output.

Here are some personality-approaches that I believe seem to be working in this new world of accelerated group thinking:

Aggregator: Most (not all) of the things are already there – just gets them at one place and then tries to derive connections and contradictions.

Collaborator: Realizes there are way too many bright people out there – opens up and prepares to learn from them. Does not fight forces, leverages them.

Spontaneous Communicator: Realizes that people do not know what others are thinking – motivates/provokes them to talk in the hope that may be some of them have another thought that can be built upon.

Social (selectively and liberally both – do not ask how!): Believes there is no one way of being social, however thinks that being ‘selectively social’ and yet ‘open to random connections’ helps in forming a network of minds that stoke creativity.

Is his own ego slayer: Nicholas Taleb wrote in his outstanding book ‘Fooled by randomness’, - “I consider it my primary job to attack people, who take the quality of their knowledge rather too seriously”. I believe real knowledge and education is about understanding that we do not know enough. We need to strike a dynamic balance between confidence in our knowledge and yet a firm belief that there is a lot out there we do not have any clue about and thus we must learn to say, “I do not know” – trust me, there is nothing wrong in saying that.

Our Ego Slayer swallows his experience ego, ignores knowledge ego and always thinks that he is to young for the age ego.

In the end there is no one center. No one knows everything. No one is best. No one is complete. All of us are just sparks. Some are initiation sparks, some are early sparks, some are late sparks, some are question sparks, some are answer sparks and some are just different sparks.

Not just at individual level, even at organizational level – it helps to acknowledge that network thinking can really help. No wonder leading edge research in large and respectable organizations is moving from the Laboratory model to what some of them like IBM call, the Collaboratories. IBM is trying to shift from the Brick-and- operations to more collaborative outreach programs. For starters it is partnering with Saudi Arabia focusing on Nanotechnology (perhaps the Saudi answer to ‘what after the oil runs out!’).
IBM as quoted in Businessweek recently –acknowledge that the nature of research is changing and great ideas are springing up everywhere. Only a distributed thinking model and do full justice to this new approach to innovation.

Tomorrow is residing in billions of networked minds; nobody knows it all, better be nobody.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Business Philosophy is for forums

Why do businesses exist?
The usual answer is ‘profit’.
But more recently there have been a lot of instances where companies of different sizes have gone ahead and talked about how profits are a byproduct of their business practices. Many of them profess that they exist for a larger cause preferably (& usually) in the territory of
Improving the quality of life for humanity or
Prosperity for all or
Sustainable development for communities and concern for environment or
Making their nation proud or
Redefining the planet

and there are many more which are more focused than these.

A few days back I was interacting with a group of bright management students. I was trying to provoke them by challenging the very concept of vision, mission, business philosophy etc. is articulated only after the company reaches a certain size?

What made the discussion interesting was realizing the fact that most of the great businesses of today (local or MNC) started simply as great innovations or were an implementation of solid business ideas. This also means that these businesses were started by super-ambitious individuals, who were not just passionate creators but had a personal goal in life, along-with keen business sense and conviction that they could make it happen.
These individuals went about realizing their dreams and ambitions, riding on their strengths & skills in business.
But as company grows, it ceases to be just a business. It is no more an individual, instead it begins to look more like a network, a network of people, places, processes, principles, goals, dreams, desires and a lot more. With so many nodes and interconnections in this network, the business is now no more just about one man with his ambition and skills. It needs more than passion and conviction of just one person to steer or lead it.
Thus there is needed a charter, a war cry, a goal that each and every person who is a part of this network can look at and know where this network wants to be. What is that it is trying to do? And why does it want to be that?
Business Philosophy, Vision and Mission statements are the modern day counterparts of pronouncements and key phrases that yesteryear’s military Generals used to marshal their troops to achieve their goals.
Business philosophy, Vision etc is like the velvet glove of the iron fist of profit orientation. While it seems that this glove is mainly a good talking point for forums or people who might not be as much interested in the figure against depreciation in a company’s balance sheet, it none the less helps in making more handshakes happen and keep the network alive and aligned.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Demise of competence or time to charge a premium

I always wonder, “is proliferation of technology going to make us, as humans, more practical and more pragmatic –the way technology is or would increased incidence of technology in everyday life have a opposite impact, making people want to ‘feel more’ and thus trigger a reverse trend of taking us back to what makes us human – feelings and emotions.”

To scale this question into a more selfish space “would proliferation of technology make marketing communication more rational, direct and solution oriented or would it make it more dependent on engaging marketing and branding stories that are not necessarily rational?”

I do not know which way all this would go finally – assuming that it chooses one and not a mix – however it is still worth looking closely at things as they are today. I would like to take my favourite ‘Google vs. Old world advertising companies’ example to discuss this.
This discussion is based on a premise that internet is going to be the lead medium of information and entertainment in the future. Though it is already so in many countries but many countries are still some years away from getting their share of wide data pipes that can carry multimedia into homes without needing a TV to show it.

