Never Mind The Beef. Where’s The Plan?

Sad news in the advertising industry this week with the demise of Cliff Freeman & Partners, the legendary ad agency whose founder was responsible for, among other noteworthy entries, Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” campaign.

The Ad Age article that describes the company’s closure cites various causes, including lack of a succession plan, an inability to evolve with the changing media landscape, and failed merger attempts.

Creative service companies often end up like Mr Freeman’s. From king of the hill to an industry by-line in a decade.

These three reasons are present in virtually every case:

  1. The inability or unwillingness of the founder to make themselves irrelevant. By the time Mr Freeman tried to do so, the company was operating from a position of relative weakness, and the management evolution appeared borne of desperation.

  2. A relentless focus on the service that made them successful, without ever understanding the core strength that made those services valuable - as the creator of memorable brand personalities, in any medium.

  3. Failed restructuring attempts. 80% of all mergers fail. When the underlying motivation is a shotgun wedding to fix a fundamental weakness, that number goes up into the high nineties. Mergers and acquisitions work when the chemistry is instinctive, or there is a clearly defined and articulated vision that one person takes responsibility for.

Mr Freeman isn’t the first to make these mistakes. And he won’t be the last.

But every one of them is avoidable.

At a time when the marketing food chain is changing before our eyes, the advertisng and production industries are in desperate need of better business models.

Head meet sand, however, is not one of them.

Philosophical Friday: Trust

It takes time to earn trust.

Consistency and transparency accelerate the process. But as employees or customers, we withhold wholehearted emotional investment until a company proves it deserves that from us.

I heard this week of a company which is dominant in its industry that has cut its staff salaries by ten percent this year. Across the board. Including its receptionist.

When asked why he had taken this step, the owner is reported to have said, “because I can.”

How you define success is entirely personal.

Which doesn’t mean it affects only you. 

Courageous Conversations

At the heart of the problems faced by many companies, is that the owner has so far avoided a Courageous Conversation.

Instead of identifying and exposing what's really going on, owners resort to analyzing the company's strategy, a debate that is often substituted as an alternative to confronting two primary questions.

Am I still in love with this business? What am I trying to achieve?

Entrepreneurs build extraordinary businesses when their talents meet their passion. When their passion fades, the business suffers.

Unless it has been built to thrive without them.

Most are not.

And when owners bury the real issues - consciously or sub-consciously - the interests of the company, its staff and ultimately the owners themselves are seriously damaged. Often permanently.

The situation is complicated a hundred-fold when a partnership is involved. Then, the absence of an exit strategy and an ownership transition plan becomes a noose from which many companies never escape.

A Courageous Conversation is needed when you see these conditions appear in combination:

  • A business without a clearly defined Purpose.

  • A partnership that used to work effortlessly but is now increasingly disjointed.

  • Employees taking sides.

Employees smell lack of ownership interest instinctively. And even if you’re kidding yourself, you won’t kid your employees for very long. In the absence of a company Purpose, great employees will stick around in this economy only long enough for the unemployment numbers to start falling.

Sometimes, a Courageous Conversation results in a genuine re-commitment by the owners to the business. Madonna Badger of Badger and Partners and Jerry Solomon of Epoch Media talk about this on our website.

Other times, it highlights the divide, and requires the negotiation of a fair, equitable and practical separation. No small feat. And often hardest for close partners who tie themselves in knots trying to be reasonable at the expense of reality.

The good news is that Courageous Conversations are the fuel of empowerment. And liberation.

Two traits on which both companies and lives can prosper.

Note: The concept of the Courageous Conversation was brought to us by our newest
associate, Jamie Gutfreund.

Jamie was introduced to us by Dana Astrow, our first.

Their background and expertise speaks for itself. Their insight is extraordinary. Their enthusiasm infectious. We’re a much better business for having them be part of it. 

Nantucket - Part 1

I am drawn to water.

A realization I have come to later in life than I wished.

