Everyone talks about digging into your clients’ issues and discovering “ what keeps them up at night.” But are you really doing that? Is your staff trained to do that?

Doing so makes your agency better at innovation and strategy – which is what clients are hungry for, according to the research AMI does with CMOs every year. When you can deliver on this need – you get to charge a premium and those clients stick around.

In my podcast conversation with Gavin Heaton we dig into this topic and talk about how to make it a reality. Gavin works with agencies showing them how to build value and create opportunities by really listening to the client’s wants. He provides agencies with ways to implement creative and innovative thinking in their businesses to become a true strategic partner for their clients.

Gavin and I explore many of the ways you can become a more valuable asset for your clients by:

  • Focusing on the things the client wants, rather than what an agency wants to push to them, which ultimately creates more value for the client.
  • Grappling with a problem that is worth solving, rather than pursuing an idea of interest. 
  • Taking a lesson from the start-up point of view and focusing on the audience and their wants first, and then building your product.
  • Solving your client’s problems and as a result, becoming less of a vendor, and more of a business partner. 
  • Getting your team to think creatively and innovatively.

Gavin is a marketing technologist, strategist, and advisor. He is the founder of the Disruptor’s Handbook, a network of entrepreneurs and innovators that help businesses innovate like startups, which Gavin calls “marketing lead innovation.”

He has led new venture startups for organizations like PwC, developed digital strategy and execution for global brands on both the agency and client sides, and spent some time as an analyst in digital transformation for award-winning analyst and advisory firm, Constellation Research.

He also has extensive international experience in driving measurable outcomes via digital customer experience platforms, digital strategy, and executing innovative content driven campaigns.

To listen – you can visit the Build A Better Agency site (https://agencymanagementinstitute.com/gavin-heaton/) and grab either the iTunes or Stitcher files or just listen to it from the web.  

If you’d rather just read the conversation, the transcript is below:

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Build a Better Agency where we show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invest in employees and best of all more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25 years plus of expertise as both an agency owner and agency consultant to you, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.  

Drew: Hey everybody Drew McLellan here. I’m really happy to be with you again for another episode of Build a Better Agency. And really what I’m hoping to talk about today is a topic that I hear agency owners talk about all of the time, the struggle with being strategic and innovative. And even more so, a lot of agency owners will tell me that they focus on innovation and strategy, but it’s very difficult to teach into their organization. As clients are demanding more and more of that kind of work, agencies are struggling with how to deliver that. So our guest today, my good friend, Gavin Heaton, is gonna talk to us about that, but just a reminder that the reason that this podcast is around is a way to extend the work that Agency Management Institute does with small to mid-sized agencies and agency owners, helping them to improve their businesses and, as a result, the life that their business affords them. That’s the goal with this. So just wanting to make you smarter and better and your agency stronger so that all of the reasons why you take the risks of the agencies get paid off in the rewards.  

So let’s dive into our conversation with Gavin. Let me tell you a little bit about Gavin. So Gavin is a marketing technologist, strategist and adviser. He is the founder of the Disruptor’s Handbook, which is a network of innovators and entrepreneurs that help businesses innovate, like startups. He calls it marketing led innovation and we’re gonna dig into that in a second. He’s also led new venture startups for organizations like PWC, developed digital strategy and execution for global brands on both the agency and the client side and spends some time as analysts in digital transformation for the award winning analyst and advisory firm, Constellation Research. In his limited spare time, he serves as president of a youth organization called Vibewire. Gavin is based in Sydney, Australia, and has extensive international experience in driving measurable outcomes via digital customer experience platforms, digital strategy and executing innovative content-driven campaigns. He’s got a background in enterprise technology innovation, digital strategy and customer engagement. And one of the things that Gavin really does is he connects the dots between disruptive technologies, enterprise governance and business leaders. So with that, Gavin, welcome to the podcast.

Gavin: Thanks Drew, I sound very impressive when you say it.

Drew: You really do. So in full disclosure, everyone should know that Gavin and I had been friends for many years and actually crowdsourced a series of books working with marketing professionals over the last decade and raised about $50,000 for nonprofits along the way. So we go way back. So this will be a fun conversation for me and to be able to share some of Gavin’s expertise with all of you. So let’s talk about sort of your background, Gavin. Give everybody a little more detail about sort of the scope and scale of your work because although your bio is impressive, it doesn’t even begin to even scratch the surface I think of some of the clients that you’ve worked with and the scale of projects that you’ve done.

