Episode 213:

With so many people that have yet to join us on the show, I very rarely ask someone to come back on. But Tamsen Webster is an exception. You may remember episode 61, where Tamsen joined us to talk about speaking at conferences and tradeshows as a biz dev strategy. This time, we are going to take a different tack because Tamsen has been pretty busy since we last spoke.

Every day, I talk to agency owners who struggle to see what differentiates them from their competitors. They fail to recognize their unique reflection in the mirror. Tamsen has developed a methodology for identifying what sets you apart, which is one of many things that we cover in this episode of Build a Better Agency.

A big thank you to our podcast’s presenting sponsor, White Label IQ. They’re an amazing resource for agencies who want to outsource their design, dev or PPC work at wholesale prices. Check out their special offer (10 free hours!) for podcast listeners here: https://www.whitelabeliq.com/ami/

What You Will Learn in this Episode:

  • Why it is difficult for agency owners to recognize what makes them unique
  • Tamsen’s methodology for identifying what sets your agency apart
  • How to use Tamsen’s process internally and with clients
  • How Tamsen designed her system and why it works

The Golden Nuggets:

“The end product is only ever as good as the original idea.” @tamadear Click To Tweet “An idea is an answer to a question. And The Red Thread is the connection between those two.” @tamadear Click To Tweet “In a lot of ways, the best agencies simplify what is complicated.” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet “Most agency owners don’t start an agency with the intention to be like everybody else.” @tamadear Click To Tweet “When agency owners look in the mirror, it is difficult for them to see themselves clearly, and to understand what differentiates them from everyone else.” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet

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Ways to Contact Tamsen Webster:

Speaker 1:

Welcome to the Agency Management Institute community, where you’ll learn how to grow and scale your business, attract and retain the best talent, make more money and keep more of what you make. The Build a Better Agency Podcast presented by White Label IQ is packed with insights on how small to mid-size agencies survive and thrive in today’s market. Bringing his 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey, everybody. Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build a Better Agency. Welcome back if you are a regular. Thank you so much for being that and for listening on a consistent basis. If you are new to the show, welcome, I hope that we exceed every expectation you have, and I am wide open to your feedback. So feel free to shoot me an email if there’s something that you would like to see differently on the show or a topic that you think that we should cover. We’re on episode about, I don’t know, 210 or so at this point. It seems like we have covered a lot of ground and yet there’s so much more, so many other smart people that I want to interview and have on the show. It feels like we’ve just scratched the surface. If you have ideas for topics, I’m always open to them.

One of the things that if you are a regular listener you know is that I don’t have a lot of folks back on the show. We don’t have a lot of repeat guests, again, because there are so many people. It’s not that our guests aren’t awesome, because they are, but there’s so many other people that I want to get on the show and I want to pick their brain that I very rarely ask somebody to come on back. But Tamsen Webster is an exception to that rule. You may have remembered talking to her, listening to me talk to her on episode 61, which seems like it was eons ago. Back then, we talked a lot about how to use your speaking at conferences or trade shows to develop biz dev. We’re going to take a different tact this time a little bit because Tamsen has done some interesting new things since we last chatted, and I want to get into that with her.

Kelsey and I… sorry for those of you don’t know, that’s my daughter, Kelsey and I have spent some time in Asia this summer and one of the places we visited was Thailand. We spent several days on site at elephant rescue or refuge. These elephants were in logging camps and on the streets being treated badly and they have been rescued and now they’ll spend the rest of their life at this camp. We were there to learn about them and hang out with them and feed them and just absorb their sweetness because they’re amazing. But one of the things the handler taught us was that elephants are one of eight species on the planet who can look in a mirror and actually realize they’re looking at themselves.

Unlike a dog who, if you have a dog, you know that they see their reflection in the mirror and they go crazy barking at it because they think it’s another dog, but elephants actually can look in the mirror and recognize that it’s them. If you have any interest in this, Google it, how they determined that the elephants could do this. It was really fascinating. But as you might imagine, or perhaps you’re self-aware enough to know that humans are another of the species that can do that. But I think there is an exception to the rule, and that exception is, every day I have a conversation with an agency on or about how they struggle to differentiate themselves from other agencies. When they look in that particular mirror, it is very difficult for them to see themselves clearly and to recognize how they are unique from everybody else in that same mirror.

That’s one of the things, one of the many things I want to talk to Tamsen about, and we’re going to get to that in a minute. But before I turn the mic to her and start asking her questions, just a couple reminders. Number one, the Build a Better Agency summit is happening May 19th and 20th, 2020. We are selling tickets right now. Tamsen actually is going to be one of the speakers at the conference. If you like what you heard today and you want to get more of her smarts, which I suspect you will, or you’d like to meet her in person, the conference would be a great place to do that. You can go to the Agency Management Institute website, click on the upper nav, where it says a B-A-B-A summit for the Build Better Agency summit. You can read about the speakers and you can register and see where we’re going to hold the event in Chicago and all of that.

Remember, not only is it going to be a ton of hanging out with other agency owners and leaders, so a lot of networking, a lot of sharing amongst the attendees, some amazing presenters like Tamsen, but we’re also going to throw darts and drink at the same time. I don’t know how you can ask for more than that. I would love to see you there.

