Episode 21:

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.

 

 

What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • Gavin’s long road that ultimately led him to become a marketer
  • Creating value for customers by working on their problems
  • The evolving role of agencies
  • Why you have to be transparent about what it is that you do
  • How to get your employees to become better strategic thinkers
  • A “lean canvas” and creating a business out of the problem that has an idea as a solution
  • How to have better business conversations
  • Improving your business by bringing together your best advocates and harshest critics
  • Getting past the fear that comes with working transparently
  • What agencies can do today to become better at honing in on their clients’ problems
  • Tips for fostering innovative thinking throughout your entire organization
  • Why you need to start thinking like a startup

 

The Golden Nugget:

“Lead and inquire into the problems that are stopping an organization.” – @servantofchaos Click To Tweet

Click to tweet: Gavin Heaton shares the inside knowledge needed to run an agency on Build a Better Agency!

 

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Speaker 1:

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, invested employees, and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25 plus years of expertise as both an agency owner and agency consultant to you, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey, everybody. Drew McLellan here, and really happy to be with you again for another episode of Build a Better Agency. 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 are strategic and innovative, 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.

Our guest today, my good friend, Gavin Heaton, is going to 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 improve their businesses, and as a result, the life that their business affords them. That’s the goal with this. 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.

Let’s dive into our conversation with Gavin. Let me tell you a little bit about Gavin. Gavin is a market technologist, strategist, and advisor. 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 going to 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 client side, and spent some time as an analyst in digital transformation for 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. One of the things that Gavin really does is he connects the dots between disruptive technologies, enterprise governance, and business leaders. With that, Gavin, welcome to the podcast.

Gavin Heaton:

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

Drew McLellan:

You really do. In full disclosure, everyone should know that Gavin and I have 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. 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 really begin to even scratch the surface, I think, of some of the kinds of clients that you’ve worked with and the scale of projects that you’ve done.

Gavin Heaton:

Thanks,. Drew. When I actually left university, where I studied theater, which was 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. Then I realized really very quickly that digital and technology was going to be part of my future because publishing was already starting its decline.

As a result, I jumped into whatever was available and people said to me, “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 IBM where I ran some writing teams, moved over to their 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 workforces into different project teams, highlighting, showcasing the great work that they were doing and bringing that to their clients. Then jumped over to client side into agency side, where I ran the happymeal.com site for McDonald’s for an agency that I worked for at that stage.

We really just basically were flying by 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. 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 its very early forms. I could see that there was opportunity there, but I didn’t know what it would be like for a client to go through. I started writing my blog to actually capture some of the things that I was thinking and engaging with.

Then maybe coming back later to explain it to my clients a year or two down the track. And finally got to the point where my client was quite happy to hear some of these new ideas, which were, by then, two or three years old. 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 could come back to it at a point in time when the market had caught up with us.

In doing so, it actually started to … 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 their top 100 customers globally, it really made me think about the value exchange that happens, not just between people, but between organization. That’s where I guess the opportunities for drama, for theater, for play, for engagement …

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Gavin Heaton:

All starts to come together because people would tell you pretty clearly, 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 brand or the business that I represent. And they say things like, “Introduce me to your customers and get out of the way.” It’s pretty blunt. By working in that way, what we found relatively quickly, and by quickly, I mean, 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.

That that value wasn’t instantly monetizable, but it was valuable to participants, to us, and to the network itself. The quicker we could 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 McLellan:

Well, that’s exactly the kind of thing that agencies have been talking about over the last, hopefully decade, but certainly the last five years is, how do we provide value first? I mean, that’s … And what 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 are struggling to solve.

Gavin Heaton:

Exactly. Part of that is … It’s almost like that servant side of things, so 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 coral 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 McLellan:

Well, and 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, you were good, whatever. 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. So, a lot of agency owners who are listening to this podcast are trying to figure out, how do I avoid becoming a commodity? 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 and I needed to talk.

Gavin Heaton:

Yeah. It’s very interesting in framing it that way, because it used to be that we knew the answers. The reason that you went with an agency was because they knew something you didn’t know. Increasingly, we all don’t know the answers. 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 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 McLellan:

So true. 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 going to work, and it’s not a set it once and be done, but it’s a 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.