Gavin: Thanks, Drew. So when I actually left the university where I studied theater, which was, you know, immensely valuable for working in technology, it really opened a lot of doors to the world of publishing for me because I had been working in theater and studied communications, the only thing I was really fit for was publishing. And then I realized really very quickly that digital and technology was going to be part of my future because publishing was already starting it’s down…its decline. And as a result, I jumped into whatever was available and people said to me, you know, “Can you do some online coding?” And I thought well I can learn that. I can try it. From there I ended up working with with IBM where I ran some writing teams, moved over to the online community platform system, which was way ahead of its time as it turns out. If we’d been working on that same system today, it might be still going. But it was just way ahead of its time and it was way ahead of the consumer markets that it was trying to reach, but it was a valuable experience for me to start to understand how people and technology come together.  

And then shifting from there, I went into innovation management where I was working with IBM again on integrating large-scale numbers of their workforce, aid[SP] to different project teams, highlighting, showcasing the great work that they were doing and bringing that to their clients. And then jumped over to agency side where I ran the happymeal.com site for McDonald’s for an agency that I worked for that stage. And we really just basically were flying by the seat of our pants trying to figure out what this digital engagement platform was going to be like and why it was important and why it was the way of the future. And at that stage, we didn’t really know, and this is…I guess where we first started to come into contact where we were experimenting with blogs and social media in it’s very early forms. And I could see that there was opportunity there, but I didn’t know what it would be like for a client to go through. And I started writing my blog to actually capture some of the things that I was thinking and engaging with and then maybe coming back later to explain it to my clients, you know, a year or two down the track. And finally got to the point where, you know, my client was quite happy to hear some of these new ideas, which were by then two or three years old. And when I went back to pitch them, I couldn’t find them on my website and I realized that I actually wasn’t being very clear in what it was that I was saying.  

So I had to resolve myself to the fact that I had to disclose more. To be more open and transparent about the information that I’m capturing and sort of looking into the future so that I can go back to it at a point in time when the market had caught up with us. And in doing so, it really reframed the way that I thought about digital technology, sharing connection value and innovation as well. And then when I started working with other organizations like SAP where I was running their digital engagement for the top 100 customers globally, it really made me think about the value exchange that happens not just between people, but between organizations. And that’s where, I guess, the opportunities for drama, for theater, for play, for engagement all starts to come together because people would tell you pretty clearly, you know, when you ask them, what value do you get from this and what’s going to be useful for you, rather than what’s useful for me, or for my for my brand or the business that I represent. And they say things like, “Introduce me to your customers and get out of the way.” And it’s pretty blunt and by working in that way, what we found relatively quickly, and by quickly that means say three or four months, that working on the problems that our customers had rather than the things we wanted to push to them meant that we were creating value for them in a network and that that value wasn’t instantly monetizable, but it was valuable to participants, to us and to the network itself. And the quicker we can get out of the way and make those connections and provide value and facilitate the flow of value across that network, the better it was for us overall.  

Drew: Well that’s exactly the kind of thing that agencies have been talking about over the last, you know, hopefully decade, but certainly the last five years, is how do we provide value first? I mean that’s, you know, and what you’re talking about is how do we actually care about what you want to know, or do, or learn and in caring about that and helping you think that through, we become a better partner and provide more value and therefore can charge a premium price for the work that we do because we’re actually delivering what you were struggling to solve.

Gavin: Exactly and part of that is…it’s almost like that servant side of things. I mean on my website, Servant of Chaos, comes out of that idea of serving the chaos behind our businesses and rather than trying to stop it and corral it and so on, by serving it, you’re actually allowing it to flow where it needs to go and then deliver value on top of that.  

Drew: Well and, you know, I think a lot of agencies really struggle with that whole idea of…especially as…for those of us who’ve been in the business for a long time, we got very used to selling stuff. And agencies were good at stuff. You were a good branding shop or you were good at creative or you’re good whatever. And now as you and I were talking about before I hit the record button, agencies are really struggling with that because a lot of that work has been really commoditized. And so a lot of agency owners who are listening to this podcast are trying to figure out how do I avoid becoming a commodity? And really I think the solution to that is around that whole idea of being a good strategist and innovator on behalf of the clients, which is why I knew, you know, you and I needed to talk.  

Gavin: Yeah, so it’s very interesting in framing it that way because it used to be that we knew the answer. So the reason you went with an agency was because they knew something you didn’t know. And increasingly, we all don’t know the answers.  So, you know, if you know the answers and you have the control over that answer or you know the path to that solution, then you can charge a premium for that and the clients will pay it willingly because it delivers value and it delivers certainty and it delivers that framework towards the outcome. But in a world where we know less and less about how the outcomes are achieved or where the directions may take us, the challenge for us is to shift to that value-based problem solving direction that brings into play multiple opportunities, not necessarily the one outcome that you’re looking for, but the multiple outcomes that deliver value.  

