When looking to interview a strong voice in branding, it’s nearly impossible for the name Allen Adamson not to come up. The man has held roles on the client side, sure, but it’s Allen’s view from the consulting angle that offers a host of knowledge about where we’ve been as an industry and, more important, where we’re going. Not only has he held senior management positions at the likes of Ogilvy & Mather, but Allen was also Chairman of Landor Associates for more than two decades. That’s all before founding his own company, Metaforce, in an effort to further disrupt the marketing and product consultancy business.
Allen has written several books on the topic of branding, drawing on his time working with clients such as GE, Johnson & Johnson, FedEx, and HBO. Here, he took the time to respond to some of our most pressing questions about his career, his observations, and his vision.
Brandingmag: You have witnessed big shifts in the creative industry while chairing Landor North America for 21 years. What changes were most important to you and to the consultancy business?
Allen Adamson: When I started my career back in the Mad Men days at Ogilvy & Mather, agencies employed functional teams, each with an incredible depth and breadth of experience. From research to media, creative to client services, these professional teams were pillars of the agency business. They worked together on a client challenge, each bringing a different perspective, sharing information, ideas, and opinions, resulting in powerful and robust strategic recommendations. There was – and is – no magic formula to developing and executing successful strategic and creative branding initiatives. If you give experienced people the time to focus and really dig into a problem, to come at it from multiple points of view, you’ll get smart outcomes. The situation was the same at Landor. Expert teams surrounding a problem from 360 degrees, working and iterating, interrogating each other, cross-pollinating their views to get to powerful solutions.
The changes I’ve experienced over the past 20 years have been the result of multiple factors. First, functional teams that were once considered agency “pillars” are increasingly being outsourced, be it research, media, or creative responsibilities. This is for reasons financial and otherwise. This has resulted in a linear, conveyor-belt approach to problem-solving, one organization handing off its part of the process to another, not nearly as effective or valuable as surrounding a problem from 360 degrees. Single-skill agencies will sell only what they make. Success in marketing requires a symbiotic approach. Second, timeframes have become increasingly truncated, in good part the result of the accelerating pace of change in the marketplace. In addition to this, over the years, the industry’s ability to attract, keep, and compensate the best strategic and creative talent has been compromised by the rise of technology companies (Google, Apple, etc.) who are now attracting the best and the brightest…often leaving agencies with less raw horsepower.
As I said, there is no magic formula for solving complex marketing challenges. You need expert teams taking a circular, focused approach, and given a reasonable timeframe. The best consulting firms today put teams together that represent the best in every domain, who work from strategy to execution in unison as efficiently as possible.
Bm: Over the last decade, as discussions started shifting from marketing to branding, and from advertising to experience, peoples’ roles in companies and agencies began changing, as well. Is the combination of “Brand Director” and “Experience Agency” the right one for a brand’s success, now and in the future?
AA: Roles and their respective titles are not the issue when it comes to a brand’s success. From branding to marketing, advertising to experience, there have always been an array of interchangeable titular buzzwords, be it “Chief People Officer,” “Chief Engagement Officer,” or “Director of Experience.” It’s how these titles interact with each other, and with a shared objective, that is the primary challenge – the ability for all involved to zoom out and look at a client’s problem in a holistic manner. As I said in answer to the previous question, as you further specialize and create discrete experts in a particular dimension of branding, each operating independently, you’re more likely to lose sight of the bigger picture. It’s the forest for the trees situation.
Having said this, brand “experiences” do matter more than ever before. People share experiences and word of mouth is critical to brand success. For an experience to be shared, it has to be extraordinary. People don’t share mediocre. You cannot create powerful brand experiences if you keep shifting your delivery focus to whatever the shiniest new tactical object might be. It’s akin to watching 7-year-olds play soccer. Everyone on the field is chasing the soccer ball. No one is on offense. No one is on defense. In order to deliver an overall extraordinary brand experience, you need to ensure everything you do – across all points of customer touch – is in alignment with the overall brand promise and business strategy.
Bm: You have overseen brand management and development for some of the companies that have defined what a successful brand should be. Surely, change has also occurred for Landor in all these years. How did you manage the brand and development, when client needs and expectations were also evolving rapidly?
AA: One of the most critical factors for success in marketing and branding today, the result of such a fast-evolving marketplace, is the need for agility. You must foster a process that enables you to come up with solutions for client challenges as quickly, but as effectively, as possible. At Landor, we did this by taking a page out the technology handbook – prototyping. Working in an integrated manner, we created a number of potential alternative solutions and brought them “to life” in order to assess their value and their viability. Creating prototypes, testing them and reworking them, we were able to accelerate our brand development process.
Through this prototyping process, we were able to more powerfully align specific brand solutions with how consumers would relate to the brand in market. We were able to more powerfully align branding solutions to a client’s strengths. Prototyping, creating rough solutions based on research, enabled us to become more agile, to think, but not overthink, and to catch the wave in the market before it was too late.
Bm: Both you and Jonah Sachs talk about Blackberry in your books. This is a textbook example of how a company remained relevant by becoming one with its most powerful product brand. But Jonah says that Blackberry’s fall was due to its incapacity to completely reinvent itself. The Blackberry experience (and keyboard) was beloved by its users, but they were fewer by the day. What can a brand do when presented with such an extreme situation?