Another reminder, we’ve got some great workshops coming up this fall, head over to the Agency Management Institute website to read more about that. Last but not least, remember, we give away stuff all the time. Make sure you’re on our podcast giveaway list. That’s agencymanagementinstitute.com/podcastgiveaway. All we need is your name and email address, and you could win some fabulous prizes, books and courses and all kinds of other things. As you know, we reward folks who leave us a review on Stitcher or iTunes. All I need is a screenshot of your review, and then you will go in the drawing for the monthly giveaway of one of the AMI workshops, either on demand or the live. Okay, that’s the housekeeping stuff I needed to get done.

I want to talk about Tamsen a little bit. Let me tell you a little bit about her. She is known as an idea whisperer. I love that. She helps people find, build and tell the story of their ideas. One of the things I think Tamsen is brilliant at is asking these amazing questions that help you find the germ of an idea and then build on that germ until it’s a full-fledged idea with all kinds of arms and legs coming off of it. She’s combined 20 years in brand and message strategy with four years as a TEDx executive producer and all of that effort… and she’s worked in agencies and all kinds of other places, but all of that has culminated in her creating what she calls the red thread, and I’m going to ask her to tell you a little more about that, but basically it’s a simple, not easy, but simple way to change how people see and what they do as a result.

When you think about what we do for a living and what we do on behalf of our clients, this is critical stuff for us to know and master. Today, she is traveling the globe speaking and she is working with companies and agencies. She’s teaching workshops, she’s doing all kinds of stuff to give people access to this methodology that she’s developed, this red thread, and helping them put it to work inside their organizations. That’s what we’re going to dig into, and I am ready if you are. Tamsen, welcome back to the podcast. So glad to have you back.

Tamsen Webster:

I am so excited to be back, Drew. Thanks for having me.

Drew McLellan:

Of course. When we talked last time, when you were on the show several years ago now, at that point, we were really focused on using speaking as a biz dev tool. You were really talking about all of your experiences with TEDx and all of that. But since then, you’ve shifted your focus, and in the interim time, we’ve done a lot of work together where I’ve brought you in to talk to agency owners about this new path that you’re taking, which is not really… it’s not new to you. It’s just people may not know that this is the evolution of you’ve taken.

Tamsen Webster:

Well, it was the secret destination all along. Now I’ve just made it unsecret.

Drew McLellan:

Tell everyone the secret.

Tamsen Webster:

Well, there’s so many secrets, but-

Drew McLellan:

We only have an hour, so pick your secrets carefully.

Tamsen Webster:

I would say my unsecret agenda is that I believe that we… and particularly agencies are in the business of generating ideas and I specifically am in the business of making those ideas stronger. In fact, how I see it is that I work with organizations to make their ideas strong enough to build whatever they need to build on them, strong enough to support that. For organizations, whether that’s a proposal or a pitch or a new strategy or an initiative, their platform, that’s where I’m working. With individuals, a lot of times it’s things like their thought leadership and books and keynote talks and things like that. But ultimately, what it’s really all about… the end product, and agencies know this well, the end product is only ever as good as the original idea. I’ve always loved the idea piece. The speaking piece was a gateway into that originally in an area where people knew me. That’s where I am.

Drew McLellan:

You’ve developed a methodology. It feels more than a methodology. It’s more of a philosophy around ideas that you have branded red thread. Can you help the listeners understand what that is, because we’re going to keep going back to it throughout our conversation. Let’s give them a good foundation of what it’s all about.

Tamsen Webster:

The red thread is probably maybe both familiar and not to your listeners, and familiar in the sense of the red thread is a concept that is somewhat familiar, particularly to people of Scandinavian or Northern European roots, because there they use the red thread to talk about the line of something. The thing that makes it make sense, its theme, if you’re thinking in storytelling. I would see this come up again and again when people are talking about ideas and messages and stories, they would say, “Well, what’s the through line, what’s the red thread?” What was really frustrating to me is that nobody told you how to find it. I said, “Well, that’s the thing.” I love to create processes and frameworks. I said it as my mission to go figure out how to find the red thread of something, how to find this idea, this core connection between a question and an answer, because ultimately that’s what an idea is.

Idea is an answer. It’s an answer to a question. The red thread is the connection between those two. When it comes to kind of philosophically, it is in fact a philosophy because we all do this. 95% of decision-making is unconscious. The way that we’re making those decisions is we’re figuring out whether or not we can make it make sense, whether or not we can see this through line in it. My philosophy really is the extent to which we can find and strengthen this through line of our ideas, the better off everything we produce from them will be, and whether that’s a message or a product or some other piece of thought leadership.

Drew McLellan:

Given that agencies are in the business of ideation, and as I think about the history of owning an agency and or being in the agency side of the world, which is my entire background, and agencies used to give away all their ideas for free because they made all their money on media commissions, when you go back to the Mad Men days. Over time as everything we’ve done or the stuff we make has been commoditized, the one thing that has not been commoditized, that you cannot mass produce, that a guy on Fiverr can’t do, that artificial intelligence can’t do is this idea of ideation, of creating something and putting together pieces, and then telling that story. It feels to me… and one of the reasons why when you and I were talking, I was like, “Oh, I’ve got to get you back on the podcast,” this becomes such a critical skill for agency folks in every part of the business.

It’s not just the agency owners, not just the dev person. It’s not just the account. Everybody’s got to understand first of all, to your point, how do I take what is unknown and make it known? Whether I have an idea or not, how do I actually bring it to life so it’s conscious? And then how do I make it stronger and then how do I communicate it in a way… because I think honestly, in a lot of ways, the best agencies simplify what is complicated.

Tamsen Webster:

Absolutely. Yes.