Given this premise, I see people sitting in front of computers ‘choosing’ information and entertainment that they like. Google is a big player in this world because it has that magic potion which helps it offer the right information to its users - first and fast. (I am talking about their secret algorithms that help them aid the user trawl the net better.)
People are looking for certain things on the net; those things are being thrown up by the results to a search string keyed in by the user. What role does traditional advertising have in this kind of scenario?

Also, if people are not choosing information online, they are creating or choosing entertainment content. In other words the people-internet interface is wiping out the role of traditional broadcast media – both from information and entertainment perspective.
However being an advertiser, this is of lesser consequence to me. What though is definitely of grave consequence to me is the role of advertising in all this. As people choose/create information and entertainment on their own, the classical ‘you gotta watch my soap ad because you are watching this soap’ just does not work.

Today Google, Baidu or Yahoo gets us the information we are looking for and Youtube, Tudou, Facebook, Orkut and many more video based & social networking websites get us the entertainment we like (short, aimless and funny).
In other words Google has the competence (algorithms) to search the right info bits while the competence for creating entertainment content, is getting distributed as people are having fun with their cameras/video cameras - filming, uploading and watching stuff.
That makes me wonder – is advertising not relevant any more? In other words has advertising lost the relevance for its own competence?
This brings us to what is advertising’s competence?

To me, advertising’s core strength is ‘penning compelling and engaging stories’. Is this competence not relevant anymore?
In fact thanks to technology enabled commoditization that we see all around us, compelling stories are needed much more today than they were ever before.

Compelling stories makes us reexamine the point of ‘looking for something on the net’. It is worth asking, what goes on in the minds of the user before he types a particular search string on a search engine?
What makes him look for certain things on the internet? And I am now asking this question more from products and services point of view i.e. why are only certain products or services, looked for more on the net than others? (Hint: Try i Pod vs. I Phone vs. Wii vs. PS3 on Google Trend).

I believe the role of advertising is to create compelling stories, like it has always done in the past. However advertising agencies need to free their stories from any particular format. The stories can be intangible (creative concepts) or tangible (product / service design ideas).
When we develop stories and ideas sans media paradigms – we break new ground.

If we can pull this off successfully then no matter what kind of consumers we meet in the future - rational or emotional or a mix – we would always have them engaged in our stories.
In true spirit of breaking out from the TVC mindset, I would cite the example of great product design making people forget functionality like MacBook Air (it does not even have a built in CD drive and connects to net only wirelessly) and Ikea designs – which are not ‘premium’ and yet almost never seen as ‘cheap’
Also worth mentioning are the Honda Cog, Adidas Air Suspension and even the Renault Sport communication, as examples of rational messages that are beautifully narrated and the Monster.com communication (pelican carrying the kid) as completely emotional messages but once again with a fair dose of outstanding story-telling.

Last but not the least, this new working paradigm also need a new remuneration paradigm. As a service industry, today more than ever, we need to be remunerated for the return on ideas instead of the time spent on getting the idea (time sheets). This, I am certain, can promise far superior margins in our business than what we have ever seen in the past. The additional advantage of this would be more minds working on ideas than what we have today. After all technology has given almost everyone around us the same tools – so what’s stopping us?

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Be daring, be driven & be down to earth – Work Hard, Work Smart, and Work for the Brand

And now to some even more fundamental things. We believe that there is no substitute to hard work. Especially in a new market, when we need to run many-many laps before even being close to the talented people who have grown in this market. We would like to quote the then founder chairman, of the now disintegrated, Daewoo group - Kim Woo – Choong, from his hugely under rated and unacknowledged book ‘Every Street is paved with Gold’. One of us read it in the December of 1998. Choong mentioned that, “For every single soul under the sun, there are just 24 hrs. So how can one possibly get ahead of others?” Well, he said “if one man works for 8 hrs and the other works for 16, the second man is gaining one additional day over the first one. Do this for a week and you have gained a week, do this for a month and you have gained one whole month, do this for a year and you have created two years out of one and do this for a lifetime and you have created an additional life.” At the cost of sounding like a workaholic, we would say this extra work is the price that we need to be prepared to pay for entering a new market later than our contemporaries and competitors.
However we must also acknowledge that hard work is only a part of the approach to work. Thinking smartly, prioritizing ruthlessly, and challenging our every move and asking ourselves “is this the most efficient/effective way to do what we are doing” helps in looking at things very objectively. It has also helped us in critiquing our own work constructively.
Last but not the least, to echo the ‘Ogilvy way’ – we all are working for the brands. This point links to some of the things that we mentioned under the subhead on ‘Fight’.
We constantly ask ourselves how the brand is better off with us working on it. For us the brand is a sum total of the business growth, the consumer interest, the client relationship and the team morale.

We acknowledge that scoring very well on all the above parameters might not be possible in the first six months or even a year for that matter. However having these on our radar as the guiding principles in a new market and culture has helped us in doing our work better.

