A Week of Cannes - Inside The Box

Fear is creative kryptonite. Its proximity alone enough to sap the life force of original intent. 

Put fear in a lead box and throw away the key. Or at least hide it for a few hours every day. The alternative being the status quo. Which as history has proven, is a fool's paradise.

For the last week, Cannes has provided its own lead box. One formed by a combination of conversation, exploration, exhortation, celebration and a good deal of rose. It is a box strong enough to withstand even sleep deprivation - the late night bogeymen being banished to the shadows by the simple practice of staying awake until the dawn. 

Fear’s absence has, for a few days at least, removed the fog, cleared the air and revealed a horizon of possibilities. 

Which makes Cannes the most important catalyst within the communications industry today. 

The truth is those possibilities are always there. Waiting, silently, for those with vision and courage to walk through them armed with simple truths.

That the way forward is not barred by economics or by others.

It is not restricted by rules. It is not determined by rulers.

That the way forward lies within our grasp.

We need only a destination that is important to us and a means of transportation.

Which makes it a pragmatic journey, and a practical one. A journey guided by Purpose, powered by a process and sustained by known practices.

This is not esoteric optimism. Or fanciful philosophizing. 

It is the foundation on which to build a business that sits, as Jeffrey Katzenberg said in his session with Sir Martin Sorrell on Friday, “at the intersection at which Art meets Commerce.”

It is an intersection that offers endless choices. 

And only one wrong one. 

To stay on the current road. 

No matter what discipline you practice, or skill you sell, doing more of what brought you to this point in the journey is the equivalent of putting two feet on the brakes while you drive down the side of a cliff. You might slow how long it takes to reach the bottom, but the final resting place is guaranteed.

We coach a growing number of business owners and business leaders. Our focus is to help them be clear about the future they want and to begin the practical steps to reach it.

In essence, we become their lead box. A place to explore possibilities without fear. And to take the journey best suited to them.

It takes courage to stop what you’re doing. And fear influences us all in ways overt and unseen. 

But as Cannes reminded us this week, what is yet to come is open to our influence. 

And diminished only through the choices we make.

Egypt Meet Change

Organizations of all size seek stability. A condition that values order over chaos and the known over the unknown.

But stability - whether benevolent or despotic - is unsustainable, because its presence comes at the expense of change.

And change, as events in Egypt have proved today, is as inevitable as a freight train.

Which ironically makes organizations that incorporate change, infinitely more stable. A reality that Hosni Mubarak is coming to terms with today.

For as he has learned, revolutions build imperceptibly. A string of decisions taken over a period of time that in the short term produce acquiescence and the illusion of stability, but in the long run combust explosively and instantly. Two weeks, after all, being an instant when placed in the context of 30 years.

Incorporating change into an organization requires embedding the capacity for evolution. The process being less violent, the results more predictable, and the risk to those that lead it relatively minimal.

This creates a new kind of stability. One that is both aspirational and sustainable because it invites discussion and values collaboration.

The alternative is to place ourselves at the center of the universe and surround ourself only with those that agree and that which pleases us, while walling off every droplet of dissent.

Which will work for a while.

But the tsunami, when it comes, will wash us away in an ocean of possibility. And the deserted island on which we land, will be one of our own making.


And entirely silent.

Seeing The Way

Companies are fearful of change. Which drives them to places they would never willingly go if they could see where they were headed. 

This week’s fiasco on Lakeshore Drive in Chicago is a pretty good example of what happens when fear of change makes you do the same thing you always do, even in the face of growing evidence that this will not turn out well. 

On Tuesday night, the people who ended up trapped in their cars were those who believed that so wide a road and so many companions would provide safe passage. 

In fact, it took only one gently sliding bus to block the way and create a situation in which many people became convinced that they would die where they sat. Frozen and alone. Fifty yards from one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the world. On a piece of road that has provided a reliable and predictable way home to hundreds of millions of travelers over the last 100 years.

From habit to hell in three hours. It rarely happens that fast. But it can.

Those that took the side streets found the roads difficult, but passable. It took longer than usual, but they made it safely to their destinations.

Taking the less traveled path requires two steps:

  • Recognizing that external forces are creating the need for change
  • Working knowledge of possible alternatives

As a business this requires combining a strategic view of where you’re headed, and constant exploration of the best way to get there. 

Which is not always the most direct. Or the most familiar.

Guest Post - Jim Schrager: Does Apple Need Jobs?

I’ve written several times about Jim Schrager who opened my eyes to the difference between strategy and hope at the University of Chicago.

Jim is one of the world’s leading thinkers on why businesses succeed. His resume as a practitioner, teacher and thought leader speaks for itself. I’m proud to call him a mentor and a friend.

Jim reads this blog regularly and wrote a follow up to my Steve Jobs post from last week. As with all great teachers, he answers some questions while raising new ones.  