Drew McLellan:

How do I communicate it in a way that the client or prospect gets it? How do I do all that?

Tamsen Webster:

Well-

Drew McLellan:

Magic wand.

Tamsen Webster:

Well, that’s where methodologically, the red thread comes into play. The red thread is a kind of a known concept, but then I turned it into a process that I developed. At its heart, it basically is using this idea, and this is a known fact, that we make sense of the world through story structure. It basically is a process by which you walk through and find the plot points of the story of an idea, whether that idea exists yet or not. For instance, let’s say you are working on a project for a client and the client has a question about how they can differentiate themselves in the market. It’s a classic agency challenge, you’re working with challenger brand or a brand that’s essentially a commodity in the market, and differentiating them is a little hard. How do you do that? You start with that question that people are trying to ask. That’s the first plot point of the story is, what’s the quest, what’s the goal, what does somebody want? Because all a story, all humor starts with desire. We have to figure out what is it that the client wants.

The second plot point of a story is a major problem that gets in the way. What I find with coming up with ideas is that this is the place where we do a couple things. One is, we oftentimes come up with an idea that the client already knows about. In my view, if the client already knows about it, then that’s their goal. That’s actually the first step. The first step is how do we solve that problem? The real problem, as I like to call it, needs to be a problem of perspective. How is it that you, or in this case, the client thinks about something differently than everybody else? One way to think about this is like a spotlight of attention. The way that our brains work, when we’re focused on one thing, we literally cannot focus on something else, despite what we may tell ourselves when we’re texting and driving. Please, don’t do that.

But that’s what happens with thinking too. Let’s say you have a client in this challenging market who really does look at the world a little bit differently. I mean, otherwise, why would they have created a new company in the first place? That’s what you’re trying to do is find a contrast between their approach to thinking about this problem that’s different from everybody else’s so that it’s still there. We’ve got a goal, we’ve got a problem.

Then the next major plot point and a story, and this is, again, the things that are your brain are trying to find to make sense of things is something that creates a moment of truth. The emotional highlight of any story is this moment where the main character comes to some realization that the world is a certain way and therefore they can’t let the problem they’ve discovered persist. That’s the third thing that we’re trying to find in an idea, is what is the baseline truth, the self-evident truth, the axiom, the piece of knowledge that the client has that they share ultimately what their end audience, that realization that when reminded, will make that problem of perspective impossible to ignore.

Fourth major plot point, what does the character do with that information? I call that the change. We’re talking about a client, it’s like, what’s the change that they represent? Then finally, kind of the fifth… it’s not really a plot point, but it’s what you need in order to complete a message, particularly in these cases, the actions. What are the things that need to happen in order for that change to take place? These are the five major parts of what I call the red thread: the goal, the problem of perspective, a truth, the change and actions. When you find those, when you communicate those to people, then you fill in what their brain is looking for. The way I like to describe it is this, you are telling the client or their end client the story they would tell themselves about your idea. That’s, I think, really, really powerful.

Drew McLellan:

As I’m listening to you, I’m thinking, every day I get an email from an agency owner saying, “I know I need to position myself. I know I need to differentiate myself in the marketplace, but when I’m honest, we do the same stuff everybody else does. So, how in the world do I do that?” From the AMI perspective, we talk a lot about niching yourself, being a subject matter expert, and then laying a point of view about that work on top of it. As I’m listening you, I’m thinking, that’s what you’re talking about is this point of that-

Tamsen Webster:

Absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

… talking about. I guess where I’m getting to, is this is not just a methodology that agencies could learn to do client work better, but they absolutely could turn the telescope around and use this methodology that you teach to actually figure out how they are different from other agencies, right?

Tamsen Webster:

Absolutely. Absolutely. I’ll use an agency where I used to work as an example. Though they’ve got great positioning now, which I need to fully admit that I didn’t help them with, I admit that, but I want to speak to it from the time where I was there and I can talk about it from that perspective. Again, they asked that question. At the time I joined, it was a mid-sized agency about 75 people. Then over the three years that I was there, they acquired another agency. It’s about 125, 135 by the time I left. Just for context for everyone, I was in charge of the digital and social strategy and community building for all of our clients. I was also the closer on all the pitches.

I always helped with the business development pitches and helped, and I usually was the last one to close it up. We had this question, how do we differentiate ourselves? What was very interesting about our agency was that, looking at all the clients, that we were at the time, very primarily a business to business agency, and even more specifically, a New England agency. The brands that we had were of New England. If we’re thinking about this process, “Okay, what’s the goal?” The question we’re trying to ask is… or the question essentially that our audience would ask us, “Well, what are you different? How are you any different? You can do media buying, you can do strategy, you can do social, like everybody else.”

Following this process, it allows us to sit and have that conversation. I said, “Well, where is everybody else’s spotlight of attention as far as our competitive agencies or competitive set are? And where is our spotlight of attention?” It doesn’t mean that where other agencies focusing is wrong. It just means as long as they’re looking at the situation that way, as long as their point of view is that way, they can’t by definition, give as much attention elsewhere. We knew for instance, that looking at all those other agencies out there, they were obviously trying to be best in class. That makes sense. Of course, you want to be best in class. But many things that we like to say about ourselves, everybody says that they’re best in class.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely.

