10 ways future-thinking clients are bringing the Boom! to Business Unusual

Uncategorized May 04, 2020

I slammed my laptop shut.

It was 10pm

I’d annoyed myself by falling for shameless ‘industry clickbait’; some eager, ex-agency casualty of war proclaiming that their new venture was set to

“capture the zeitgeist and propel their clients into the next era of millennial bullsh*t through a futureproofed, full service proposition that promises excellence and delivers mediocrity”…

You know the sort.

My annoyance was not that I’d been duped by an algorithm. Rather, this focus on the ‘future’ has, for too long, been a cross borne by agencies. An apologetic, self-flagulating, hair-shirt wearing confession to the church of creativity that this is somehow all ‘their fault’ and they’re in need of a collective ‘physician, heal thyself’ moment. Maybe.

I’m no apologist for agencies by the way. The current business models are shot. There’s a burning platform. This sh*t just got real. But you knew that, right?

Poacher and gamekeeper

It’s just that I’ve been both the poacher and the gamekeeper as it were. I look at this ‘industry’ through both lenses and see both the good and the bad. Fundamentally, through my work, writing and speaking with the Boom!, I want to inspire all sides to unleash better, more creative, supremely powerful work. And, like one of my previous essays on the client/agency relationship, I can’t help but think clients need to take a look at themselves too.

In that essay, I glibly posited that agencies get the clients they deserve. But for all this wobbling mass of rhetoric and reform, I can’t help but think that clients get the agencies they deserve. Ah, but Scott, don’t they select them through a rigourous pitch process I hear you retort. Of course. But all too often, the rigour and thinking from the client side doesn’t stack up and they choose agencies based on loose briefs or unclear priorities only to change them with the frequency of a bottom 3 Premier League club manager’s photo.

On that tenuous theme (and for those who like their football analogies), I’d frankly like to see less of the Pardews, Hugheses and Allardyces and more of the Silvas, Klopps and Guardiolas — those who we’re talking about as the future of the game and not the dinosaurs staring at the incoming meteor.

I’m no Jedi

And, by the way, I’m not sitting here in an ivory tower thinking I’m some sort of Jedi (ninja, guru or other ridiculous appendage promoted people add when told ‘you can make up your own title and business cards’). Like lots of CMOs I speak with, we’ve all been guilty of the sh*t in sh*t out trapdoor; not briefing with enough precision, lacking clarity on success criteria, over-egging the budget. That’s why, over the last 5 years I’ve been learning from over 100 CMOs globally; having conversations (lots), shadowing what they do, probing them for insights in order to distill what I see as 10 powerful behaviours that sets ‘the client of the future’ apart from their peers. It’s not too technical (there are some givens that I don’t touch on i.e. customer-centricity, great presenter — the stuff that gets put in your job-description).

It’s not exhaustive either — roles change and evolve over time and in the next 10 years, there’ll be loads of new jobs that don’t exist right now that will shape this. That’s why these are geared not just at CMOs but all C-Suite leaders — after all, you’re all part of the ‘client’ chain somewhere along the way.

My point is that I’ve seen first hand the impact of these skills in many of the clients I work with. Not all at the same time but the combination of these powerful behaviours make for engaged, inspiring and ultimately great clients. I call them ‘future thinking clients’ and, if my clickbait worked, you’re exactly the type of person this is meaningful to. So, before you slam your laptop shut, let’s get into the meat.


How future thinking clients bring the Boom!

1: They articulate the business they’re in

They’re not selling pet food — they’re helping owners espouse their love for their pets.

They’re not pushing outerwear — they’re making a statement about how green issues affect us all.

The best clients I work with really understand the ‘why’ of their business and ruthlessly go after all the opportunites they can to answer the needs of the people who engage with the brand.

They’re then brilliant at working with the business as a WHOLE to deliver this — whether it’s logistics, the call centre or the product itself, they can articulate clearly to their agencies their expectations and the role that they need to play in making this real for their consumers.

With the most common reason for agencies losing a client being that ‘they didn’t understand my business’, it’s critical that clients themselves really understand and articulate their business, it’s scope and all the moving parts in order to direct the agency missile to the right target.

Next time you’re with your client: ask them what business they’re really in and where are the areas of most impact that will deliver that proposition.

2. They understand that if they don’t join the dots in new ways then they’re leaving money on the table

As a client, there’s always something new and shiny to look at. I call it ‘Monkey See’ mode (and I did it myself). These distractions mean money gets poured into projects which either exist already or have already proven not to work.

The insightful clients see their business as a series of sunk costs and assets that are yet to be leveraged. Whether it’s the understated retail portfolio, the unloved data pile or the poorly managed service team, they quickly recognise that these assets can be used to deliver point 1 really powerfully.

Clients I’ve worked with have leveraged the power of long neglected partnerships or untouched business models to create low friction, low cost, high impact solutions for a fraction of their budget.

