Episode 21

podcast photo thumbnail



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!


Subscribe to Build A Better Agency!

Itunes Logo Stitcher button

Ways to Contact Gavin Heaton:

We’re proud to announce that Hubspot is now the presenting sponsor of the Build A Better Agency podcast! Many thanks to them for their support!

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:


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?