Tamsen Webster:

It’s table stakes. What we could do is, just using this methodology as an example, we could contrast for instance saying, “Well, there’s best in class and there’s best in class for the region.” Best in region. What we were essentially saying was that we could do both. When we add that truth statement to it, I could borrow something… a truth like, the view from the inside is never the same from the view from the outside. self-evident truth, most people would agree, that you literally see differently if you’re on the inside of something that looks like from the outside. Because that’s true, we could say, “That’s why we at…” the agency was Allen and Gerritsen. We had Allen and Gerritsen believe that the best way for us to differentiate and serve you best is to be, we are of New England, not just working in it.

We are of our clients and knowing the clients, not just working in it. Then we could explain what were the things that we do, not just our clients, but what were some of the approaches that we took that we consider to be uniquely New England, that would help put that angle on what we were doing? You’re right. The end product, no different. But we would think that.. we legitimately thought it was because nobody understood New England challenger brands like we did. I think most agencies have that because back to this philosophical idea of the red thread, I believe that most agency owners don’t just start an agency to go, “Well, I’m going to be like everybody else.”

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely not.

Tamsen Webster:

You start it because you believe you have something different to offer, that you believe fundamentally that you’ve got a different perspective to put out there. That really is what, as you say, that this process can help an agency owner do… or the strategy team or the biz dev team do for the agency is stop and say, “Why are we here? What do we do differently? What are the patterns to the goals that we help clients achieve?” Like I said, at Allen and Gerritsen, we were definitely suited to challenger of brands and commodity, B2B. That’s what we did, but not everybody’s for that, which is great because it meant that we could focus. We were drawn to those questions of how do we disrupt the incumbent? We had problems that we were drawn to solve over and over again. Again, they were subsets of this best in class, best in region kind of pieces. They were questions of, how do we reclaim the attention of this area? How do we capitalize on the New England history of our particular brand, for instance.

Those types of things that you start to look at over time across the agency, my experiences working with agencies is that that stuff is always self evident, but it’s so internal to the agency that it never occurs to them that it’s actually different. I like to think of it from the perspective of that this red thread that we have, this thing that connects the questions that are out there to our answers is like an operating system of a computer. And it guides everything, everything, that the agency does and how it does it. And yet like the operating system of a computer, a computer can’t read its own code. It’s very, very that an agency, unless it takes steps to go and look for it, often doesn’t think to do it either.

This is a process absolutely that agencies can take on by themselves. I don’t want to be like, “Oh, well you always have to have outside help to do it.” But it does help if you’ve got somebody on your team who’s fairly new and can question and say, “Well, this looks different to me, is that different everywhere? Is this different? How is this different? Why is this so important to you? What does that mean? What is the approaches that sets up?” What I’ve also found over and over again is that a lot of times this process opens up new avenues for things that agencies haven’t been doing yet, but they could to shore up this idea that they actually do represent something fundamentally different the market.

Drew McLellan:

I have all kinds of thoughts about what you just said. First of all, you’re absolutely right. We should be able to do this for ourselves. However, just like we tell our clients and just… actually like the example you used earlier, it’s pretty tough to see the outside of the bottle when you’re inside the bottle. I think agencies struggle with being able to see themselves as objectively enough to put the value proposition on things that maybe they take for granted. I do think it’s challenging. I know it’s challenging because like I said, every day I get email questions or face to face questions about “how in the world do I make myself look different than my competitors?” What I take heart in is this idea that when you describe the process, you make it sound pretty easy. Well, it’s five steps and blah, blah, blah, blah, right?

Tamsen Webster:

Yeah. It’s simple, not easy.

Drew McLellan:

[crosstalk 00:25:34] saying. Again, what you’ve done is you’ve taken this complicated murky thing and simplified it into a process. That does not make it easy to do probably with someone’s help, and even harder if you self administer.

Tamsen Webster:

It’s always good to get an outside check. Yes. I mean, particularly if you’re using it for a purpose of differentiation, so for yourself. If you’re using it on yourself, really useful to get an outside check. If you’re using it for your clients, it’s one of those things where you already are the outside [crosstalk 00:26:08].

Drew McLellan:

[crosstalk 00:26:08] say, you are the outside. Okay. I want to turn this a little bit and talk about how we can use it for clients. But first, let’s take a quick break.

I wanted to take just a quick second and remind you about one of the core offerings of Agency Management Institute, and that is our peer networks. We offer them both for agency owners and also what we call key executives. If you’re a traction follower, these would be for your integrators. These are sort of your right hand people who help you run the business day in and day out. From the owner’s perspective, imagine a Vistage group or an EO group, only everyone around the table owns an agency. These folks become like your board of advisors. They become trusted friends that you learn a lot about their business and they learn a lot about yours. Not only do you learn from us, the facilitators, but you’re constantly learning from your peer group as well. The same thing happens in the key executive groups. We bring them together and we help them learn how to help you bring your vision to life as an agency owner.

If you want to check out either of these peer groups, you can go over to the AMI website and look under the networks tab. There, you will find information on both our live and our virtual agency owner peer groups, and also our key executive group. Check it out, and if you’re interested, let us know. We’re happy to have a conversation.

Okay, let’s get back to the episode. All right, we are back with Tamsen Webster, and we are talking about her methodology called the red thread. Prior to the break, we were talking about what it was and how agencies can use it to define how to differentiate themselves. But it seems to me that at the end of the day, if an agency wants to not be a commodity, wants to be… one of the things I hear agency owners talk about all the time is, they get treated like a vendor, because we’re doing vendor-like things, we’re making stuff.