Living beside Lake Michigan for quarter of a century, I was lulled into a false sense of security that proximity to the sea was not important. An assumption that the last few days have proven false.

We spent the weekend on Shelter Island. Hurricaine Danny called to say it was coming over and we should cancel our plans. We ignored it, so it didn’t show. Typical male.

His rudeness was our gift. A fantastic evening at the extraordinary home of Mindy Goldberg and Cary Tamarkin overlooking Shelter Island Sound - a testament to their taste, talent and sustained business success.

At several times during the evening I stood alone and wondered if the moonlit path across the water could be reached from the beach below. The inner child in me hoped so. The man in the white Armani suit worried about the salt stains.

Still, it was an encouraging start. Possibility is the fuel to the future. And I spend most of my time seeing the possibilities for others. Restoring fantasy in our own lives is why summer vacations were invented. And Saturday night was the beginning of that.

On Sunday, I passed another birthday. Quietly and without fanfare. Leaving Shelter Island on the ferry we weren’t sure where we were headed next. For two producers this was unprecedentedly spontaneous behavior. The forecast for everywhere, from Hong Kong to home was set fair for the week. We had a convertible, a full tank of gas, and a million miles on American. The world lay before us. A vast array of possibilities.

We chose Nantucket. Chris’s spiritual home. And a place I’ve never liked.

I spent eleven reluctant vacations with Chris’s family, wishing each time I was somewhere else. Of all the places in the world, Nantucket was top of my list of seen it once, don’t need to see it again.

We hadn’t been back for five years. And I hadn’t missed it one iota. Until two weeks ago when I read in someone’s blog a description of a few days spent at the Wauwinet Inn in early August. Stacy Wall, the endlessly talented and humble film director, was at Mindy and Cary’s party on Saturday. We talked about blogging. He said he preferred the term, writing on the internet.

Aesthetically I agree with Stacy. Writing is a craft. Blogging is casual. But in practice, I find blogging less intimidating. And liberated from the expectation that Writing imposes on me, I find myself becoming more open to the world around me. An openness that found me reading, to my surprise, about Nantucket.

Something stirred inside me that I hadn’t expected. Sights and sounds of Nantucket. Blue hydrangeas swaying on ocean breezes. Cobble-stone streets lined with grey shingled houses, their white windows and fences open and protective in equal measure. And country roads across low lying landscapes, lush and sandy in impossible combinations.

But mostly I felt the pull of island life. Islands that sit exposed to the elements. That require commitment and effort to reach. Their very independence from land demanding a sense of the possible from those that live there.

I have been struck by this in our work recently. Business owners unable to embrace the possibility of what they could be.

Over the last few weeks I have found myself talking to companies whose talent and potential far exceeds their current self-imposed limitations. They have well rehearsed reasons why my ambition for them is too far-reaching. Why my belief in what they could be is unrealistic.

The sense of the possible has left them for now. For some it has gone forever. Decisions seen as temporary have a way of becoming permanent while we are waiting for permission to be great.

Leaving the Orient Point ferry at New London, Connecticut - a convergence of transportation possibilities like few others in the world: boats, ferries, submarines, trains, cars, buses and motorcycles all within a few yards of each other - we turned east and headed towards Hyannis. The Wauwinet had cancellations and a bay view room, at a price unthinkable a year ago, was ours for three nights.

Three hours later, our car stowed safely below, we stood at the bow of the massive Nantucket ferry and headed south into the Atlantic. The evening was warm and fog shrouded, and as we passed the harbor’s outer marker a small group of people gathered on the starboard side and watched quietly as Senator Kennedy’s compound came slowly into view, before settling back into its quiet mourning behind the mist. His schooner bobbed a few hundred yards away, responding to our wake as that of a dog hoping anxiously for the return of its master.

Ahead, the moon found a small gap in the heavy skies, and the path that I had gazed at the night before appeared again on the water, guiding us forward.