Does Apple Need Jobs?

The stock market had a case of the nerves with the announcement that Steve Jobs was stepping aside again for awhile.  As we all know, the market can be at times a rational arbiter of things to come, or an utterly random marker.  Which is it this time?

A change of leadership poses a risk for all organizations.  Some make the transition well, others less so. Strategy is a powerful tool the best CEOs use to think about the future.  Within some boundaries, strategy allows us to process the news streams of the day and select what matters as we think about tomorrow.  One of those boundaries describes what decision researchers call the “task environment. ”That’s a fancy way of categorizing different situations based on the affect people have on it.  Strategy can explain many things in the business world, such as the rise of Toyota, the fall of K-Mart, and the reason why Fortune Brands is changing its portfolio of products.

But when we have a “fashion” business, strategy is much less useful.

Steve Jobs is one of the very few people with the skills required to prosper in the “technology fashion" business.  Like apparel, his business is very creative, and as we note over many decades, success in fashion is very hard to predict.  The folks who can run a business like this are rare, their talents cannot be easily transferred, and when they leave, in almost every instance, the company struggles.

Other fashion business examples beyond apparel include movies, books, TV, and radio.  CEO succession in these businesses poses a special risk.

The reason we watch the leaders of these businesses in a special way is because we know that strategy, used so well in other environments to find the best path forward, won't work in a fashion business. Jobs has had a series of great tech hits, that’s the mark of CEOs who master this tough challenge.  That he has no one else ready to take over is common, because those who can do this are exceptionally uncommon.

Try and find a fashion business that made a smooth transition between leaders, and you won’t find many. Most don't make a transition at all, and simply glide along without the power of new hits until they crash.

Strategy doesn't work here, and we simply must be humble about that.  The stock market is right to know there isn't another Steve Jobs ready to take the controls.

There isn't another Ralph Lifshitz either.

When either of these fashion leaders leaves the stage, it’s fair to expect big changes ahead for their companies.

Written by James E. Schrager, who teaches strategy at the University of Chicago, Booth School of Business.

Building A Valuable Creative Business: Step 3 - Change The Conversation

Yesterday was an interesting day for the future of creativity. An extensive article in Fast Company analyzing in some depth the state of the advertising industry. 

By 1pm it had made its way round the business.

By 2pm I’d received emails from three clients asking whether issues raised in the article had been considered in our most recent recommendations. They had. Relieved clients are happy clients.

By 3pm, I’d received a call from a journalist asking for my thoughts on the article. I said I thought there was one fact that stood out.

The average tenure of a CMO is 22 months.

You want to become more valuable to the economic buyer, solve that problem.

The question is how.

If you’re a regular reader here, you’ll know that I’ve been offering a practical, step by step guide to creating change. The guide begins here.

Step 3 in The Guide to Valuable Creative Business is:

Change The Conversation.

You can’t engender fundamental change in your business or your life in an instant. The organism, human or cultural, won’t allow it to happen easily. Or at all.

Instead, identify your smallest client, the loss of whom would not keep you up at night. The purpose of which is not to minimize your potential loss, but to minimize the resistence you have to overcome in order to take this step.

Ask to meet them in their office. Tell them you’re looking for an opportunity to invest in improving a client’s situation. Then ask them these five questions:

1. Why do you buy services from companies like mine?

2. What’s the best outcome of that work?

3. What’s the worst outcome?

4. What are the three biggest problems your company faces every day?

5. If I told you I was willing to invest $25,000 of our services to help you solve one of those problems, with an agreement that if it works we are paid $40,000 and if it doesn’t we are paid nothing, would that be valuable to you?

The value of this process to you is driven not by whether number 5 creates a new opportunity - one that realizes a 38% return incidentally. But by the knowledge you gain from numbers 1-4. And the confidence that comes from realizing that changing the paradigm starts by changing the conversation. And where it happens. 

 “Most significant changes that happen in society will happen from the bottom up, little phenomena that start locally and then multiply exponentially. Once you do that math, the exponential multiplication results in dramatic change.” Vinod Khosla

What you do with the information you gather, we’ll discuss next time.

The Art of Change: Step 2 - Self Awareness

Creative companies are floundering on a commodity based pricing model. One that pays for process not outcome. 

Which is ironic, because a lot of people tell me that it is the process that is broken. That creativity is most powerful in an environment free of restrictions and rules.

Which means that many creative companies live within a model that pays them for a process which they believe hurts the creativity that they are hired to produce.

Which is like being a doctor who believes he is giving poison to his patients. But takes their money anyway.

The good news is it’s not true.

Creativity is borne from restrictions. Of media. Or space. Or time. Those challenges being the fuel on which inspiration depends. 

And applying rules to the process ensures not the process but the outcome. The power of creativity being time and context sensitive.