If we want to get back into the C-suite and we want to be considered a strategic partner rather than a vendor, then I believe that means that we have to invest ourselves in the business problems of our clients and be the ones that come up with ideas of how to solve those problems. How would you think about using your process with a client’s issue rather than looking at ourselves?

Tamsen Webster:

And then of course there’s two different ways, right? Whether this is potentially a new client, and you’re talking about a biz dev situation, or whether or not this is an ongoing client. But let’s say it’s an ongoing client. Even within there, there’s two different situations, whether or not they have asked you this question or whether or not you are proactively saying, “We’re seeing this thing where we think you should do something.” Let me answer that one first. Let’s take up the difficulty because that’s the hardest one to answer. Let me answer that one first, where it’s a current client where they haven’t asked you.

Drew McLellan:

But what a great thing to do three months, four months, five months before the contract is renewed.

Tamsen Webster:

Oh. Yes, absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

In one of our research that Susan and I did together… I don’t remember 2015 or so, I think, one of the main reasons why clients fire us is because they feel like we’re phoning it in. We’re not bringing them “new ideas.” This is exactly the time and the reason why you would want to do this. Oka, how do we do this difficult thing?

Tamsen Webster:

The first thing is to look… again, following this goal, problem, truth, change, action, goal, problem, truth, change, action. Just get that into your head. Goal, problem, truth, change, action. The goal, remember this, remember this, remember this, is always the audience’s goal. If you’re doing this on behalf of a client, then your client is the audience. Well, remind me that there’s an extra layer of fun to messaging, but really what you’re asking is you’re trying to figure out, how can we go back in there with something creative, strategic that shows us as a strategic partner?

One of the things is to look at and say, “What question are we pretty sure that they’re asking right now and that they haven’t asked us? What’s the question they’ve got that they are trying to get? Are they trying to get efficiency? Are they trying to expand the market? What is something that we can look at, and if we’re doing our jobs…” and I believe most agency owners are, “what can we see that they would want, that they absolutely right now, if we put it in front of them would say, ‘yes, I want the answer to that question.’”

Drew McLellan:

I’ll stop you for a second, because I think it’s critical for agency owners and anybody listening to recognize, and I know you guys do at some level, but this does not have to be a marketing problem. This could be a distribution problem. Many of you today are spending a lot of your time helping clients solve the staffing problem. A true partner doesn’t worry about, “I’m going to solve a problem where I can make more money.” A true partner says, “I have this partner that is hurting in some way or is needy in some way, I want to help them resolve that need.” Okay. Sorry.

Tamsen Webster:

Let’s pick up the staffing question because that’s a great one.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, true.

Tamsen Webster:

Because this is not a question that they’re asking you, their creative agency, like how do we hire and retain better creative talent in this really competitive market when they can just go and be freelancers on their own? That’s the question. We say, “Okay, what question are they already asking that we believe we may have an answer for?” That’s the key because what we’re trying to do is connect between their question and your answer. Their question; how can we hire and retain more employees, hire quality, whatever. Then, okay, goal, problem. All right. Problem of perspective. This is what we’re always looking for. We’re looking for two parts. We’re looking for where the focus of attention is right now and what that’s putting into shadow.

In other words, where do we want to shine some light so they can start to see the situation differently. I’ll just use something I saw recently, which is right now, there’s a lot of discussion in the hiring world about the employer brand.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Tamsen Webster:

There’s an employer and then there’s the brand brand. Now, this is one place right off the bat, two different agencies could diverge and be differentiated right here on this question. One could say, “We actually believe that there’s a separation between the two. You need to consciously think of these things as two separate things.” There could be agencies that go, “Absolutely not. The brand is the brand is the brand. The brand is what people think of you. And it doesn’t matter whether the prospective perspective staff, clients, customers, whatever, that’s the brand.”

But you see just even by answering these questions, there’s these little branches of differentiation that happen right away. Just looking at that. Okay, there’s two ways to look at that, is it just one brand or is it our employer brand and regular brand? You can say, “Well, we believe it’s all one brand.” You could start to set up, “All right, how do we solve the staffing question? We believe it’s all one brand.” Then we’re looking for a true statement that supports that, something that you, the agency believes and you know the client believes that is going to support whatever answer. Again, like I said, you could use this to come up with a new answer. It could be something like, let’s say you know that it’s a well held value in your clients that, let’s say that they are… and they believe this, that they’re actually very, very far focus on the customer experience. And let’s say that they have hanging on the walls of their, this is kind of ideal, something that says, “The customer experience is the brand experience.”

Drew McLellan:

Okay.

Tamsen Webster:

Now the key with that truth, it’s self-evident because it’s something that you know that the client already agrees with. And so you can now set that up. We’ve got three pieces. We’ve got, how do we hire and retain employees? Well, we can look at it as one brand or the employer brand, but since we believe, you believe, we believe because we helped you with this, that the customer experience is the brand experience, that’s why we think there’s some opportunities for you to really start to look at your hiring process through the same lens as you put your customer experience process. You could either say, “Here’s some ways we could help you,” or kind of Miracle on 34th Street approach to thing, “here’s some folks that we know that could help you with that.” Or just, “We thought this was going to be important because ultimately the customer experience is the brand experience. If they’re not happy with the team that they’re working with, then your clients aren’t going to be happy with you. Let’s talk about what you can do to make sure that that’s cohesive.”

