If you read the press the current climate makes sombre reading. Retail has never had it so bad, the housing market is in decline, fuel prices are set to rocket and even Gordon Brown is admitting to an economic slowdown...things must be bad.
So why is it that after so many years in the business and having seen really tough times before do I feel more bullish and confident than ever about the future? Perhaps it’s because I’ve become a little ‘easy come, easy go’ about life in general or even worse over-confident that the current climate is something more akin to marketing’s equivalent of Hurricane Dale Winton rather than Hurricane Katrina, nothing more than a passing squall.
The truth is that the current climate is a reality. Many companies are having a rough ride and, for some, the solution is to batten down the hatches and ride it out. In my experience no matter what industry you are in when times get tough the first thing we do is default to trading. We all think short-term as we look at the very real challenge of this month’s numbers. How can we get more business in? What is our cash position like? How can we cut our outgoings?
All sensible stuff and all to be perused, but then what? Saving money normally leads to doing things less well, which, in turn, means you are probably pissing off customers. Perhaps most worryingly of all is that most businesses have been round this loop at least once and perhaps two or three times in the last ten years so the likelihood is that any real fat that was there, any real inefficiencies, any real excessive spending has been found and sorted by now...hasn’t it. Does anybody have long lunches these days? Does anybody have more money in their marketing budget than they know what to do with? (If the answer to this question is yes, please contact Nick.Ramshaw@elmwood.co.uk). Does anybody start at 9am and finish at 5pm? Does anybody have a moment away from e-mail or their mobile or their Blackberry?! If so you are a lucky or a lazy bastard.
No, the plain facts are that the conditions we now find ourselves in are the way things will be for a long time. Just like global warming (another sobering thought), we are where we are and so we have to see the new climate as a glass half-full and fight and win, or see it as half-empty and frankly die. So the only way to future growth is to be brutal and kill the competition. Simple as that.
And herein lies the real opportunity for the guys and gals on the supply side of the fence; the ad agencies, the PR consultants, the DM agencies, the designers and the marketeers. While clients are getting up close and personal with the short-term demands of shareholder returns, i.e. trading, we have the opportunity to add the value we so often moan as an industry we aren’t credited with providing. We need to help clients see beyond the day job and be the free...yes free NPD department for their business or if it makes you feel any better the Trojan Horse Department because the gift we give should always provide a real return for us too in the guise of real projects.
What does this look like in reality?
Well, in the words of Macmillan and at the risk of sounding rather smug we in our business have never had it so good. This is not because we have had the good fortune to win a one-off massive project as we have in times gone by or that we have managed to charge a premium for our fees. In fact, far from it. We now charge our largest client far less than we did ten years ago! The truth is no matter how good your client relationship is, if the budgets aren’t there and the clients are concentrating on short-term trading, the phone won’t ring and the briefs won’t get written. The only way forward is to write your own briefs. By this I mean that if in the short term your marketing clients have become embroiled in the fight for sales then you have to do some of the legwork for them. And that means seeing further than their (or your) immediate horizons.
We all know, or at least should know what is going on in our market and with our key competitors but who knows what is happening in Halifax Nova Scotia or rather the new explosive Scotland as the name implies? Anybody, anybody? Well I do. Ner ner na ner ner. Over the last year I have been lucky enough to travel the world several times. Tokyo, Toronto, Melbourne, New York and yes Halifax Nova Scotia. You see, I know what Tesco is doing but then so does my client ASDA. I know what Homebase is doing and so does my client B&Q and I know what the Royal Bank is doing and so do HBOS so what value can I add there? Not a lot, so I too under such circumstances default to trading... give us a job, ASDA.
On the other hand, I could show them this fantastic idea for point of sale we saw in Wegmans outside New York to leverage their positioning about wine expertise, or this fantastic branding idea from Aukland New Zealand to leverage corporate and social responsibility, or this amazing idea for ‘retail-tainment’ in fresh fruit and veg in Pete’s Frootique in Halifax Nova Scotia!
The moral of this long waffle is not to take a round the world trip armed with a camera but just a simple but fundamental truth. No one owes us a living. We have to help our clients win, more than this we have to lash ourselves to their masts and help them kill their, and therefore our, enemies. Our job is to help provide them with a purpose beyond the day-to-day trench warfare. A purpose that will help them drive a difference beyond price between them and their competitors. 2005 is all over bar the shouting, but for 2006 we have to be in a position to write our own briefs by creating ideas that our clients haven’t asked for because they haven’t had time to look up and see the future. We have to get there first, for ourselves and for our clients. We have a saying at Elmwood: “no grazing no milk”. We have to find time to create our own futures and if we do, I guarantee that by acting as our clients’ free NPD department, this time in 2006 Rodney, we will all be millionaires.