Small solace to those committed to fighting only their most immediate problems. Shrinking margins, increased competition, a lack of respect. All of which are the by-product of a broader issue. 

Why do companies really pay for creativity?

The marketing industry - and its dependent, advertising - has one purpose. 

To create a relationship between a business and its customer. 

If what you’re doing is not doing that, why are you doing it?

And if you are doing it, why are you not being paid for doing it?

Because there isn’t a business in the world - that you want as a client - who would place more emphasis on your hourly cost than on your ability to help them create relationships with customers.

The cost benefit of which moves beyond the office of procurement, and into the office of the chief executive. A position that has never been filled for very long by anyone whose strategy is to save their way to success.

That you can create those relationships cost effectively is a requirement - the customer who comes at a marketing price tag of a million dollars per, being neither reliable nor scalable.

That your value will far exceed your current pricing methodology if you do so is a given.

Step 2 in The Guide To Valuable Creative Business is, therefore, as simple as this.

Be aware this weekend of how much is being spent by businesses trying to create a  relationship with you. 

And how little of it is impacting you. 

The Art of Change: Step 1 - A New Perspective

Change is difficult. A justification that explains the headlong race into business irrelevancy perpetuated by companies clinging to the status quo.

"Difficulty is the excuse history never accepts," said Edward R. Murrow. A man willing to take on the status quo, and create a new reality based on simple truths.

And the truth is simple. And much as we or others try to dress it, pervert it and twist it to our own needs, it is both resilient and reliable. Waiting patiently for us to come home, rewarding us with the joy that we are back, and reminding us again of the pleasure of belonging to something on which we can count.

For those whose life is devoted to selling creativity, our truth is that creativity possesses the power to change attitudes and behaviors. 

The value of which we deny when we charge only for the time it takes us to create. A perspective which also explains why we are unwilling to rock our own status quo.

For if we see change only as a by-product of what we do and not as the benefit of what we do, we focus only on the act of change. Not the outcome. Rewarding ourselves not for moving closer to our goals, but for simply surviving another day. A business plan that ends inevitably and ironically in change. Uncontrollable. Unavoidable. Unbearable.

But change is not a by-product or an after-thought.

Change is the result of the work we do.

And the better we do it, the more change we produce.

A perspective that we need to harness if we are to define our futures on our own terms.

Which brings us to Step 1 in:

The Guide To Valuable Creative Business.

I. Defining Change.

Email yourself the answers to these questions:

1. If I bought our largest client, what would my three biggest problems be?

2. Would I hire us to solve any of them?

3. What change would I expect to be caused by hiring us?

“A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step,” Confucius said.

On Thursday, we’ll take step 2.

Changing The Focus

I attended the AICP conference in New York on Tuesday. It wasn’t perfect. But it was a start. And it could become much more than that. I hope so. Industries facing the kind of seismic shifts going on in the world of advertising and marketing need provocation, illustration and guidance. In that order.

One of the themes at the conference was fear. The unwillingness of so many companies to act differently even when living a reality they can’t afford, and hoping that if they can survive, somehow that will equal success.

In the current production company model, $30-50 million in gross revenue generating a 5-8% operating margin is pretty common. 

For agencies, 20% margins are the benchmark. Two thirds of which goes to the holding companies. Some do better. Some worse. 

In both cases the business model is based on selling time.

Shoot days or people. The sell is dressed up in different ways. Director’s reel. Client case study. But the income stream is built on the same premise. 

How long it takes to make the work is more important than the impact it has.

An approach which would radically change our view of value if applied to the rest of the world.

Suddenly a painting that took a year to create, is 52 times more valuable than a Picasso that took a week.

And we would price music based on its length.

Which would instantly make, ‘The Chosen Priest and Apostle of Infinite Space’ the most expensive piece of music in history. If you want to listen to it, start today and you’ll be finished just in time for New Year. It’s two months long. And on the basis that a 3 and a half minute song on iTunes is $1.29, The Chosen Priest will cost you a little under $32,000. 

Price books the same way? Dickens wrote a story a week. Devalue him because of the ease with which he wrote.

And put aside creativity. Would you pay more for a longer or shorter flight to the same place? A longer or shorter dental appointment to cure the same toothache? 

The truth is, time is money. But not in the way that creative companies use it. 

For it is our time that we should value most. The one thing in our lives we can not control. None of us having the capacity to forecast our own death. Or, therefore, to place a ‘unit price’ on the value of a day. The language of procurement and cost consultants.

I believe the madness of creative companies has to stop.I believe that creative companies have to start selling their capacity to cause profound change in people’s attitudes and behaviors based on the value of that change.

I believe creative companies have to define the future on new terms. 

Otherwise, as James Akers, the Senior Director for Worldwide Procurement at Pfizer promised on Tuesday, “we will.”