So, we have to keep tweaking and solving. 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 Heaton:

But we’ve always been great creative problem solvers, and I think this is the thing that we often forget, is we are not actually inventing anything new. We’re just having to be more transparent about the way that we work. Some of the way that we work is imaginary, like 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 open and connected these days, it’s not like we know the answer. We don’t know that we put …

Unless we’re doing something very simple or commoditized, like 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 one that holds water or one that is complete, or goes to water. That’s what we’re trying to find out. We’re doing these tests and learns all the time.

Drew McLellan:

From an agency point of view, frame up, if you will, what that might look like in a client engagement. Either 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 client that’s different today than how it would’ve been, say a decade ago.

Gavin Heaton:

The big shift around is the shift from ideas to problems. This is the one that I kind of find fascinating, and it’s a lesson that I’ve learned from the world of startups. The startups that really succeed are the ones that grapple with a problem that is worth solving rather than pursuing an idea that is 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?

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, “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 got to 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 don’t know about. We want you to challenge us, and we want you to do that by finding a problem we’re solving.”

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.” And they go, “And why is that important?” And then I’ll say, “Oh, because blah, blah, blah, blah.” By leading this five whys approach, it actually drills down to the reason that is driving the sleepless nights for your client. As soon as they tap into that, then you’ve got something that is worth solving, except you say, “Well, I can solve that problem for you. If I can take five layers of worry away from your sleepless nights, then what value is that to you?”

And they’re like, “That changes the game. That changes everything.” That’s the role of the future strategist and the role of the future agency, is to lead and inquire into problems that are stopping an organization from becoming its greatest self.

Drew McLellan:

I love that. In your bio, one of the things you talk about in terms of the Disruptor’s handbook is, that it’s taking this marketing-led approach to innovation and applying startup techniques to business problems, focusing on market product rather than product market fit. 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 Heaton:

Absolutely. Because I guess, from a startup 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 an X. There’s not a lot of talk about, I have this audience that is hungry for this, right? 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 of this sort of creative economy. Understanding the way that an audience can be captured, can be inspired, can be driven to action can create ongoing behaviors that transform a marketplace is really, really essential.

Rather than just building an app or a product list, or a 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 at once, you’re building a market that is ready for and hungry for that product when it’s ready for then.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, I love it. A lot of agency owners are probably listening to this and they’re thinking, in a typical shop, a lot of times, the agency owner who’s been around the block for a while is a great innovative 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 want to 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 Heaton:

Absolutely. I think what we do is we also end up pigeonholing our teams in their roles. The number of times I’ve spoken to someone who’s an account manager or a strategist, and they’re saying, “Well, I’d really like to be more creative.” Or the creatives that say, “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. We can do that through the frameworks. For example, on disruptorshandbook.com, we have a whole series of handbooks, literally are handbooks, where it takes you through step by step how to build a lean canvas.

The idea of a lean canvas from a startup perspective is to put a business model on a page. The reason I like this is that we normally think that a business model takes us three to six months, maybe 12 months to build. These take you 20 minutes to get a first draft. You basically have to really drive this as a creative project. 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. 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 kind of frameworks, it really opens the door to where they can go. And we’ve done these massive brainstorming sessions that would normally just result in lots of ideas. 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.

That’s the kind of difference. 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 one page, in 20 minutes, I’ve come up with a business that could solve that problem. 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 McLellan:

Well, 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. 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 want to just talk about marketing. They really want to talk about business. What it sounds like is these handbooks that you’re talking about would guide an agency on how to have better business focused 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 Heaton:

Well, absolutely. It’s not that you need 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. Because we’ve been resistant to putting those figures down and saying, “This is how it all connects,” then it means that you’ve got a gap in your credibility when you’re talking to business owners or CMOs. By framing it in that way, by saying, okay, working through it methodically from one side of the canvas to the other, so 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 up to there? 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 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. As soon as your client can see that there’s a business proposition, there’s 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 out and see whether there’s a problem there. But then of course, we test and learn through market validation. That’s exactly where the role of the agency can come into play, where you can start going down that path of research and focus groups, and so on, but you need to have a straw man in place first. This is the quickest way to do it.