The man in the white suit was nowhere to be found.

This time there was only a boy. On a path filled with possibilities. 

Outside Help

Entrepreneurs, by nature, are independent spirits. And figuring it out ourselves has often been part of the joy of the journey.

But in the last year, almost every small business has lost its margin for error. And most business owners that I’ve met recently have told me that they’re worried their next mistake will be their last.

It has always struck me as odd that so few small businesses take advantage of outside help. Since outside help is my business, it’s a statement that reeks of self-servitude.

But, while I obviously believe there is no substitute for specific and specialized help at certain points in your company’s evolution, not enough small businesses take advantage of that inexpensive yet powerful development tool called The Board.

The Board is typically comprised of a small group of experienced, diverse professionals with expertise in specific areas that are relevant to your business. The best Boards are objective, transparent, skeptically supportive ( a rare and healthy combination ), and dedicated.

It takes time and commitment to put a great Board together. There are some costs. Typically travel reimbursement and a fee for attending Board meetings. But the best ones pay for themselves a hundred fold. And sometimes several thousand times more than that.

I have yet to find a small business that would not be significantly improved by having a formal group of advisors.

And yet, though I’ve seen no figures, my experience tells me that the vast majority do not. My guess would be only one in four.

Business today is harder than at any time since 1929. Combine that with the fact that we’re living through an epoch, and it becomes clear that, by ourselves, none of us have the experience to navigate every situation we face today.

In my own business, we’re currently working with no fewer than four different companies or individuals who help us make better decisions about building The Lookinglass Consultancy. They have effectively become an informal Board of Directors.

As a society, and as a species we’re living through history.

As small business owners, the choice before us is whether to shape it or become it.

A no brainer, right?

Heart and Soul

To many people owning your own business is a microcosm of life.

I think that’s true.

If you get it wrong.

Most people do.

In the early stages the analogy is exact. Romantic. Beguiling. You start with nothing. You create life. You nurture, teach, feed and protect. It grows. It becomes unruly. You rein it in. Teach it good from bad. Right from wrong. It continues to grow. It becomes self-sustaining.

You keep your hand in by making sure the critical decisions go through you. After all, it was built from your DNA. Who else really understands it the way you do. But instinctively you start to sit back a little.

And ignore the ticking clock.

Businesses are like dogs. They get old in a hurry. One day they’re ten, bounding upstairs like a puppy. The next, they have a hard time getting down off the couch. When that happens you know the time they have left is less than the time they have had. And though you can ease the discomfort and slow the aging process, the end is inevitable. And coming like a freight train.

But businesses don’t have to get old. They should outlive us. After all, why build a business that can not, when it takes the same effort to build one that can?

What it requires is less. Less ego for one. Less hubris for two.

Most business owners define themselves by their companies. They describe themselves as its heart and soul. It radiates from them and through them. Which is fine for a while.

Business owners talk about heart and soul a lot. As though they were inextricably linked. Which, of course, they are not.

The soul is one of the great mysteries of existence. It is purported by some to weigh 21 grams. Maybe. But unquestionably, it is the essence that makes us who we are.

The heart is perhaps the most studied organ in medicine. No surprise given that it is the epicenter of our life force. The fulcrum around which every action is taken. But over time, we have learned that it is replaceable. That we can use someone else’s without losing the uniqueness of who we are.

Our heart is transplantable. Our soul is not.

If you want to create a business that lasts, it will require your heart and your soul.

But only to begin with.

Eventually, as your enthusiasm wanes (and it will), your business will need to get its energy from somewhere else. It will need a new life force. It will need a heart transplant.

If you see this as the natural progression of things, you will prepare for it and embrace it. It hurts. But only a little. And the rewards are extraordinary.

And if you get it right, your business retains your soul. Indelibly imprinted long after you have left the building.

As Chris and I walked out the door of the Whitehouse for the last time on that Friday night in 2005, two things were certain.

Part of who we are was forever infused into the soul of that company.

