Yeah, this is a campfire discussion for sure! Sitting under the stars dreaming about how a chunk of money would change our lives (though it hardly ever does). But unless you know Warren Buffet’s 84-year old sister and can talk her team into giving you more than the average $4,800, this is just hypothetical.
Answering that question, though, clarifies what’s important to you, how you want the future to be different, and how you identify the performance gaps at your shop.
Try asking your staff to answer this question for the next staff meeting, giving them just these two guidelines to follow, and then compare your answers:
- We have to use it all in one year.
- It can’t go to higher pay for any existing staff, including the principal(s).
As you try this hypothetical exercise, here’s how you might frame your thinking. What investment, over time, will give our firm the greatest separation from the rest of the crowded competitive field? So what are the investments that will achieve that goal?
Buying new computers for the creative department will pause the whining for a few months, but it’ll be a rounding error in your results. Hiring new people–without giving them different things to do–will perpetuate more of the same. That new facility will be a nice tool to attract employees, but culture can exist anywhere and doesn’t need a ping pong table or espresso machine or Edison lamps. A new website could be a boost to your new business efforts, but you’ll waste some of that money doing cool things that complicate your message rather than distill it. It will win awards, but will it convert to a different kind of new business?
Nope, I’d recommend that you spend it on two things:
- Research to make the insight around your positioning unassailable.
- Business model innovation to reconstruct your delivery methods.
No other use of that money will build an alternate track that takes you to an entirely new destination of profit, impact, and deep satisfaction. The track that your competitors are on just isn’t even going to the same place as yours! You’ll quit going to industry conferences to learn from peers because you’ll have too many invitations to speak at global gatherings of business leaders. A fresh set of employees–truly extraordinary people–will be drawn to work at a different kind of marketing firm that’s reinventing an industry.
To expand on the first recommendation, here’s the kind of primary research that I’m picturing for you:
- Narrow the perennial questions that emerge from your stated area of expertise. Is it some combination of a theory of change as it relates to wellness behavior? Or maybe how your clients could spend less money on external branding and rely on internal alignment instead?
- Assemble a team from anthropology, research design, sociology, organizational development, innovation, history, social impact, market research, etc.
- Supplement this with an ad-hoc advisory team of 240 people from different locales, socio-economic strata, educational attainment, and political persuasion.
- Hire a team of SPSS experts to validate the findings.
- Turn a team of speakers and authors loose to spread the insight.
- Apply this to problem-solving and client delivery.
The second suggestion is about business model innovation. The insights that you’ll gather are important, but so are the delivery methods. (This webinar is an overview of a conference that’s already been held, but there’s some good information in here on business model innovation.) There’s only so much you can do with a billable hour, and you’re going to have to get off that treadmill. I see lots of angry pushback on hourly billing, but it’s driven largely because you feel abused by your clients and not because you have much of an alternative. Until you have something truly more valuable than sixty minutes of your time, don’t waste too much energy getting angry about it. Two decades ago we were whining about clients taking away the pass-through commission. A decade later we were whining that they were building their own departments. Now we’re whining about procurement. Clients beat you up for one simple reason: they can. Until you give them a better alternative, they’ll keep doing it.
This combination of research and business model innovation fits together like clasped hands. If you’re still selling the same things a decade from now, clients will keep pushing back. It’s going to take giving yourself an edge–real research and innovative delivery–to win this game. I’m on your team, but I’m a little disappointed at how little has changed except the terminology. The research I see in agency after agency is more like structured thinking–not insightful research.
The common thread in the remarkable agencies out there is research delivered through innovative business models. I want to quit my job and go work for them sometimes!
Since you probably aren’t going to win $1 million dollars–which surely should be adjusted for inflation by now–how about this instead. Rearrange your staffing and budget to at least move in this direction. I’ll love you for it and your clients will begin to see you in a different light.
Keep challenging yourself to be a truly different kind of firm.