Next time you’re with your client: ask them what dots aren’t being joined up right now. Be prepared that it maybe that their agency partnerships are the dots that aren’t being joined up correctly so get on the front foot.

3. They avoid ‘innovation theatre’

The noisy cousin to point 2.

With so much technology being thrust into people’s sensory organs and the lure of a warm rose at Cannes, it’s never been more desirable to find a way to justify an Augmented Reality, 3D social media platform for a disruptive 

challenger flip-flop brand.

The reality is, these things rarely deliver and are high cost, low impact distractions that Steve Blank calls ‘innovation theatre’.

I’m not saying the best clients don’t experiment with innovation. What I am saying is that their starting point is different — they first clarify point 1 then seek out the best way to deliver it. They use innovation with a purpose — to make their consumers’ lives better — not to Netflix and chill them.

Next time you’re with your client: ask them what innovations they’re looking at and why they believe they’ll support the ‘why’ of their business.

4. They embrace wicked problems

I’ve been working with several clients who are facing what would be known in the media as ‘existential’ issues (as opposed to ‘experiential’ issues which are usually solved with a quick phone call) — AKA, wicked problems. There’s no immediate, easily definable solution.

To get around them, I often start with what I call ‘heresy questions’ — these are the questions relating to your business that everyone knows need to be answered but no-one dare talk about. The Voldermort of the business world. I’m always amazed at how, once the wicked problem is broken down via heresy questions, future thinking clients open up, discuss and look business-wide for a collaborative approach to joined up solutions.

They realise that these issues aren’t solved quickly. They know that there’s a great deal of uncertainty. But they do know they don’t want to be the next Blockbusters and that they are only 3 bad decisions away from it.

Clients who can articulate their truest existential problems and work with you to help solve them are true future thinkers.

Next time you’re with your client: ask them what their heresy question is and what their plan is to take it to the business and solve it.

5. They create a learning culture

F*ck failure. I mean it. It’s the most overated schtick in the world. It’s the chino wearing, open shirted, $5000 dollar sneaker shuffling entrant to the party — the person who tells everyone how often they’ve failed as they pull away with a Maserati roar.

It might work in startups but failure isn’t something that the average Account Director or Brand Manager aspires to. Not least because even when others are saying it, the corporate culture isn’t supporting it. Failing for many means gambling with rent payments, bills, family life. After all, like the Premiership, this is a results business.

Future thinking clients accept and understand this. They refer to a ‘learn fast’ culture rather than a ‘fail fast’ one — one that rewards only the power of learning as opposed to calling out the way you got there. And, according to Gallup, one of the top reasons people come to work is to learn and develop more (not fail fast). Win win.

They embed a structured ‘test and learn’ culture, experimenting frequently to arrive at iterated solutions. This keeps up a sense of momentum, joint learning and sharing all of which enriches the business and the agency/client relationship. Why repeat things that you know haven’t worked? Why not share more? Future thinking clients get this.

Next time you’re with your client: ask them how you can jointly build a learning culture and forge powerful test and learn relationships.

6. They ‘sharpen the saw’

You all know the Abraham Lincoln quote about sharpening the saw right?

If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first four hours sharpening the saw.

The greatest clients I know do this regularly. They recognise that thinking time is a rare commodity in this fast paced world and will only get more so. But, they prioritise it over everything else. It also means that they’re more likely to follow Michael Porter’s mantra of deciding what not to do rather than scatter-gunning like a 17 year old with birthday money in JD Sports.

Whenever they are about to embark on a big, status-quo-busting project or something that requires a new way of working, they spend real, quality time thinking through what is required, which questions need to be answered, who will help them deliver it best. In other words, they really fall in love with the problem before firing off solutions.

My favourite kind of clients will even distill it into something called the ‘One Metric that Matters’ i.e. what single measure would best articulate success over and above everything else.

This level of thinking, crystalisation and direction means they surround themselves with the best teams and partners with which to deliver ultimate success.

Next time you’re with your client: ask what they decided not to do strategically and what the problem is they’re truly trying to fix. If it’s not clear, be part of the process of sharpening the saw

7. They actively embrace diversity

The debate around diversity is Hydra-esque and too expansive to cover here.

However, future thinking clients focus on the macro power of diversity rather than its splinter factions. That is diversity of thought.

They also recognise that it likely won’t sit right outside their double aspect office. One of the biggest challenges facing business right now is how to harness the power of diverse thinking when it won’t work for you.

Future thinking clients realise this and make broader connections with the diversity that exists way outside of their building. They don’t need diverse talent to work for them, just with them. They are constantly looking for people who will help them deliver point 1, working around them not trying to make them conform to their culture.