Someone else would turn on the lights on Monday morning.

Planning The Last Day First / STEP 5: EXIT

A business with four offices spread across 5000 miles doesn’t lend itself naturally to a single company Christmas Party.By the summer of 2003, however, it was feeling increasingly important that we have one. The Whitehouse had coordinated over 1000 employee travel nights that year. As a result a lot of people knew a lot of people. But Chris and I had come to realize that we were the only two that knew everyone in the company. It was time for that to change.If you’re going to throw a party for a group of people aged between 18 and 45, there’s really only one city in the world to choose. Las Vegas.

Planning The Last Day First / STEP 2: EXPANSION

The first year went by in a blur. A few signs of optimism. A lot of anxiety. But through it all we really did act locally and think globally.We had hired David Brixton, a very talented editor from London and convinced him and his wife Jemma of our dream. They moved to Chicago and brought European flair, creative credibility, a work ethic that matched ours and extraordinary social sensibility.

Between Fear and the Glass Ceiling

The last few months have burst a lot of bubbles. Some are beyond our control. Some, if we’re honest, are beyond our comprehension.

But some bubbles were created by the owners of companies for whom years of doing the same thing increasingly well, convinced them that they were in control of their own destiny. In the end they had slowly floated above the reality of their business.

I call it semi-conscious ownership. And it always ends badly.

The truth is they were living a reality they wanted to believe and filtering the evidence to support that view. It’s tempting when you really want something to be true. But it comes at the expense of asking critical questions. And when the bubble bursts, the drop is terrifying.

The inevitable outcome is fear-based over-reaction. And that’s a very hard place from which to live. Or run a business.

The other side of the coin is the person who has built a consistently successful business which never quite goes to that next level. You can’t argue with their achievements per se, or their ambition. Their talent is obvious. And occasionally you’ll see glimpses of their brilliance. It’s just that the business itself never quite delivers on all that potential.

There will be one other trait that also becomes obvious over time. They are always busy. Every hour of every day. Their lives are crazy.

I’ve come to understand that this too is about fear. Their fear that they don't deserve to live their dreams. So they place a glass ceiling above their own heads that defines the success they think they do deserve. As they get close they start coming up with new ideas that are really just designed to keep them right where they are.

Since all businesses are reflections of their owners, this runs through the DNA of the company. Neither the company or its people ever discover what they might have been. Which is tragic on every level.

Between fear and the glass ceiling lies the place in which you are present. In which you are in the moment.

It’s not an easy place to be. But recognizing where you’re not, is the first step to getting there.

Now, Are You Small Enough to Innovate?

Every business owner is worried about the damage the economy is doing to their business. Sales, profits, opportunities are all down. And whether you prefer ‘downsizing’ or ‘right-sizing’ as part of your personal lexicon, the trends are all in the same direction. Your business is getting smaller.

But is it small enough? Or at the very least, can it act like a small business?

Today’s Intuit report on the Future of Small Business ( http://tinyurl.com/5td9f ) gives six reasons why small businesses innovate faster and more effectively:

1. Personal passion: small business owners are willing to try new approaches

2. Experimentation and improvisation: many small business owners and managers are willing to experiment and improvise, and accept failure as part of the process

3. Customer connections: typically small businesses have more direct and meaningful relationships with their customers so they understand their issues better

4. Agility and adaptation: their size lets them adapt faster to changing market conditions and to implement new business practices

5. Resource efficiency: Small businesses do more with less. And they problem solve more effortlessly

6. Information sharing and collaboration: Small businesses often share information more easily which inspires innovative thinking

Generally, I think these are true. Though the first two speak more to the emotional capacity of entrepreneurs that makes them, well, entrepreneurs. The others rely more on how well an organization is structured and managed, and less on the courage with which it's run.

The bigger question, however, is now that your business is smaller, are you taking advantage of these benefits to innovate faster?

If not, you need to ask yourself why. And then start.