A call to action for an entire industry.

Next week I’m going to start examining in practical terms how that change can actually take place. And how your company can start to take action that will create a different business model, one step at a time.

Re-Defining Failure Is Not The Same As Success

It’s been an interesting couple of months. And for those of you who have been kind enough to pass comment on my blogging absence I offer thanks. And only poor excuses.

I celebrated a milestone birthday a couple of weeks ago. An event that gave me a moment to pause. Or perhaps two.

As a species, we like living but hate aging. An example of cognitive dissonance that trumps all others. 

To exist, after all, requires both. A truth that becomes clearer as one does more of each of them.

In truth, this realization is less the result of age than experience. Experience being the sum total of all that we have lived, seen, heard and learned. 

Most of which is provided by others.

If our view of our own lives were based only on what we experienced first hand, our evaluation of how we are doing would be both kinder and narrower. The only measurement of progress being our own intrinsic drive to grow.

The purity of that scale, however, denies us a broader context of what might be possible. Whether provided by the inspiration of the achievements of others. Or the evidence of history that as a species we have almost limitless potential.

Because once we have satisfied life’s most basic requirements - food, shelter and procreation - the rest of life becomes a journey of exploration. 

Of ourselves, to begin with. 

Followed, hopefully sooner rather than later, of the world in which we live.

That exploration is filled with cognitive dissonance. A logical inconsistency in our beliefs. The first of which is provided by parents. Whom we see both as perfect in their command of the universe. And flawed in their unwillingness to do only what we want.

Parents, we come to discover, are people too. A realization that arrives, for many of us, with a price on its head. Taking with it security, confidence and trust. In my case, I worked for 40 years to reconcile the image of a father with my reality of mine. A challenge that for a while I decided came at too high a price. The resolution of which was a ten year detente. In which I saw him as dead. And he gave me no reason to think otherwise.

That experience I mentioned before brings with it two things. An awareness that we are not so perfect as we think. Nor others so flawed.

A realization that comes too late for many people.

The cause of which is an extraordinary investment in what Jon Elster describes as adaptive preference formation. The retrospective justification by which we define a failure as success.

In the living of a life, the lines between true failure and the willingness simply to throw away a dream for expediency sake become impossibly blurred. We are what the journey makes us. Each step a decision that can change the course of that life. Including the chance to go back and try again if we wish.

But in the running of a business, every decision makes the journey increasingly narrow. And the outcome of that journey increasingly consequential to the lives that are impacted by the direction a company takes. 

The weight of which makes the reactive, short-term management of many businesses even more confusing. The short-term cognitive dissonance between their statement of intent and their actions having profound long term consequences on their ability to evolve. 

The ultimate consequence of which is extinction or re-invention.

For the established business, re-invention is always expensive. And, if guided by the same adaptive preference formation that caused the re-invention to be necessary in the first place, usually fatal.

For unless the habit of justifying failure as a planned outcome is broken, the result will be only a different kind of failure. One that sees luck as a resource and hope as a strategy. A waste of two elements critical to any successful journey.

Success is defined by what we achieve in the context of what was possible. 

On a business level, that is easier to achieve when our standards become absolute, and our willingness to justify our own actions less so.

On a personal level, it is easier to achieve when we see ourselves and others as differently but equally flawed.

Today, I know one thing for certain.

My father reads my blog. 

As a measurement of success that might be my greatest achievement. 

And his.


Philosophical Friday: The Perfection of Imperfect Change

Earlier this week I wrote a post about The Politics of Change. My Mother-in-Law read it and sent me back a response about her frustration with the politics of America, the partisan and self-interested and divisive process that led us to the Health Care bill we have today. And why she was increasingly feeling as though her voice isn't heard in this political system, and that her vote didn't matter.

Katie and I don't always agree. But I believe in her heart. And I believe she matters. And that as flawed as the process is, it's easy to lose sight of progress in the vapid, political noise of today on all sides.

Here's part of my response to her this morning.

Philosophical Friday is at the end.


Don't forget,  Rosa Parks only got a seat on the bus a few years before I was born. Today Rosa Parks is the First Lady and her husband is the President. And his greatest rival to the office, whom he beat by less than one percent, was a person who ninety years ago wouldn't have been allowed to vote. A woman.

Change takes time. But once we establish a new expectation, however flawed, it becomes the platform on which the impossible can take flight.  It was only 42 years between Lindbergh's flight and Armstrong's walk. And you remember how much opposition there was during Vietnam to spending money to send men to the moon. Most of the technology we use today, including the technology you and I are using to have this exchange, came from that decision.

We should want perfect change. It demands more of all of us. But when the only alternative to the status quo is imperfect change we should celebrate it for what it is. A chance to raise our sights higher.

And to expect more the next time.