You see how you can set that up, and what you’re doing is, again, starting with a question that your client is already asking, looking for that problem or perspective. Again, you’re looking for two things that sit in tension with each other, but ultimately are resolved by your answer, a self-evident truth, or it could be a piece of research. The research that you and Susan [Bryer 00:35:10] do could be a great thing, where you introducing, “Well, research says X. Because research says X, that’s why if you really want to have hire and retain more folks, that’s why you need to do this because that’s the only way to resolve that tension and the problem that we talked about.”

Since you believed the customer experience is the brand experience, if you want to hire and retain more employees, that’s the goal, then we need to approach your hiring process as if it were a customer experience, because that’s the thing that’s going to unite your regular brand and your employer brand. That’s a way I could say that you could use it for preexisting client, they haven’t asked you a question already. You can come at it by saying, “Hey, we see a potential gap here in what you have hired us to do, which is help to preserve and maintain and promote your brand experience, but we see that there’s potential gap between that and your hiring. And so therefore if you can become a best in class, the amazing experience of working for you, you can actually make that as great. Hey, then we’ve got this really holistic framework that we’ve put together for you, for your clients, so that not only your end users and your customers are happy, but you get the folks that you need that are going to help make those customers happy.”

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, makes sense. Was the extra layer of fun in what you just said or do you need [inaudible 00:36:38]?

Tamsen Webster:

No. The extra layer of fun is that particularly when you are in agency… I’ve spent a long time in agencies and nonprofits, particularly, where there is what I call two audiences. There’s the interstitial audience, and then there’s the people they serve. I call it the acting audience and the ultimate audience. In an agency, your acting audience is your client and the ultimate audience are their customers, their clients. The extra layer of fun is that sometimes you can find the power in the message to your acting audience, to your client by making sure you understand what the red thread of their messages to the ultimate audience. In other words, let’s say this agency that’s asking about how to hire and retain better folks. Let’s say they’re in the business of, I don’t know, what are they in the business of?

Drew McLellan:

Let’s make them a nonprofit.

Tamsen Webster:

Let’s make them a nonprofit. They’re in the business of… well, let’s make them an arts nonprofit, because that immediately come to mind, or it could be a social service nonprofit. Let’s say it’s a social service nonprofit, where they’re helping kids with tutoring in early ages, early childhood support, just pull that out of the hat. Coming up with the red thread of their ultimate audience, same thing. What question are their ultimate audience asking? It’s really in this case, their parents. It’s their parents saying, “How can I make sure that my kids are as successful as I possibly can make them? Or how can I set them up for success?” Let’s just put it that way.

That’s the ultimate audience’s question. How can I set my kids up for success? Then there’s going to be a problem of perspective that your client represents. This is probably work that you’ve already done. It’s just about putting it in this framework now to just make it super crystal clear. You could be talking about success in school and success at home. Those are two things that oftentimes people are so focused on success at school that they are missing that much of success starts at home. That could be the true statement. Success starts at home. That’s what your client believes. Success starts at home. That’s why they believe the best way to set folks up for success is to create an in-home family tutoring that not only sets the child up for success, but also sets up the family for success just for continued when the tutor isn’t there. I don’t know. Just came up new nonprofit. There you go. No problem.

Once you understand that success begins at home piece, now that you’ve anchored that there, now you can back up and say, “Okay, now let’s talk about this hiring question. How can we hire and retain better folks?” “Okay, let’s keep this employer brand…” regular brand kind of thing. Well, there’s the employer brand, but there’s also what the brand stands for. This is where by figuring out that other one, now you can pull in a super powerful, truth statement, which is the same one. You said success begins at home. Therefore, what we do all the way through from how we bring folks onto our team all the way through to the folks that we help is that we make sure that they’ve got everything they need, not only in the moment when their manager or their teammates are there, but that we’re looking at every part of their experience overall. That’s how we make sure that our employer brand and our regular brand are one and the same, and how we make sure that we serve our end clients as well as we can.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Awesome. Makes perfect sense.

Tamsen Webster:

I know it can feel like you’re dropped into inception with this layers upon layers of messages, but ultimately when in doubt, figure out the message for the ultimate audience, your client’s client. Figure that one out. Like I said, you’ve probably already done this work, but you may not have framed it this way. By framing it this way, the power is that it’s filling in that story with holes that everybody has. This is where the power of story structure has is again, we’re not turning it into a story. We’re just making sure that your idea and your message and the case for it, which is essentially what the red thread is, has every piece that their brain is looking for. Does it have something that I want? Yes. Is there a problem that I didn’t realize was there? Yes. Is there something about that problem that I care enough about that I can’t ignore it? Yes. Do I agree that all of those things add up to a necessary change and do I understand what that is? Yes. Do I understand how to put that change in action? Yes.

If you’ve got all of those pieces, and particularly for talking to a client about their end client, their ultimate audience and they can recognize that, then they’re like, “Oh, totally. I get it.” Here’s the secret, Drew, once you commit this pattern, goal, problem, truth, change, action; goal, two-part problem, truth, change, action to memory, when you’re sitting even with a brand new client or prospective client for the first time, you can just start to ask questions. You can train people to do this, to ask the questions that pulls out those answers.

Sometimes in as little as 10, 20 minutes, I can be talking with someone and say, “Is it this? Is this what you do?” That for a lot of folks for that client, that prospective client, it’s a mic drop moment, because they’re like, “Whoa.” I remember I was working with one of my TEDx, Cambridge speakers one time and we became good friends. He was a very high ranking scientist, he studies blindness and how people with blindness see, how they create spatial things in their heads, spatial maps in their heads. It’s a very complicated topic. We had lunch a couple of months ago and he said, “You know what, Tamsen, the moment I knew that I needed to start listening to you was that after 20 minutes, you were able to explain my science better to me than I could.” That’s not a special gift. It really is just understanding what is it that people’s brains need. Once you find the pieces of that message, of that story, of that idea, you put it in that order, everyone’s goes, “Oh, well, of course, that makes sense.”