Drew: So true. You know, it’s funny I was talking…I was with an agency today and we were talking…some of the account service people and I were talking and they were asking, “How do you help a client be willing to take the risk with you that in essence you are experimenting with everything on the digital side of the agency platform of”… The reality is, we’re not sure what’s gonna work and it’s not a set at once and be done, but it’s tweaking and experimenting all along the way and getting smarter with each tweak and solving the problem as you go, but also acknowledging the solution for today may not work tomorrow. And so we have to keep tweaking and solving and I think that’s really challenging for agencies, is how do they talk about their expertise when, to your point, they don’t really have the answers anymore like we used to?

Gavin: But we’ve always been great creative problem solvers. And I think this is the thing that we often forget, is we’re not actually inventing anything new, we’re just having to be more transparent about the way that we work. And some of the way that we work is imaginary. Like, you know, you’re working with creative problems, you’re working through problems in a way that is solving it with a view or an eye towards the future. And if you don’t do those things, then you’re not a creative shop worth your salt anyway. But because everything is so, you know, open and connected these days, it’s not like we know the answer. We don’t know that we put, you know…unless we’re doing something very simple or commoditized, like, you know, say search where we’re working through a series of keywords, where we’re just driving a process. But where we’re asking our clients and our customers and so on to really move forward with a vision for a future, we need to imagine that future and then we need to take steps towards it to test whether that future is, you know, one that holds water or one that is…or goes to water. And that’s what we’re trying to find out. We’re doing these tests and learn all the time.  

Drew: So from an agency point of view, a frame up, if you will, what might helping to develop innovation and strategy look like in a client engagement. So either, you know, think back to sort of your agency days or I know you’re still engaged with a lot of agencies today, help us see how that might look from…in a conversation with a prospect or a clients that’s different today than how it would have been say a decade ago.  

Gavin: So the big shift around is the shift from ideas to problems.  And this is the one that I kind of find fascinating.  It’s a lesson that I’ve learnt from the world of start-ups. The start-ups that really succeed are the ones that grapple with a problem that is worth solving rather than pursuing an idea that is, you know, of interest.  Because it’s easy to come up with ideas and we know this from digital because it teaches us really, really simply. You can have a great idea and you can put a website up, but will anyone come to it if it’s not useful or valuable or remarkable? And so you need to actually have an essence to it.  And rather than sort of saying, “Okay, I’ve got five ideas for you that I’m going to pitch to you,” I’m actually putting the pressure back on my client now and I’m saying, you know, “We’ve got some really smart people in our organization and we can bring that smart to bear on whatever problem you’ve got. But you’ve gotta be honest about the problems you’ve got.  You can’t just rely on us to come up with an idea around something that we don’t know about. We want you to challenge us and we want you to do that by finding a problem worth solving.”

So one of the techniques we use around this is the five whys. It’s a really simple one and we just say, “Why is that important?” And then they say, “Well, because of such and such.” You go, “And why is that important?” And then I’ll say, “Well, because blah-blah-blah.” And by leading this five whys approach, it actually drills down to the reason that is driving the sleepless nights for your client. And now as soon as they tap into that, then you’ve got something that is worth solving. So you can say, “Well I can solve that problem for you if I can take five layers of worry away for your sleepless nights, then what value is that to you?” And they’re like, “That changes the game, that changes everything.” And that’s the role of the future strategist and the role of the future agency, is to do a lead and inquire into the problems that are stopping an organization from becoming its greatest self.  

Drew: So I love that. So in your bio, one of the things you talk about in terms of the Disruptor’s Handbook is that taking this marketing lead approach to innovation and applying start-up techniques to business problems, focusing on market product fit rather than product market fit.   And that’s what you’re talking about is, let’s identify a problem and solve it. And then we know that we have an audience for whatever that product or service is, right?  

Gavin: Absolutely because, I guess, you know, from a start-up point of view, you’ll see them all the time. I’ve got this great product it looks like this.  It’s an app.  It’s a website.  It’s a X. There’s not a lot of talk about, I have this audience that is hungry for this. And it’s a slight variation, but what it does is it transforms the way that you think about what it is that you do. And who is best at doing this? By a long shot, agencies’ creatives are the drivers this sort of creative economy. And understanding the way that, you know, an audience can be captured, can be inspired, can be driven to action, can create, you know, ongoing behaviors that transform a marketplace, is really, really essential. And rather than just building an app or a product, you know, product list or series of features, what you’re doing is you’re creating opportunities for that kind of digital engagement. So you’re building not just the product, you know, at once, you’re building a market that is ready for and hungry for that product when it’s ready for them.  