The Politics of Change

Change is in the air. That is to say, the Cherry Blossoms are predicted to bloom early in Washington this year.

Depending on your political view you might see it as Mother Nature’s bunting on display in celebration of Sunday night’s historic Health Care vote.

Or the end of the world.

It depends on your perspective.

Which is true of all change. In single owner businesses. Or growing governments. The politics of change is inherent to every upheaval of the status quo.

As a species we are driven towards and repelled by change in almost equal measure.

Our base DNA compels us to evolve. From primordial sludge to sentient beings. The underlying message of change or perish having been cellularly imprinted on us. A trait which has seen us take giant steps at light speed. We dismiss it now, but Lindbergh first crossed the Atlantic only 42 years before Armstrong walked on the moon.

42 years. A rate of evolution that suggests the iPad is simply a precursor to implants.

Technology has always had an advantage in that respect. It’s easier to provide a demonstration for one thing. Seeing the future is a lot safer than imagining it for many people.
For the politics of change also encompasses a Dark Art. Fear. That there is danger outside the cave we have built. That the known, dark and damp as it might be, is safer than the unknown.

Fear manifests itself in a variety of forms. Some unconscious. Some by design. And the larger the organization, the greater the certainty that it is fear has brought them to a place they now don’t want to be.

That we are still fearful is why we as a species are still here. That we are what we are, is evidence that we overcome it every day.

It is a fight great organizations take on with conscious commitment. By staring down the closed and the proprietary actor, and embracing the transparent and the authentic.

It has never been easier to discern authenticity. For today the internet records everything. Every word, every tweet, every utterance. Today we can measure intent against action. Thesis against reality. Say one thing and do another and we will know.

The onlyquestion now is whether we are prepared to do something about it.

Empathetically. For no matter how well presented, fear is an attempt to protect our own weakness. And no one judges those more harshly than we do ourselves.

But consistently. Because to ignore it or placate in others is to adopt it as our own guiding force.

A decision that leads us in only one direction.

And to one inevitable conclusion.

The Gift of 2009

The Chinese have a saying. May you live in interesting times.

Actually, it’s a curse.

As we put 2009 in the rear view mirror, I for one have a greater appreciation of Chinese irony.

The dawn of 2010 comes at the end of not just one of the most disruptive years in our lifetimes. But two.

A fact that is easy to overlook. But important to remember.

It’s been a long time since we have had a sense of stability. A year-long, polarizing Presidential campaign followed by a cataclysmic failure of the economy - the full consequences of which we have yet to see - have made for adrenaline filled days and sleepless nights. And the realization that a lot more was at stake than we had intended.

Evidence that as a species we do evolution better than revolution.

A lesson we rarely heed. By ignoring the future until it's pounding at the door. At which point we're reacting to someone else's change instead of planning our own.

Change is a constant. And no matter how hard you hang on to the known, the future is coming. A fact that a new January the 1st demonstrates numerically as well as theoretically. A sharp piece of punctuation with which to begin again.

Except that we aren’t beginning again. Unless we approach things differently. Which means:

  1. Learn from the past.

  2. Challenge the status quo.

  3. Invent the future.

Three attributes rarely practiced by business owners through the end of the first decade of the twenty first century.

The good news is that decade ended yesterday.

I’m writing a book called Plan The Last Day First. It’s a concept that I have developed through experience. Mine and others. And one whose validity and authenticity I have challenged even as I espouse its core beliefs and develop its thesis. I believe in it more today than ever.

It’s a concept that says that any life, business or individual, comes closer to fulfilling its potential when you embrace the essence of being a human being.

To leave a legacy.

We want to have made a difference.

And the sooner we talk about how, the sooner we can take steps to make sure our life gives us a chance to do so.

It is not always about money or power or influence or material gain.

But it is always about whether, on our last day of owning a business or living a life, we can look back and say we did the best we could.

2009 was a tough year. Let us hope that it is the hardest we ever know.

But 2009 has given us a gift.


May we use it in such a way that it makes 2009 worthwhile.

Happy New Year.

Business Unusual: Boards Summit '09

Earlier today Chris and I hosted a session at the Boards Summit called Business Unusual. It was an exploration of how companies can and must fulfil their long term potential if they are to meet the seismic changes facing creative businesses today.

I opened the presentation with a recap of the issues as we see them, then turned it over to Chris who hosted a compelling conversation with the owners of three companies: Furlined, Epoch and Motion Theory.

The text of my talk is here, together with the extraordinary images from Rodney Smith's work that I used to bring the narrative to life.


Good morning.  Welcome to Business Unusual.

To start, can I ask how many of you have a definition of what business AS usual means today?

Or are comfortable predicting what the rules will be a year from now.  Or five years from now?