AA: In preparation for writing Shift Ahead, we looked at over 100 organizations, some of whom had successfully shifted ahead of changes in the market to stay relevant, others who had not. We spoke to a number of the top people who were associated with each of these organizations. One of our macro conclusions, not just for Blackberry, but for most of the companies that had failed to shift ahead, was that it was usually not just one factor that they had failed to do right. It was usually a combination of two, three or four things that led to the demise. Yes, the keyboard was a differentiator for Blackberry. But, in addition to the “too little, too late” reaction to the changes in smartphone technology and functionality, the most significant factor in Blackberry’s demise was its arrogance. Those at the top didn’t take the challenge to their business model – and their product model – seriously enough. They were myopic in their belief that people would never give up their keyboards. Their arrogance clouded the fact that people didn’t just want an email machine – they wanted functionality that would connect them to every aspect of their lives. Blackberry’s perspective on what category they were competing in was wrong. As I said, what they eventually did was too little and way too late to save them.
Bm: Do you think that a constant relationship with a management and growth company, such as your own, would have made for a completely different outcome for Blackberry?
AA: Unfortunately not. Blackberry had some great advisors during its tenure at the top, but it’s often the culture of a company that determines its survival potential. As I said, its arrogance prevented it from listening to and believing people. I’m sure many professionals approached them over the years and told them the keyboard wasn’t a viable long-term solution given what consumers were delightfully discovering was possible from other handheld communication devices. The shifts in the marketplace were clear to everyone except Blackberry. They were living in a cocoon of their own making. Among the things we found in our research was that seeing something and being able to react to it are two different things. Had I been lucky enough to work with Blackberry, I don’t think I would have been able to do anything. The issue was the culture. They didn’t think there was a problem. They were not open to advice.
Bm: You once said that execution firms sell what they know, not what their clients might need. Is it possible for a brand to somehow ensure that their needs are truly being looked after? How do you comfort your clients in knowing their best interest is at the core of your offering?
AA: My belief is that you build confidence by doing, not telling. You don’t say “trust me.” We don’t talk about tactics first, we talk about the challenges our client is facing. What are the customer and strategic challenges? What is standing in the way of their growth? We carefully assess their business, the category, the competition, and the marketplace dynamics. We spend our first engagement trying to diagnose the issues, the potential causes, and the levers. We do not jump to a solution. You cannot get into any conversation about solution until you fully understand the challenge. Once we’ve addressed the multiple dimensions of the challenge, we can get into strategies for resolution. We provide multiple options, discuss the pros and cons. You don’t try to “sell” a solution, you don’t talk tactics and execution, until you’ve had a robust discussion about the symptoms and causes.
Bm: When convincing your clients about your proposed growth strategies, do you rely on past examples and data or do you transpose the strategy and its expected effects in a probable prediction for the future?
AA: It is always important to provide some context, present case studies that show how organizations approached a similar situation. But it must be seen as context. You have to determine if there is anything to be learned from others in a similar situation. And, the key word is “learn.” It’s rare that you can look at what someone else did in a particular situation and guarantee the same outcome. Times change, market dynamics shift, consumer preferences shift, your organization may have different strengths and weaknesses. Looking back provides perspective and presents variables you should be thinking about, but it rarely gives you a clear-cut answer. It enables you to gain insights. You can’t look in the rear-view mirror to see where the road is going.
As I said earlier, we often use prototypes, or create scenarios of future states, to help our clients envision alternate ways to approach growth strategies. People can easily evaluate what they’ve experienced before. Prototyping helps clients see what’s possible down the road, what’s around the corner. When I worked in the dish-washing category years ago, if you asked anyone about dish-washing liquid, they would tell you it had to be gentle on your hands because that’s what Palmolive (the category leader) promoted. This was until someone presented the idea that, no, dish-washing liquid has to clean greasy pots and pans better so you can get out of the kitchen faster and do more important things. Consumers would not have come to this conclusion themselves. Too many marketers go to their customer and ask, “How can we make you happier?” Consumers can’t always answer this question. You have to be able to show them what’s down the road; what’s possible.
Bm: Management mostly thinks in numbers, sums, and budgets. Is it possible to translate things like competition, risks, or culture into financial units? Even if only half accurate, could such translations have a positive impact on management’s understanding of the ROI on brand (growth) strategies?
AA: One of the biggest challenges to innovation is an organization’s aversion to risk and the need for quantitative data before making a decision. Because many organizations are petrified about taking a risk, or even making a considered judgment call, it’s hard for them to react fast enough to a changing marketplace. By the time there are definitive financial metrics, you’ll likely to be the last one in, relative to the competition. Companies are very good at solving linear problems, adding up the numbers and saying “yes” or “no.” Most innovation growth comes more from a “we think this is the right direction” frame of mind – someone saw a strong trend line or had an insight about where things were going and took a risk. The bigger the company, the more risk averse it is.
In our research for Shift Ahead, we encountered many organizations that did not follow potential growth strategies because the metrics were not straightforwardly clear. They debated and pondered, and then it was too late. Entrepreneurial organizations have a far greater tolerance for risk than corporate behemoths. Big corporations are structured to eliminate risk and, therefore, have a phenomenally difficult job of embracing and developing things that aren’t a sure bet.
Bm: As a professional and a teacher, what is lacking the most in terms of education in our industry?
AA: As an educator at NYU, as well as by professionally working with younger colleagues, the biggest challenge I see is the ability to stop and think, not just to double-click and send. So many younger people are so skilled at, and so accustomed to, multi-tasking as a result of technology and simply the faster pace of our world, that they struggle with the ability to focus, to listen, and to apply critical thinking to a problem. In my teaching, I don’t look for students to memorize facts and play back my words. I want them to be able to look at the facts, often contradictory, see a complex situation for what it is, and assess it from different perspectives. I want them to interrogate an idea, not just say, “Sounds good. Let’s do it.” There is so much pressure to move fast and to do more. This busyness syndrome – the belief that the busier you are, the more effective you are – is a misjudgment. The reverse is true. When I teach, I coach young professionals to step back, think about the issue carefully, contemplate, and ask good questions. I’m more interested in what they’re asking me. The best solutions are never quick and easy. The best marketers see things others miss, and hear things others don’t.