It’s powerful — as we move into a world where in the US, for example, upto 50% of the workforce will be freelance by 2020, understanding that empty promises and a few apprenticeships won’t touch the sides compared to an active and evolving outreach programme for diverse thinkers that will revolutionise their business. Understanding that the solution to your problem might be better solved by a media loving coder in Peru than your team in London is testament to the power of this new level of diversity. Service platforms (which are the future in my view) such as ThinkSprint are helping future thinking clients do this right now.

Next time you’re with your client: plan how you can bring diversity of thought to the table to get fresh perspectives, different viewpoints or solutions you hadn’t created. Don’t think it undermines you — it positions you and them as future thinkers.

8. They are 10x magnanimous

Indulge me.

This may feel like a minor point but I loved Cheryl Strayed’s advice to people in their 20s where she said —

“Be 10 times more magnanimous than you thought you could be — your life will be 100 times better for it”

Clients can get a bad rep in agencies. Treating agencies or partners like suppliers with phrases like JFDI, phone calls over the weekend, ridiculous expectations and deadlines or just being plain rude is the behaviour of dinosaurs.

Simply put, clients who are good to be around, generous with their time, feedback, support and reward attract the best talent. That may be internal for their teams, external for the agencies or even broader for networking opportunities.

The world is smaller, reputations are harder to manage and word (good and bad) spreads quicker than ever — the clients who recognise this go the extra mile, make better connections, open up, show their vulnerability and, in turn, attract powerful allies who can help them succeed way beyond the confines of the role.

Next time you’re with your client: have a conversation about your working relationship and discuss what opportunities exist on both sides to help make the relationship more powerful.

9. They fire up their people

Deeply connected to point 1, future thinking clients can rally the troops and inspire action at every level. They practice what I call ‘extreme empowerment’ trusting vast teams to make decisions that, as Matthew Pinsent describes, ‘move the boat forward’.

They are comfortable with the big and small conversations. Part of the revolution at Manchester City has been in no small part to Pep Guardiola knowing everyone by name and engaging in frequent conversations.

Those who dismiss Glass Door reviews as ‘the outspoken and disgruntled’ totally miss the point — they are the voice of your business and, like consumers who raise issues, they need to be addressed.

Future thinking clients know that the smallest gestures are also the most important, moments of vulnerability coupled with leading the charge make them effective and powerful leaders who earn the right to lead. They regularly ask ‘what right do I have to lead?’, their behaviour is driven by a moral compass and they’re happy to be themselves in any context.

Future thinking clients recognise that if you look after your people, they’ll look after your business — this they extend to their agency partners and keep them close to organisational changes, strategic shifts and general people issues.

Next time you’re with your client: ask what you can do to help fire up their people

10. They relentlessly learn, unlearn and relearn

Alvin Toffler’s quote has stuck with me for years and I’ve seen it time and time again play out in the best clients and leaders I’ve worked with.

“The illiterate of the 21st Century won’t be those who can’t read and write. It will be those who can’t learn, unlearn and relearn”

Future thinking clients get this. They don’t rely on the ‘way things are done here’ routine nor do they believe that the playbook that has served them well until now is the one that will project them into the next 10 years.

They’re constantly expunging old information or learnings that are no longer of any use. They’re signing up for new courses in CX, coding or e-commerce. They’re refreshing their understanding of innovation and technology. They’re reshaping their people skills. They’re getting more and more under the skin of the business in order to drive it forward.

They’re asking ‘stupid questions’, writing their thoughts and asking for feedback, networking out of their usual sphere of influence and testing new approaches. This feeds directly into the learning culture point made earlier, but this is a more personal and visceral undertaking. The more they know, the more they realise they don’t know. And this makes them curious and hungry.

The future thinking client will always have the edge because they’re flexible and can let go of behaviours that no longer work for them. Those that cling to the status quo find that the meteor hits them first.

Next time you’re with your client: schedule a 1 hour meeting to understand what you can collectively unlearn and relearn based on a recent experience/project and create an action plan


So what?

I’m guessing if you’ve read any of my previous stuff, you’ll be asking me ‘so what?’ right about now.

As I said, the debate surrounding the ‘future of’ is typically applied to agencies, their business models and their people.

Having worked both sides, I truly believe that this discussion shouldn’t be thrust onto one side of a collaborative relationship. There’s no bad cop here, no wayward husband or stooge. Clients AND agencies need to be prepared to adapt to what’s happening around them and in their relationships.

Business is changing — there are new models, new routes to market, new dots to join. There are latent opportunities within the business, within the people who you work with and the people who you don’t yet. There’s no one solution. There’s uncertainty. It’s wobbly. It’s uncomfortable.

Yet, I see an incredible opportunity for clients in the next decade if they focus on the right things and recognise that it’s not about what you say, it’s about what you do. And that requires a clear understanding of what your business is, how it makes people’s lives better and who to partner with along the way to make it happen.

The future isn’t tomorrow Marty, it’s now.

Are you part of it?

*closes laptop



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