The reason that no-one raised their hand is that the advertising food chain is dead. The model on which this industry has depended for fifty years, advertiser - agency - production company - post production and music doesn’t exist any more.

Today, everyone in this room faces a future that is entirely unknown.

One of the themes of the last two days has been the advertising industry’s adaptation to the digital age. Bob Greenberg’s talk this morning describes how the production model needs to adapt to the demands of digital technology.

Clearly, he’s right. He’s also one of the best, and only examples so far, of a company that started as one thing in the advertising supply chain evolving into something quite different. In the ten years since he led the way, you could argue no one has followed him.

But, in my view, talking about digital at all misses the point. It’s not the demands of digital that this industry is responding to.

It’s the demands of the consumer.

Which starts with the inability of traditional agencies to connect clients to audiences with the insight and impact they used to. Which in turn is creating all kinds of opportunities for other companies to step into that void.

Today, some of it is being filled by companies who are mastering the fact that connections to consumers are evolving weekly.

But even companies like Mekanism and Motion Theory and the Barbarian Group are faced with the reality that for all their fluidity and media ambivalence, where we will be as a society a year from now will require a completely new perspective.

Because the differences we’re participating in require a much bigger leap than even the introduction of television demanded.

The first television commercial was broadcast in 1941. To 6,000 homes in the New York metropolitan area. If the media planner had added Chicago to the buy, they would have reached another 50 television sets.

It took television 13 years to reach 50 million people.

It took facebook 9 months to add 100 million users. The same time it took Apple to download a billion iPhone apps.

The world is changing in real time. And when, almost certainly next summer, we are introduced to devices that finally merge entertainment and information into one by combining the best of our laptops and our televisions, it will all change again.

And yet, while the way society communicate undergoes a revolution, the advertising production community is gingerly exploring evolution.

The introduction of AICP Digital for instance, while clearly a step forward, also highlights how far this industry has to go. After all, today, what’s not digital?

The production community is trapped by its past. And can’t yet see its future. Which is no surprise. Give that we’re living through an epoch. A period of history that will be measured by what came before and what comes after.

Which makes the production community its own greatest obstacle.

Creative companies are usually started by people with a single-minded passion for a craft.

After working for someone else, they realize they’d rather work for themselves. Their talent and determination establishes their success. They focus on the work. Which attracts other like-minded people, the business grows, bringing financial success, more talent, perhaps another office, and for a number of years, 8-15 typically, they run a successful, and largely satisfying business.

Of which they are an integral and usually essential part.

Which isn’t a problem until one of two things happens. 

One, the founders start thinking about what they want to do next, even if that is simply less of what they do now. Which reduces the company’s emotional and talent power supply.

Or two, the industry changes overnight, and redesigning the business model means the founders have to see themselves entirely differently.

Because they are the business.

After working for someone else, they realize they’d rather work for themselves. Their talent and determination establishes their success. They focus on the work. Which attracts other like-minded people, the business grows, bringing financial success, more talent, perhaps another office, and for a number of years, 8-15 typically, they run a successful, and largely satisfying business.

Of which they are an integral and usually essential part.

After all, what’s MJZ without David Zander? Radical without John and Frank? Smuggler without Patrick and Brian?

We see this model all the time. It’s why there are very few creative service companies that are more than twenty years old.

A tiny handful that are thirty.

And only one that we can think of that is forty.

Because creative companies almost never outlive their founders.

Which if you think about it as an industry, is an extraordinary waste of human, emotional, financial and creative capital.

After all, why shouldn’t there be great long-term brands in the creative services arena. Why shouldn’t Smuggler, Epoch, Human, or Framestore be just as relevant thirty years from now? Adapting, innovating, leading the change into the beam-me up Scotty world of 2040.

We believe every company has the potential to outlive its founders.  And that would change everything.

Because when no one can predict what the world will look like even five years from now, those are exactly the kind of companies we need to build.

Companies that are fluid and adaptable.

Companies that see Business Unusual as Business AS Usual.

Companies that in our vernacular Plan The Last Day First.

This would represent a sea change. One that would unlock innovation in torrents. After all, creativity is the fuel of innovation, a natural resource in this industry.

It requires four things.

First. That we see the industry differently. Which the last two days have started to bring into focus. And which Bob’s talk provides one lens on. Though one that I think is still too agency centric.

Second. That we see our companies differently. And specifically, that we see what makes them great. Which is usually not what we think. After all, for 100 years Kodak thought they were a film company. They weren’t. They were an image capture company. A difference they realized too late.

Third. That we see ourselves differently. As innovators. Not passengers. Today, you can sit as high on the creativity food chain as you think you have a right to.

And Fourth. That as founders we learn how to make ourselves irrelevant. A condition most business owners avoid pathologically until it is too late to make a meaningful difference. But which is essential if your business is to outlive you.

Today the advertising food chain is one link long.