As we mentioned earlier, we also believe that most of the things that we have pointed out above, do not qualify as new knowledge. Perhaps it can even be argued that these points are not unique to the situation of working better in a new country because they simply are ways of working better in any market. Also, if one stepped back and looked at some of the points above, one can also spot many conflicting views. But that is the way real work life is – full of conflicting situations, personalities, moments, opinions, ideas. Universal formulae, as we have observed, are usually in the realm of pure Sciences, or back rationalizations of real life work situations.
Also, as we had mentioned earlier, the objective is not to make these experiences sound like theorems of success. The objective was to share our learnings & working styles which helped us do better in a new market or as one of us would but it – ‘survive the first six months’. We sincerely hope they can be of some remote use to the readers who read all the way to the end.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Be daring, be driven & be down to earth – Get the facts & numbers right

Here we must quote Madhukar Sabnavis, our last boss, for we can never ever forget what he told us in one of our discussions about role of emotions and feelings vs. hard logical evidence, as two approaches to sell ideas. Our discussion was in connection with the constant ranting that we as advertising agencies engage in, about most of the advertisers being very logical and linear in their thinking. We were once telling him “you can never make great work happen if you only think logically.” I went on to say that “the client must understand feelings and emotions more.” To this he said very patiently, “the client is also a human being, s/he also has feelings and it is not necessary that your feelings would match theirs all the time. If you walk into meetings only with your feelings, you will end up walking out with just feelings. To make decisions happen and more importantly to make the right kind of decisions happen, we have to blend the magic of feelings with the reality of logic.” Never in our careers thus far, have we seen this holding truer than in the last six months. On almost all the businesses that we have worked on for the past six months – best results have emerged from a good blend of imagination (magic) and engineering (facts, logic and numbers). In fact it has dawned upon us that if we walk into every discussion that we have with clients and prospects, with a good balance of numbers and ideas – the client listens more carefully. This could also partly be due to the fact that advertisers usually do not expect advertising agencies to have done extensive ‘numbers’ work before getting into a discussion on the brand or business. However there is a huge opportunity in breaking this perception. When we talk ‘numbers’ before taking a ‘creative leap’, the client looks at it more seriously than just as an unfounded radical and risky idea.
Needless to mention the fact that every time the advertiser sees the communication partner doing numbers work, they feel more confident of the team and share more information. In many ways we end up becoming their marketing and perhaps even business partners than just being a communication specialist. This in turn can greatly help us in moving up the decision tree with our partners and prospects.

Be daring, be driven & be down to earth – Walk before you mail

Mails make us efficient we are told. But do mails make us better colleagues? Do mails make us better friends? Do mails make us more effective? We do not know. What we do know is that people like people more than their mails. So whenever possible, we have always tried to know a person before dashing off a mail to him or her. We believe it is our responsibility to know the person we are working with. How else can we work best together? We must also confess that it is not possible all the time, but every time that it is we must try and walk. We have actually measured – the time spent in writing a mid sized mail is more than the time taken to walk across to any of my colleagues in Hua Li building. However, to be fair to mails, we must also say that it is not the best comparison, because when you walk across you end up doing a lot more than just talk work – while it can be trashed as worthless talk or office banter but we believe it is vital none the less. The informal peer to peer exchange & relationship networks are more powerful that the formal lines of command in office.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Be daring, be driven & be down to earth – Listen

And now on to our favourite point and most vital learning in the last six months - “be a good listener.” Well, we had heard this from many people even before we came to China. We even used to think that we were good listeners, however only after coming here and working here for some time, have we realized what perhaps, is the real meaning of ‘listening’. Listening is not about not talking, it is about empathizing, walking a mile or two in other person’s shoes, and suspending counter- logic completely. It is amazing that when we listen to people (without waiting for our turn to speak) there is so much that we can uncover about their view of work, the world and almost everything. Listening helps in knowing and understanding people and work and life is that much easier when you know the people around you well.
Listening helps in understanding people’s individual biases. This helps in figuring how to say that, what you want them to act upon favorably, without hitting against the ‘bias wall’.
Listening helps in understanding the speaker’s vocabulary as to what s/he means when they use certain set of words or phrases, this helps in using their vocabulary to say your thing.
Listening is transfer of control. It makes the speaker feel in charge. However, interestingly, a good listener will end up becoming more powerful at the end of all the listening because s/he knows more about the speaker than what the speaker knows about the listener. Knowledge indeed is power.
When we listen we submit our cerebral energies to the one who is speaking. It is an implicit mark of respect; we are also acknowledging our openness to their ideas. When we listen we get better at asking the right questions. When we listen the right way, we help the speaker refine his/her thoughts.
When we listen, we help people realize that that all the ideas and solutions are already inside them. By helping people articulate their thoughts and injecting the right questions at the right time, we help them structure their thoughts better.
When we listen – better work happens because somebody’s else’s words can trigger better solutions in our mind than what a monologue in our head can help us achieve
As a result, we reach the solution as a team and not just make people feel that we are bulldozing our point of view on others. The difference in approach is that through listening and group-think, we reach the solution as a team and reach there much more motivated than what we would have had, had we gone swashbuckling all by our self.