And, as I was saying, you can use it to come up with something new because all of a sudden you’re like, “If we’ve got this and this and this, well, what does it mean we need to do?” “Well, oh, it means that we need to create a hiring process that mimics the process that we use for our end user.” “Great, fabulous. Now, how do we do that?”

Drew McLellan:

Well, so much of this is about the questions that you ask. At the end of the day, I always think the smartest person in the room is the one that asks the most interesting and best questions. That’s what we’re promising our clients, is that we’re bringing a new insight, a new perspective, a new intelligence into the conversations. I honestly believe we prove that by the questions that we ask. That’s really what you’re saying is, you can learn this methodology so that you have this quiver full of questions that you can pull out, that you understand how to knit those answers together to build that framework.

Tamsen Webster:

Right. Exactly. Because what you’re doing is you’re asking enough questions, you’re asking questions to the client until a point where you can put it togetheR, because the moment that you can put it together, you can put it together for them. When I’m working with clients, I’m relentless with them. It’s funny because some of the times where I get brought in to help their clients so that it’s three… When they watch that, they’re like, “Wow, you ask really tough questions.” But on the surface, they’re not, they’re just not questions that people have stopped and asked before. It starts even with that question about the goal. We say, “Well, what is it that people want?” Then what almost always happens, what they really want like, “Nope. Nope, nope, nope.”

What’s the question they’re asking right now? They’re not asking for another campaign from you, unless that’s actually the question they’re asking. What are they asking right now that has to do with the business? Because if you were answering questions that have to do with the business and not with their marketing, then you can position yourself up at that strategic partner level and not way down at the commodity vendor level. And even more to what you’re saying is if you can increasingly get yourself to be that outside set of eye where your clients consistently see you as the person who can ask them those hard questions, I think you’re getting a point where… I’m sure you see this even more than I do, you just start… I think agencies, I see them, folks that I know in them increasingly move to this consultative role and in a lot of ways, that’s awesome because there’s great margins there.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely. Right. That’s where the AGI is. And it’s also… it can’t be commoditized. I know that you talk about from the red thread point of view, that we have to find basically the story of their idea, build it and then tell it. It seems to me that all of this is for not if you can’t articulate it in a way that someone gets it and gets excited about it. Is there an art and a science to that as well?

Tamsen Webster:

Yes. It starts because… well, all of it starts because I’m inherently lazy. It’s not so much that is that if one of my central truths is that a stitch in time saves nine, which is why I’m always trying to find what is the highest impact, least effort way to get something done. By finding these pieces of the red thread, that does just that, because those pieces are in fact the elements… like I said, they are the main plot points of a story in story order. What can happen is when you’re trying to articulate it, even just by saying we can all agree we want to set our kids up for success, and so much of that success focuses on success at school. But we know that there’s success at home. And in fact, success begins at home, which is why our charity, our nonprofit really focuses on making sure that we’re taking a holistic approach to making sure both families and students are set up for success in all areas of their life.

By being able to kind of just do that in 60 seconds or less, most people will perk up and go, “Oh, wait, what?” Then kind of being able to back up. Here’s the thing. And this is always a deep seated annoyance for me when I worked in agency, it was slowly getting us to flip how we presented at a pitch or at a strategy presentation meeting, because if you think about it, the story has to be told from their perspective. I think I said it before, we have to build their case for your idea. What happens is the typical strategy presentation, the typical pitch, how does it start? Well, here’s the question you asked us, here’s the research that we did, here’s the strategy we came up with, and then 40 minutes, in you’re like, “here’s what we’ve produced.”

I got to tell you, you can’t talk them into it in advance of showing it to that, because they’re going to have a visceral reaction and yes or no, and no amount of pre-explanation is going to set them up with like, “Well, all right then. I hate it instinctively, but thanks so much for the rational explanation. I’m going to totally love it now.” I believe that because you’re building their case, that there should be a fundamental flip and how we present things, which is when you walk in, what is their question? If they’ve asked you for a new campaign, if they’ve asked you for a new creative direction, then what do they most want to see? That.

Now, I’m not saying that with no preamble, you’re like, “Ta-da, here it is,” but I am saying that if you’ve done this work of figuring out what their case for it would be, you could say, “You asked us to come up with a new direction for you for how you could differentiate yourselves as an employer. And we believe that the answer is the same as you have for your own clients. The success, it begins at home. Let us show you what that looks like.” Boom. Then show them the creative. You give them a quick version of that, where essentially you’re taking the goal question, the goal, plus what’s maybe most unexpected about what you figured out in that red thread and you put those two together. I call it an irresistible equation. You give them something that they want via a means they didn’t expect. And now you’ve created what our good friend Jude Davis talks so great about, the curiosity gap, where now they want to know more.

Now they’ve said, “Okay, huh.” You could even give a quick… if you’re still not comfortable with showing the creative or the new direction right then, you could do that 60-second version. “Well, we know that it’s really tough to hire folks right now. A lot of times that’s because there’s this confusion about is there the brand, or is there an employer brand? But we know based on all the work that we’ve done with you, the success begins at home. That’s why when we’re talking about what’s the right answer for you, we believe the same thing is true. That’s what you’re going to see today.” Then you show it to them. Don’t tell them about the research and the strategy and stuff, because they’re going to like it or not. Accept that. Odd people. They’re going to like it or not. If they don’t like it, no amount of your strategy is going to talk them into it.