Drew: Yeah, I love it. So a lot of agency owners are probably listening to this and they’re thinking, you know, in a typical shop, a lot of times the agency owner who’s been around the block for a while, is a great innovative and strategic thinker.  They’re the ones that the agency goes to for strategy and all of that. But what I hear them say to me all the time is, “I want my account service people to be better strategists. I want them to think more strategically. I don’t wanna be the only one who comes up with sort of this level of thinking.” In your work, do you teach people how to be more innovative and be better strategic thinkers? Are there some methodologies or tricks of the trade that would help someone who’s maybe not as comfortable sort of in that space get more comfortable or get higher skilled at it?

Gavin: Oh absolutely and I think what we do is we also end up pigeonholing our teams in their roles. And the number of times I’ve spoken to someone who’s an account manager or a strategist and they’re saying, “Well I really like to be more creative,” or the creatives are saying, “You know, I’d like to have more strategic input.” I think we don’t tap deeply enough into those sort of internal skills or aspirations even. And we can do that through the frameworks. So for example on disruptorshandbook.com, we have a whole series of handbooks, they literally are handbooks where it takes you through step by step how to build a lean canvas. And the idea of a lean canvas from a start-up perspective is to put a business model on a page. And the reason I like this is that we normally think that a business model takes us 3 to 6 months, maybe 12 months to build and these take you 20 minutes to get a first draft, and you basically have to really drive this as a creative project. And so rather than sort of seeing it as a business modeling effort or it’s a financial…or a CFO style engagement, what you’re doing is you’re saying this taps into what you already know, what you feel and what you can do. So the head, heart and hands of every person in your agency can serve as an asset to any of these sort of problem solving techniques.  

And by tapping into the people that you know and what they have experience in and what they’re willing to do, what they’re willing to put their heart into, by providing these kinds of innovative frameworks, it really opens the door to where they can go. And we’ve done, you know, these massive brainstorming sessions that would normally just result in lots of ideas. And rather than using it as an ideas-driven framework, what we’re doing is we’re using a lean canvas or a Disruptor’s Canvas as we term it, as a way of creating a business out of the problem that has an idea as a solution. And that’s the kind of the difference. So I’m not just looking at ideas and I’m not just looking at problems. I’m looking at the business value that comes out of that. So a revenue model, a cost model, a channel strategy and so on that all fits together and you say in 1 page, in 20 minutes, I’ve come up with a business that can solve that problem. And then it’s up to the business owner to say, “That is something worth pursuing. Let’s do something with that,” because it took me 20 minutes. The opportunity cost of not doing something around this is immeasurable.  

Drew: Well you know, one of the things we do some primary research where we talked to CMOs every year and ask them really about some aspect of their relationship with agencies. And one of the things we heard in last year’s research was that CMOs really want their agencies to be able to have business conversations with them. They don’t wanna just talk about marketing, they really wanna talk about business. And what it sounds like is these handbooks that you’re talking about would guide an agency on how to have better business focus conversations because you talked about distribution channels and all kinds of other business topics that agencies sometimes are a little shy to delve into with clients.  

Gavin: Absolutely and it’s not that you need, you know, a CFO-level person on your team to really give you that revenue or that cost structure gravity.  You just need to be able to have a bit of a conversation around it. So you need to put some figures down.  And because we’ve been resistant to putting those figures down and saying this is how it all connects, then it means that you got a gap in your credibility when you’re talking to business owners or CMOs. And by framing it in that way by saying, “Okay, working through methodically from one side of the canvas to the other side, everything from what is the problem that I’m trying to solve?  What is the solution I’ve got?  What are my key metrics?  Who are my audiences?  What do they look like and smell like?  What are the key messages and unique value propositions I’m going out to lay?  What’s the unfair advantage I have in delivering this kind of solution and how am I going to reach them through those channels?  And then underlying that as the foundation, is it going to cost me too much to deliver the value that’s here and is there a revenue model that someone’s willing to pay for or we’re willing to fund?”

