Episode 213

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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.