The advertiser.

What you do about that depends on how you build your company from here.


Philosophical Friday: Living for Today. Planning For Tomorrow

As part of a weekly feature, we're going to start dedicating Friday's posts to a philosophical thought. A reflective end to the week.

Here's the first. Let us know what you think.


The announcement that 79 metro areas in North America have come out of recession is good news and bad.

The good news is that a strengthening economy carries everyone along for the ride.

The bad news is that good news makes people go back to bad patterns.

Most of which involve looking intently at the present.

Focus on today as a path towards personal tranquility.

But look first at tomorrow if you want to build a better business.

After all, one year from today is still today.

No matter how hard you stare at it.

Changing The World. $25 at a Time.

I had a fascinating breakfast yesterday with two entrepreneurs who exemplify all that is great about the capacity for small businesses to make a big difference.

Each in their own and very distinctive ways have built something extraordinary from nothing, developed careers, supported families and causes, changed the way we see the world, and have done so with decency, integrity and humanity.

And based on our conversation, they’re not done yet.

It was a very invigorating beginning to the day. And as I walked back to my office I thought, not for the first time, that entrepreneurs have recognizable DNA.

A truth which came thundering home when a friend sent me this link last night.

Kiva is an association that lets you lend money to a specific entrepreneur with one simple goal.

To lift them out of poverty.

The picture on the front page is of Nulu Nabunya, a 50 year old Ugandan widow with four children, who is looking for a $525 loan to help her build her knitting business. She has already borrowed and repaid twenty loans and her ambition is to own a sweater factory.

There are 870 entrepreneurs showcased, in countries from Cambodia to Togo, from Mongolia to Peru. Their funding requests range from $385 to $2500.

As I looked at some of the pictures, I was struck by three things.

1. All entrepreneurs are impacted by the same issues. Concept. Customers. Cash flow. And Credit.

Get any one of them wrong and we’re out of business.

2. The ability to see a better future does not require specific economic, geographic, cultural, educational or environmental conditions.

It requires a willingness to believe in the possible.

3. Entrepreneurs live in the real world. Where the ideal meets the practical.

And today, I for one have a different appreciation of what both words mean.

66% = Two Out Of Three

One of the issues we hear from clients most frequently is the difficulty of getting their people to work together.

And until you solve that problem, any hope of making substantive change to your business is on long-term hold.

Long-term as in forever.

The solution lies in two basic instincts we share as a species.

  1. We change our behavior when we believe the result makes the effort worthwhile.

  2. We want to express ourselves. To have a voice. Sometimes literally.

I can offer you no better proof than this video two friends posted on Facebook yesterday.

I don’t speak Swedish. I suspect you don’t either. It doesn’t matter.

66% is a universal language.

The Non-Denial Denial

In the darkest moments of Watergate, with the White House engaged in full frontal attack, Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post kept Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation moving forward by focusing on the substance of the administration’s response.

Loud. Confident. Assertive.

Filled with reasons about why the accusations couldn’t be true.

But absent any evidence that they weren’t.

Bradlee came to describe them as non-denial denials.

Politics has used Watergate as a new benchmark. Anything above breaking-in is acceptable. Anything below, we can talk about.

Which is fine, because we’ve become more cynical consumers of politics. And why when a politician gives even a reasonably straightforward answer we greet them as champions of change.

But in our own lives, personally and professionally, the non-denial denial has become a destructive impulse to which we all succumb.

In the last few months I have been increasingly aware of the determination with which we paint reality to suit our own narrative.

We don’t deny that things are tough. We simply tell ourselves that somehow it will all come right. That the future will take care of it. That we’ll worry about it later. The current benchmark is after Christmas.

I have had five conversations recently with smart, self-aware, successful people whom I admire greatly. Some work for companies. Some own them.

In every case I have come away stunned by the paper-thin reality to which they are clinging. And their artful articulation of why the evidence they themselves present does not in fact draw the conclusion I suggest.

The do not deny the evidence. They do not say I am missing something in my analysis. They just say it isn’t that way.

A non-denial denial.

The truth is hard. But denying it is ultimately much more costly. And finding it is free.

It requires three things.

Someone you trust.
A willingness to ask hard questions
A willingness to answer them honestly

It doesn’t matter what title they go by. Friend. Relative. Consultant. Coach.

But there is no one I know who doesn’t need to go through this process.

Including us.

Which is why we just hired a consultant.

Because the future is coming and I for one want to meet it on my terms.

The facts. The truth.

Powerful platforms on which to build a better business.

Pass It On

Last year’s university freshman are a historic group. They are the first generation for whom the internet has existed since birth.

If you are reading this blog you have developed a facility for technology that would have astounded you twenty years ago had someone described the communication capability to which we now have access.