In one page, you’ve got an entire business that can be thrown up as a straw man and knocked down if it’s no good, but by starting with something that is at least covering the bases, then you can determine whether you’ve got a business proposition or not, really quickly. And as soon as your client can see that there’s a business proposition and some thinking around that, they can start to have a very different conversation. They’re not worrying about whether you’ve thought about these things, they can see that it’s right there and then they can start to pull threads up and see whether there’s a problem there. But then of course, we test and learn through market validation and that’s exactly where the role of the agency can come into play, you know.  It’s where you can start going down that path of research and focus groups and so on. But you need to have a strong man in place first, and this is the quickest way to do it.  

Drew: So, in a setting where an agency has been engaged by a client who already has a suite of products and they knew who their customer is, is there a way to modify this to look at, to identify the problem that the clients or the customers are having and then test to see do our products or services actually answer that? Or can we tweak existing products or services to better address those problems?

Gavin: Oh absolutely. So that’s the funny thing about this, is we tend to try and hide behind a process rather than actually engaging with the answers. And a great example of this is, you know, you might have a customer base and you think, “We need to tweak this product and we don’t know whether X feature set is the right way to go or Y feature set is the way to go.” And normally the approach is, “Well, let’s run a survey, let’s create a surveys or send up a microsite and we’ll send out some queries and we’ll see what we get from the database,” and off you go. Now that sounds fine and dandy, but it takes a while for that to all take place. But rather than doing that, what if you would actually go and either talk to these people. So find your best advocates, the people who are your harshest critics and bring them all together, whether you do it virtually or whether you do it online. And then you take the problems you’re trying to solve and you say, “Is this the problem that you have?” And we use the same thing with the lean canvas. So for example, rather than rushing ahead once we’ve got a one page business model, you don’t rush ahead and builds something, you go and validate that.

So you what we do is we look at each of those elements and there’s maybe eight or nine on a page, and you say, “Okay, we need to validate this with our stakeholders, with our customers, with our supply chain, with our partners.” And you’ve really got about five or six different representatives there that need to go into this. And you go out there and you put your ideas on the line and you say, “Is this the problem that is worth solving?” And you’re looking for three or four people to say, “Yes, that’s the problem.” And then you say, “Is this the solution?” And they say yes, no or indifferent and so on, and you keep going through that and you say, “You know, we think its gonna cost us about this to produce it. So therefore, is that going to be okay on the revenue side? You know, will you pay an extra 20% for this kind of service?” And they might say yes or they might say no. But they will tell you because you’re asking them directly and you are inviting them into that construction process. And that validation piece is so useful because what it tells you is whether you’ve got the market product fit or the product market fit. And sometimes we like to, you know, we can stack the questions in our own favor and not see the answer that is coming back to us because we’ve got a strong view of where it needs to go anyway, and it may miss. And what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to avoid the miss.  We’re trying to provide value from day one.  

Drew: So, you know, this is…in some ways this is the way agencies have always thought or at least some folks inside of agencies and in other ways it’s really a completely new way of sort of looking at a client engagement. From your perspective, you’ve worked on the agency side, you’ve been clients working with agencies before, why wouldn’t an agency sort of wrap their arm around this? What’s the fear factor?  What’s the risk of an agency sort of thinking in this “new way”?  

Gavin: Good question. I think what part of the challenge in this is that it is a transparent way of working. So when we knew…like I said, when we knew the answers, we could sort of use smoke and mirrors to say, “Look, this is up in the air.” And there is that old quote from Henry Ford which said, you know, “If I’d ask my customers what they wanted, I would have said a faster horse.” While yes there is some truth to that, sometimes what we need to do is we also need to challenge our clients. And so often we use other techniques like reverse pitching, for example. So rather than pitching a one page concept back to our client, we asked them to pitch the problems rather than us pitch the solutions.

And so rather than working on the outside, we actually work with the client side. So we go into the business and we consult with the business about innovation and strategy or whatever and we say, “Okay, give me your three top executives that are looking to solve these…you know, what keeps them awake at night?” And then they’ll all come up with five or six problems and you say, “Okay, out of those five or six problems, what is the top two that, you know, that if we could solve that it’s something that intractable, something that you’ve tried and failed and something that would give you a competitive advantage? And if you could do one of those or more of those things, give me that idea.” And I’ll come back with this, you know, really complicated… “Well we had this problem or process, it looks like this and blah-blah-blah,” off they go. By working with them on that key message so that they could get that down to say a 12 word pitch or a 30 second pitch, that they could then come back to your organization and say, “We’ve got five ideas here or five problems we wanna pitch you,” and they stand up in front of your agency and they say, “Here’s my problem and I want you to work on it.  Here’s my problem and I want you to work on it,” and so on.  