But if they do, then remember, they need to tell themselves a story about it. Once you’ve set it up with something like, “Well, that makes sense. Oh, I like it,” then you give them the strategy and the research behind it, because that allows them to validate the decision that their brain already made.

Drew McLellan:

What you’re saying is which we know is agency people, we make our buying decisions emotionally, and then we need facts to explain to other people we bought what we bought. No one buys a red convertible because of its gas mileage. But we need the bullet points on the window to argue why we’re buying the red convertible over the very sensible Sedans.

Tamsen Webster:

What we tend to doing is when we’ve got a sexy thing sitting there, we try to sell people the bullet points first, even the convertible, and then help them justify it. It’s a classic thing. I like to frame it as, none of us are rational decision makers or rationalizing decision makers, and we don’t do a thing… here’s the way to think about it, we don’t do a thing and your clients don’t do a thing because it’s right. It’s right because they’ve decided to do it. Do you see the difference?

Drew McLellan:

Yes. Quite the distinction.

Tamsen Webster:

It’s a really important decision. What happens is a lot of times when we’re presenting new ideas to people, we’re explaining ideas to people, we’re trying to say, “Well, this is right.” No, they’re going to come to their own conclusion about it, regardless. What you’re doing is saying if, “If we’ve aimed it right, if we’ve started it with something that they want,” which is a key, by the way, because you’re not going to readily unwant a thing that you want. That’s why that piece is so important. If you’ve made the case by that red thread, that your answer is the answer to their question, that’s going to happen instinctively because you will have gone [inaudible 00:52:26]. You’ve filled in the blanks in their brain-

Drew McLellan:

But that’s that unconscious decision-making you talked about.

Tamsen Webster:

That’s right. That’s why you’re shooting the message straight into those blanks that are looking for, do I have… they don’t call it that, but they’re listening for a goal, a problem, a truth, a change, and what do I do with it? If you can shoot that in there within first, that irresistible equation, one little piece, “do you want to know more?” “Yes.” “And in 60 seconds, I can make the case for this thing.” “Great.” Do you want to know more?” If they say no, then put the boards down and go home. Then you’ve got more work to do, but if they like, “Yes,” then you show them the sexy convertible and then you give them the rest of the information about it. Because like I said, they’re not doing it because it’s right. It is right because they’ve already decided to do it. And now what you need to do is build their case.

The fundamental issue that I see over and over again, and this isn’t just with agencies, it’s with… I’m sure the agencies this with their clients as well, is that we are trying to make our case for a change. We need to make their case for the change because they are the ones changing. They’re the ones buying, they’re the ones changing. So we need to build the case, the story they will tell themselves about why this was the right decision.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So spot on. This is awesome. I have not asked half the questions I wanted to ask, because we’ve done such a great deep dive on this. At some point in time, we’ll have to have you come back. And I want to make sure the listeners all know that you will be at the Build a Better Agency summit in May of 2020.

Tamsen Webster:

I, a hundred percent, will be at the Build a Better Agency summit.

Drew McLellan:

People are hungry to learn more-

Tamsen Webster:

I’ll be there.

Drew McLellan:

… to see you there, but they shouldn’t wait that long. If we want to learn more right now, what is the best way for them to track you down?

Tamsen Webster:

Best way to track me down is at tamsenwebster.com. I literally am the only one in the universe. T-M-S-E-N, Webster, like the dictionary.com. Find more information there. Particularly interested in organizations, just do tamsenwebster.com/organizations, and you see the main problems I solve for them.

Drew McLellan:

This has been awesome. Thank you so much for your time. I always love spending time with you. I love what I learn from you. I love how passionate you are about what you do and how you can help people. It’s always my distinct pleasure to hang out with you.

Tamsen Webster:

Thank you, Drew. I’ve got a crap poker face, but I love this stuff. I love it, love it, love it. So thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Drew McLellan:

You bet. All right guys, Tamsen gave you a lot of things to think about. She gave you a lot of the framework at least to begin to start thinking about how you might change your own methodology. I know she’s got a lot of resources. She does some great videos, other things on her website. Go check it out. Go spend some more time soaking in her smarts and be thinking about how you can turn this process on yourself and also how you can use it for your clients, because I’m telling you, it can be a game changer for you and your shop. Do not chalk this up as “Oh, that was interesting to listen to.” This is actionable stuff that I want you to put into play.

I also want to remind you that remember every week we give away something from one of our podcast guests or from AMI. In the pot right now to give away, are a couple of seats to some of our workshops and other things. If you have not already gone to agencymanagementinstitute.com/podcastsgiveaway, and giving us your name and email address, you are missing out on some great free and cool stuff. If you have signed up, you never have to do it again. If you’ve done it once, even if you’ve won, your name stays in the hat, so you could just keep winning over and over and over again if you want to. Head over there and sign up. In the meantime, I will be back next week with another guest to get you thinking a little differently about your shop. If you need to track me down, the best bet is [email protected] All right, I’ll talk to you next week. Thanks for listening.

That’s a wrap for this week’s episode of Build a Better Agency. Visit agencymanagement institute.com to check out our workshops, coaching packages, and all the other ways we serve agencies just like yours. Thanks for listening.