Free content on any subject, instantly searchable and accessible from anywhere in the civilized world. Oh, and wirelessly.

For most of us, no matter how comfortable we become, there is a degree of awe that comes with the opportunity to converse like this.

For a twenty year old, they can imagine no other way. They look forward. And ask for more. The difference, as Sir Ken Robinson points out, of being digital natives versus digital immigrants.

A better business embraces the future.

Today, doing so requires a leap of faith to test even the most devoted agents of change. And glasses. Two hurdles most twenty year olds don’t have to contend with.

But for all their hope and exuberance, they’re looking to us to lead. For at least a while longer.

I think it’s time we did. By looking forward. With purpose.

Yesterday was great.

Tomorrow will be better.

Pass it on.

We’ve Always Done It This Way

Thirty three percent of men do not wash their hands in public washrooms. Nor do twelve percent of women.

With H1N1 apparently on its way back, how many of you expect those numbers to change significantly?

Count me in the nays.

In the last year, despite the worst economic melt-down in most of our lifetimes, America’s alcohol consumption habits have remained at sixty year norms. As a nation, we are not apparently drowning our sorrows in drink.

On the other side of the coin, one in three has reduced their personal debt ‘significantly’, and thirty one percent of those asked said they are now in the habit of spending less.

As a species, we do not change our habits in response to threats.

We change them in response to events. Typically ones that frightens us.

By which time the damage has been done.

In every company it’s essential to separate culture from habit.

The first is part of a company’s DNA. The second is a repetitive action, conducted without thought.

An important distinction in building a better business.

And a better life.

Change. The End.

We sold our house on Tuesday. An end to a lot of timelines. Twenty five years in Chicago. Fifteen years in our home. Eighteen months on the market. Two months of negotiation.

I’ve done a lot of deals in the last few years. There weren’t any harder than this. We walked away a number of times. Initially on price - until our broker told us it was this or wait a year. And then increasingly on dignity.

Change is one thing. Capitulation on someone else’s terms is another.

If you are in a situation that you have decided must be changed, creating the conditions in which you can overcome your own fears is critical.

You have to burn your ships. But you also have to make sure you’re not relying on third party, fourth-hand information to make decisions. Humility is a scarce and valuable resource in a negotiation and it evaporates quickly as we sense we are losing control. Add not being heard to the equation and it disappears entirely.

For a while on this occasion we let brokers and lawyers do all the talking. Then our broker did a very smart thing. She humanized us. She asked me to send her an email outlining our view of the deal. Then she passed that on to their broker. Who of course passed it on to the buyer. We got a response, and suddenly each of us was dealing with a human being.

In every future deal I do, I’m insisting on talking directly to the other side. No exceptions. I blogged about this a few weeks ago.

In the heat of an emotional battle, mostly with oneself, it's hard to take even the best advice. But one of the benefits of writing this blog is that it puts what I think down in black on white. It’s hard to ignore that.

Seventeen days ago, we received an email from the buyer's lawyer via ours. It accused us of being liars. I may be a lot of things but telling lies comes very, very hard. I can remember every untruth I’ve ever told. And they haunt me. Needless to say, the accusation went down very badly.

As far as I was concerned, that was it. They weren’t getting my house. My home. My lifeboat. Not those people. Not dead.

Lawyers don’t do deals. You do.

I went back and re-read my blog. Then I re-read the buyer’s email. Its tone did not match his lawyer’s. I see that a lot. Lawyers with big egos thrashing about to make an impression. Often it has the inverse effect to the one their client is hoping for. At best it’s boorish. At worst it’s deal ending. Most of them get paid regardless. I’d rather pay for results than bombastic letters.

Chris and I decided to heed my own advice. We invited the buyer and his family to come to the house so that we could show them round in person, take them through its eccentricities and explain the work we were doing to ensure we handed it over in the best possible condition.

This strategy was not universally supported. In fact we couldn’t find anyone who agreed with it. But we were convinced of two things. Transparency is a powerful lubricant. And the only behavior you can control is your own. If we acted honorably at least we had one foundation we could lean on.

It was a turning point. The instant we met we knew we had sold to the right people. They love our house as we do. And when I handed over the keys for the final time, the fear I felt was not for the future of our former home.

The last few days have been extraordinary emotional. Much more so than I had imagined. And the sense of loss is profound. Twenty-five years is more than half my life. And 650 West Hutchinson Street was the first home in which love was more than just a word to me.

Those are hard things to give up consciously in the belief that the future is better met elsewhere. And on one level, by leaving Chicago and my home behind, I feel I have betrayed places that have given me so much.

But the fact is life had become too easy. Too rhythmic. Too settled. And that is not a foundation for growth and exploration.

And so I step out into the storm and face the unknown. Grateful beyond words for the past I have lived. And hopeful for the possibilities that tomorrow will bring.