And they’re basically competing for the resources of your agency to work on their problem. Then what you’re actually doing is you’re actually being able to say, that’s something we can solve, that’s something we can attack and that one is outside of our range we can move that over to, you know, another partner or whatever it is. But it’s driving accountability for the things that you’re doing, and the things that you’re really good at around problem solving and creative thinking and strategy.  And you’re engaging the workforce owner or the problem owner in the organization for them to identify, articulate and ultimately to fund the solution that comes out of this. And by engaging in that process, you’re actually building a much longer and deeper kind of project and relationship that’s not just about selling more ads, t’s actually about delivering business value.  

Drew: Yeah what a crazy idea that clients would in essence be competing to get you to choose to take their money to solve their problem. I mean, that’s, you know, every agency owner’s, you know, dream probably.  That they would literally be sought after at that level, but I think you’re right, I think when we can solve business problems for our clients, we’re perceived at a whole different level.  We’re not a vendor anymore.  Now we really are a business partner, which is what every agency owner is seeking.  

Gavin: Yeah it’s interesting.  We did we did this work with Qantas, you know, the international airline a little while ago, and they’re a fairly large organization.  But every large organization from what I can see, seems to work in the same way and that is like a small organization. There’s lots of small organizations within the big organization and they all compete with each other for scarce resources and for the for the attention of the executive and so on. And all we’re trying to do with these folks is we’re trying to help them do a better job of what it is they do and what they’re measured against.

And so when we started talking to Qantas and we started asking them what are the top three problems that keep you awake at night, they were like, “Okay.”  Well, they gave us a lot of problems and then we started working with them to actually distill that down to prioritize those problems and to articulate them very, very clearly. And then they started sharing that internally and I said, “Okay, well I’m doing this and this is the problem I’m looking to solve.” And we’re going to solve this through a hackathon. So we brought in a bunch of external developers to try and solve these problems over a weekend. And so rather than looking at a, you know, three or six month project, we were looking at a project that culminated in a weekend, but took us three months worth of planning and articulation and business coaching within Qantas to get them to the stage where they’re ready to actually be able to articulate that back to external groups. By doing that, as soon as we started, you know, giving them the words and the frameworks to think about, they started sharing it internally with their… other colleagues. And then suddenly everyone else was saying, “Well, I’ve got a problem that looks like that and I can’t solve.” “I have an issue that, you know, is intractable.  How do I get a slice of this action?” And rather than having just, you know, three or four problems, we ended up having six or seven, and there was a lot more that was waiting or trying to get in on the program. And that’s, I guess, the ideal situation where you’re trying to say we can match enough problems and problem solvers with the challenges. The next challenge for us is how do we manage that interplay between the problems you need to solve that are your top priorities and your capacity to absorb the changes that we’re going to recommend that comes back from that.  

Drew: So all of this, for some folks who are listening, sounds so different from how they work today. So, how would you recommend that someone begin to shift their agency in this direction? You know, one of the things I wanna do with this podcast is I always want there to be some immediate action that people can take so that they can put into action what they’ve been hearing. So, if I’m a traditional agency owner and yes we do some digital stuff, but, you know, we’re still selling a lot of branding and ads and maybe some PR, and, you know, we might be doing SEO and, you know, social and some of those things, but we’re not really doing this sort of variation of thinking in terms of strategic thinking and innovation in terms of really honing in on the problem rather than helping a client sell their stuff. How would you recommend that an agency begin this evolution of moving in that direction?

Gavin: I think it’s a conversation that is perfect for agency owners to go and have with their best clients. So, first we need to work with the client that recognizes there’s a burning need there somewhere. So, if there’s someone that you trust that you’ve worked with some time and they’re at that point where they know there’s an intractable problem that they just can’t solve. And as soon as you start working with them you say, “So this intractable problem, does it have a dollar value attached to it? And sure enough, everyone knows the cost of the problem that is keeping them awake at night. And that’s one of the first things is to say, “Well, if you could solve that for”…say you think it cost you $50,000 a month, and you think that’s an ongoing cost that happens every single month, month in month out and it can’t be solved because existing processes or legacy systems or whatever it is. By then saying, “Okay, if we could attack that, what would that do? What would it change? And then they start to see the value and they say, “Okay, well it would change a lot of things. It would mean I could take three people off the call center.  It means I can move one of my guys over into this other role and give them a different opportunity and so on.  And it would save us, you know, X dollars in revenue or X dollars in cost and so on.