Drew McLellan:

In a setting where an agency has been engaged by a client who already has a suite of products and they know 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 Heaton:

Absolutely. That’s the funny thing about this is we tend to try and hide behind a process rather than actually engaging with the answers. A great example of this is 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.” 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?” We use the same thing with the lean canvas. For example, rather than rushing ahead, once we’ve got a one page business model, you don’t rush ahead and build something. You go and validate that.

What we do is we look at each of those elements, and there’s maybe eight or nine elements 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.” You’ve really got about five or six different representatives there that need to go into this. 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 are looking for three or four people to say, “Yes, that’s the problem.”

Then you say, “Is this the solution?” And they say yes, no, or indifferent, and so on. You keep going through that and you say, “We think it’s going to cost us about this to produce it. Therefore, is that going to be okay on the revenue side? Will you pay an extra 20% for this kind of service?” And they might say yes, or they might say no. They will tell you because you are asking them directly and you’re inviting them into that construction process. That validation piece is so useful, because what it tells you is, whether you’ve got the good product fit or the product market fit.

Sometimes 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. What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to avoid the miss. We’re trying to provide value from day one.

Drew McLellan:

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 Heaton:

Good question. I think part of the challenge in this is that it is a transparent way of working. When we knew the, 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.” There is that old quote from Henry Ford, which said, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would’ve said a faster horse.”

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Gavin Heaton:

While there is, wow, yes, there is some truth to that, sometimes what we need to do is we also need to challenge our clients. Often we use other techniques like reverse pitching, for example. Rather than pitching a one page concept back to our client, we ask them to pitch problems rather than us pitch the solutions. So, rather than working on our side, we actually work with the client side. So, we go into the business and we consult with the business, and we say, “Okay, give me your three top executives that are looking to solve these … What keeps them awake at night?”

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 if we could solve, that it’s something that’s intractable, something that you’ve tried and failed, and something that would give you a competitive advantage?” And you could do though, one of those or more of those things. Give me that idea. And they’ll come back with this really complicated, “Well, we had this problem or a process, it looks like this, and blah, blah, blah.” And off they go.

By working with them on that key message so that they can get that down to say a 12 word pitch or a 32nd pitch, that they could then come back to your organization and say, “We’ve got five ideas here, or five problems that we want to 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. I want you to work on it,” and so on. They’re basically competing for the resources of your agency to work on their problem.

Then what you are 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, and we can move that over to another partner,” or whatever is. But it’s also, it’s driving accountability for the things that you are doing and the things that you’re really good at around problem solving and creative thinking, and strategy, and you are en 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.

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, it’s actually about delivering business value.

Drew McLellan:

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 every agency owner’s 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 Heaton:

Yeah. It’s interesting. We did this work with Qantas, 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 attention of the executive, and so on. All we’re trying to do with these folks is we’re trying to help them do a better job of what it is that they do and what they’re measured against.

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, “Oh, okay.” Well, they gave us a lot of problems. Then we started working with them to actually distill that down, to prioritize those problems and to articulate them very, very clearly. Then they started sharing that internally. I said, “Okay, well, I’m doing this, and this is the problem that I’m looking to solve, and we’re going to solve this through a hackathon. So, where we brought in a bunch of external developers to try and solve these problems over a weekend.

Rather than looking at a 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 were ready to actually be able to articulate that back to external groups. But by doing that, as soon as we started giving them the words and the frameworks to think about, they started sharing it internally with other colleagues. 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 is intractable. How do I get a slice of this action?”

Rather than having just three or four problems, we ended up having six or seven. There was a lot more that was waiting or trying to get in on the program. 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 to 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 McLellan:

All of this, for some folks who are listening, sounds so different from how they work today. How would you recommend that someone begin to shift their agency in this direction? One of the things I want to 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. If I’m a traditional agency owner, and yes, we do some digital stuff, but we’re still selling a lot of branding and ads, and maybe some PR. We might be doing SEO and 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 Heaton:

I think it’s a conversation that is perfect for agency owners to go and have with their best clients. First of all, you need to work with a client that recognizes there’s a burning need there somewhere. If there’s someone that you trust, that you’ve worked with for some time, and they’re, at that point, where they know there’s an intractable problem that they just can’t solve. As soon as you start working with them, and 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.