So they start to put a business conversation around that, and then you say, “Okay, if that’s what it’s costing you every single year, why don’t we play with 10% of that? What can we do with 10% of that cost that you’re already sinking into your business and let’s find a new way of doing it and let’s try this lean canvas approach and see what we can come up with. And sure enough, you’ll find there’s some value, it may not be the exact value and it may not be as large as you would like it to be at first round, but what it will do is it will give you a really rapid fire proof point that shows traction on a problem that has never been solved before.  

Drew: Yeah, interesting. So around this whole thing… So, I think a lot of agency owners are thinking, “Great, but I would have to lead that conversation.” And in a lot of agencies that’s true.  That they have not figured out yet how to foster that kind of sort of innovative thinking throughout their entire organization. Are there are some tips, tricks in terms of helping people learn how to think this way or how to ask the right questions? And I know you gave us the five whys. Are there some other things that owners can begin to bring into, say account service meetings and coach their people on how to sort of reframe the way they approach clients or problems around this methodology?

Gavin: Yeah, so one of the things is, you know, that idea of eating your own cake. And it’s something that we do very badly for almost every organization that I’ve ever worked with or for or in finds this very difficult to do, and that is take what you know and what you’re really good at and apply it to yourself. And it’s immensely difficult, I know. But one of the things that does seem to be quite a spectacular and easy win is to start spending a few hours a week with your team and say, “Okay, Friday afternoon from 4 p.m. we’re going to have drinks.  We’re going to have something to eat and I want to see one TED Talk that someone is inspired by and I wanna hear a presentation from someone in my team, one of the account directors or one of the strategists, what is the coolest thing you’ve seen this week? And then someone from the client side, what is the coolest thing you’ve done for a client this week? And I want you to do five minute presentation to the entire team on this.”  

And so you do that for about three months until you get a rhythm and a sense of belonging and people start to get a bit of a thrill out of the process. And then you start doing things like live tweeting your own presentations and then you start inviting your clients. You invite your trusted best clients in and say, “It’s something that we’ve been doing for the last few months, we’ve been trying it out and what we’re doing is we’re showcasing the best thinking from the agency on the strategy side, the best client we’ve got from the from the accounts service side and the most interesting inspiration from the the wider world and we’d like to invite you along just as a sit down participate and so on.” And what you’ll find is you do that enough, you start to blur the lines between what’s inside your organization, what’s outside your organization.  And you’re building trust with your clients in terms of them seeing the inside workings of how you create value for clients and why that’s important that you go through a creative process and how it all fits together and how you’re doing this knowledge sharing, which again, cross-fertilizes the rest of the team and then amplifies back out into the client base. It’s something that we did at PWC.  It’s stuff I’ve done on the agency side when I was at Creator many years ago.  And it’s an immensely valuable way of getting fresh feedback, but also fresh inspiration to drive that sort of forward as a customer program as well.  

Drew: Yeah, that would be awesome. I would think employees would love that.  Owners would love the fresh thinking that comes out of that and you’re right, clients would love the sneak peek.

Gavin: Absolutely. And you can just see the look on their faces when they see the quality of thinking and the passion that comes from your team because it’s always there. It’s not something that we showcase enough and it’s unguarded because it’s largely, you know, your internal teams plus one client or two clients. So, it’s still really skewed towards being an internal focus, but it just gives them an inside view of the workings and the effort you go to to build creative solutions for your clients. And it’s amazing to see the value it creates very quickly.  

Drew: Well and I think one of the things a lot of agencies are struggling with or are frustrated with is that their clients sort of see them…kind of pigeonhole them.  “Oh, you’re my newsletter agency,” or “you’re my branding agency,” but they don’t really understand the depth and breadth of what the agency brings.  And even though they put it in their e-newsletter or they throw it on their Facebook page or whatever. And so from an agency’s perspective, they’re like, “Oh, we talk about it all the time but nobody knows.” This would be a great way without sort of pounding on your own chest, but this would be a great way for clients to be exposed to the depth and breadth of the agency’s work and thinking.

Gavin: Oh absolutely. And we kind of frame it as mini TED Talks for the agency. It’s a great way of looking at it because you say, “Well, we’ve got one external, we’ve got one internal, we’ve got one client focused.” And sometimes you can even get a client come in and say, “Hey, this is stuff that we’ve been working on,”.  And that soon become…as you can see, it eventually becomes its own sort of conference-y event type series that you run from your agency for all your clients. And again, the clients love talking to each other, seeing how…what can apply, one industry can apply at another and again, you’re just building a much stronger, more vibrant network within your organization and beyond it.

Drew: Awesome. So how vital do you think this is for agencies? I mean, you know, we’ve been talking about sort of this new innovation and strategy model and the commoditization of some of the stuff that agencies make and, you know, it’s easy to go get a logo online or do a lot of the…unfortunately, do a lot of the things that agencies love to do. It’s easy to get it done yourself or hire somebody for, you know, on Fiverr to do it. And so you how critical…you know, if I’m a 40-year-old agency owner and I wanna be doing this for another 20 years, in your estimation, given your experience, how vital is this that agencies wrap their head around this?

Gavin: It’s going to always be vital forever. I think the challenge is that change is coming for us whether we’re ready for it or not. And rather than having to grapple with it on its own terms, we need to grapple with it within our own frameworks. So we need to find ways of dealing with what is coming down the path for us.  Whether we’re on the industry side, whether we’re on the client side, whether we are the government, wherever we happen to be in this world, we need to be able to deal with this. And the best way to deal with it is to bite off small chunks.  

So finding ways to do this means that you’re actually focusing on your customers, not necessarily on yourself, and in doing so, you’re finding the solutions to their problems, which makes you invaluable. You know, the number of people who say, you know, “I keep getting ideas, but the ideas don’t have traction.  They don’t fit with our strategy.” You know, we worked with a retailer awhile ago and they asked their employees what did they want?  What would be really good for them?  And the employees came back and said, “Give us a 5% discount.” And that’s a great idea from the employees’ point of view, but the the retailer said, “Look, we’re never going to do that. That’s not part of our strategy. It’ll never happen.”  But what it produced was a massive morale problem, because you go back to them and say, “Well”…back to your employees again and say, you know, “What ideas do you have for us to improve, you know, the way you work here? And they say, “Well, we gave you our best ideas and you did nothing about it.” So, you know, giving people the option to give them the best ideas doesn’t help if it’s not…if the problems aren’t aligned and there’s no ideas that are focused around the problems that need to be solved for your business.  

Drew: Amen. Amen, that is for sure. So any parting thoughts, anything that you want to make sure that you share with our audience before we wrap up?

Gavin: Yeah, one of the things that I’m really looking at, at the moment, is this idea that every marketing team needs to be starting to think like a start-up.  That, you know, rather than thinking that we need to find start-ups, we need to become start-ups.  We need to start thinking like start-ups with the experience, the expertise that we have as marketers. But we need to take that as a foundation rather than as a differentiator.  And then we need to apply that into this new way of looking at, testing and learning at understanding the business value behind the strategies we’re trying to put forward and really grappling with the business problems.  Because we can be really data-driven.  We can be really strategic in our nature, but what we also need to bring is that creative element.  And it’s something that is largely lacking in every consulting company that you’re going to be dealing with. You know, you see places like Deloitte Digital really cleaning up in the agency space.  And they do that because they deliver the business value, but are they delivering the creative side? Are they delivering the kind of artistic, emotional responses that you really wanna be getting out of your digital strategies and your online work? Probably not. And this is the opportunities that agencies really do have. This is the heartland and we keep giving up our…we keep focusing on data and, you know, analytics and those sort of things and they are important.  But we need to really pump the creative side and the artistic side and the emotional impact that we can create to create the kind of behavioral change we need to see in our customers and in our businesses themselves. And that’s the advantage we have. So thinking about those things, bringing them all together, I think that’s a huge opportunity for agencies.  

Drew: Yeah, I think so too. Awesome, thank you. So if my audience wants to reach out to you, if they wanna read your blog, if they wanna read more about your new work on developing innovation and strategy, how can they do that? How can they get to the handbooks? How can they find you and contact you?  

Gavin: Super easy.  So @servantofchaos on Twitter, servantofchaos.com for my marketing blog and disruptorshandbook.com for the handbooks and the innovation and strategy work.  

Dew: Okay, as I knew it would be, this has been an awesome episode, thank you so much for sharing your expertise and your point of view. As always, I am grateful for your friendship and your time. So thank you so much.  

Gavin: Thanks for having me.  

Drew: You bet. Talk to you soon.

That’s all for this episode of Build a Better Agency. Be sure to visit agencymanagementinstitute.com to learn more about our workshops and other ways we serve small to mid-sized agencies. While you’re there, sign up for our the e-newsletter, grab our free eBook and check out the blog. Growing a bigger, better agency that makes more money, attracts bigger clients and doesn’t consume your life is possible here on Build a Better Agency.