That’s one of the first things is to say, “Well, if you could solve that for …” Say you think it costs $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? Then they start to see the value, and they say, “Okay, well, it would change a lot of things. It would mean I can 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 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’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 are 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.” 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 first round, but what it will do is it will give you a really rapid fireproof point that shows traction on a problem that has never been solved before.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Interesting. 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 some tips, tricks in terms of helping people learn how to think this way or how to ask the right questions? 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 reframe the way they approach clients or problems around this methodology?

Gavin Heaton:

Yeah. One of the things is that idea of eating your own cake. 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. 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 4:00 PM, 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 want to 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 you’ve done for a client this week? And I want you to do five minute presentation to the entire team on this.” 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. Then you start doing things like live tweeting your own presentations. Then you start inviting in 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.”

“What we’re doing is we’re showcasing the best thinking from the agency on the strategy side, the best client win that we’ve got from the account service side, and the most interesting inspiration from the wider world, and we’d like you to invite you along, just as a sit down, participate, and so on.” What you’ll find is, you do that enough, you start to blur the lines between what’s inside your organization and 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 a creator many years ago. And it’s immensely a valuable way of getting fresh feedback, but also fresh inspiration to drive that sort of forward as a customer program as well.

Drew McLellan:

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 Heaton:

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 your internal teams plus one client or two clients. 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. It’s amazing to see the value it creates very quickly.

Drew McLellan:

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 e-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. 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 Heaton:

Oh, absolutely. We kind of frame it as yeah, 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. Sometimes you can even get a client to come in and say, hey, this is stuff that we’ve been working on. That soon become, as you can see, eventually it becomes its own sort of competency event type series that you run from your agency for all your clients. Again, clients love talking to each other, seeing how, what can apply in one industry can apply in another. Again, you’re just building a much stronger, more vibrant network within your organization and beyond it.

Drew McLellan:

Awesome. How vital do you think this is for agencies? I mean, we’ve been talking about sort of this new model and the commoditization of some of the stuff that agencies make. 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 on Fiverr to do it. How critical know, if I’m a 40-year-old agency owner and I want to 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 Heaton:

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. Rather than having to grapple with it on its on terms, we need to grapple with it within our own framework. 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. The best way to deal with it is to bite off small chunks.

Finding ways to do this means that you’re actually focusing on your customers, not necessarily on yourself. In doing so, you’re finding the solutions to their problems, which makes you invaluable. The number of people who say, “I keep getting ideas, but the ideas don’t have traction. They don’t fit with our strategy.” We worked with a retailer a while ago, and they asked employees, what did they want? What would be really good for them? And the employees came back and said, “Give us a 5% discount.” That’s a great idea from the employee’s point of view, but the retailer said, “Look, we are 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 can go back to them and say, “Well,” back to your employees again, and say, “What ideas do you have for us to improve the way you work here?” And they say, “Well, we gave you our best ideas and you did nothing about it.” Giving people the option to give them the best ideas doesn’t help 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 McLellan:

Amen. Amen. That is for sure. Any parting thoughts, anything that you want to make sure that you share with our audience before we wrap up?

Gavin Heaton:

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 startup. That rather than thinking that we need to find startups, we need to become startups. We need to start thinking like startups with the experience, the expertise that we have as marketers, but we need to take that as a foundation rather than as a differentiator. Then we need to apply that into this new way of looking at testing and learning and 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 see places like Deloitte Digital really cleaning up in the agency space. 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 want to be getting out of your digital strategies and your online work? Probably not.

This is the opportunities that agencies really do have. This is the heartland, and we keep giving it up. We keep focusing on data and analytics and those sorts 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 our businesses themselves. 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 McLellan:

Yeah, I think so, too. Awesome. Thank you. If my audience wants to reach out to you, if they want to read your blog, if they want to read more about your new work, how can they do that? How can they get to the handbooks? How can they find you and contact you?

Gavin Heaton:

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

Drew McLellan:

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’m grateful for your friendship and your time, so thank you so much.

Gavin Heaton:

Thanks for having me.

Drew McLellan:

You bet. Talk to you soon.

Speaker 1:

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-size agencies. While you’re there, sign up our 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.