How to get the most out of working with agencies

There’s an old Chinese saying: “hire the one you trust and trust the one you hire,” that has an added layer of significance when your company is considering working with an external marketing agency on a job. As I’ll show you, following a few essential steps can drastically increase the odds that you’ll have a successful working relationship with an external agency and ideal results.

As a former lead of several global Fortune 500 marketing teams – including with PepsiCo, Pfizer and Unilever – I was often tasked with picking the right external marketing agency for projects, such as TV commercials, posters, product launches and other marketing initiatives. It was my responsibility to get the best outcome on a tight schedule.

After many successes and a few sleepless nights, I found that the following mix of approaches dramatically elevated the trust we placed in the agencies we worked with and increased productivity, saving us valuable time and money in the long run.

1. Find the right fit 

For starters, interview the agency to make sure you’re on the same page. Can you get along with their team? Is your vision aligned when it comes to goals and expectations? Do you like them as people? Do you trust them?

Like the Chinese proverb I stated at the beginning of this article, once you’ve found an external team you trust, relax and have faith in their ability to get the job done. But before that happens, do your homework. In order for them to give you the results you’re looking for, you and your staff need to feel comfortable communicating openly and freely with the agency’s team.

2. Be transparent upfront

It’s important to lay it all on the table from the get-go. Nobody likes being surprised with new insights or statistics after a bulk of work has been completed. So, start off your relationship with an external agency on the right foot by providing them with the necessary background information and getting all stakeholders involved in the initial meeting and planning phase. Otherwise, you’ll end up in a situation where it’s garbage in, garbage out.

I learned this lesson the hard way when a company I worked for lacked the five years of historical data requested by an external marketing agency. We forecasted estimates to fill in three years of missing data and then gave the stats to the agency without telling them the bulk of the information was based on conjecture. As you probably guessed, the results fell short; and, we saw quite clearly the pitfalls of rushing through the process and hoping for the best.

3. Create a good brief

Speaking of being upfront, why not get your expectations in writing right off the bat? Devoting time to a drafting a comprehensive brief will further clarify and cement your intentions for the project, and help you identify all stakeholders who should be involved in the process before it gets underway.

4. Be open to new ideas

At one point while I was working for a multinational corporation on a TV commercial project with an external production agency, we decided to get the director involved in the creative stage. This was rather atypical for us and a last-minute decision made because of a failed first attempt at the commercial (which bombed the consumer testing analysis) and looming deadline. The director’s insights both surprised and amazed us, and the end result was a commercial that we were thrilled to share with consumers. Had I hired an agency I was less comfortable with, the situation might have been more nerve-racking and the results less favourable. But because I had complete trust in their team at that point, giving the agency carte blanche proved to be the best decision for everyone involved.

5. Key contact person

Assign a key contact person to act as a gatekeeper between your company and the agency. This person is responsible for answering questions, keeping track of all major communications, looping in stakeholders and preventing the duplication of tasks.

6. Consistent meetings

Another important step is to set regular meetings with the agency and all stakeholders. Depending on the timeline for your project, this could occur daily, weekly or monthly. What’s important is that everyone meets on a consistent basis to maintain an open dialogue and share ideas.

7. Debrief and celebrate!

Once the project is complete, take stock of whether targets were met, what worked and what could be improved upon for next time. Then, celebrate your accomplishment! I frequently worked with the same external agencies at one company or with different companies. Nurturing those relationships helped to build an even greater sense of trust and camaraderie, which greatly increased the value of those relationships over time.

Written by Corrine Lin

Need help from an external marketing agency for your upcoming project? Get in touch with us at: 604.812.4995 or


Strategically New - Revitalizing a company by leveraging their past.

For as there has been commerce, rules have always occupied a critical space at the intersection of companies and target markets.

Updating your brand after 20 years is not for the faint of heart and needs to be taken very seriously.  First of all - what's the point?  There needs to be a deep and compelling reason to challenge everything you have and push forward with a new face to the world.  

The key starting point with us is always the same.  Don't tell us who you think you are and where you think you're going.  Conventional wisdom wants us to believe that the first thing out of your mouth is correct, your past doesn't define you, and you can be anything you want.  Really!  If this is true why go to school?  Just snap your fingers, watch The Secret five or six times and there you have it - you now own Apple.  Well that was easy.

With Business Rule Solutions (BRS) they have been around for 20 years and literally wrote the book on Business Rules - the deep rules that govern how some of the biggest companies on the planet operate.  This is not your average management consultancy - this is highly specialized work that few consultants specialize in.

To really understand who and what they are we needed to delve into their past - all of it - to find out why they are important, why the Canadian and US government keep hiring them, why companies like; Microsoft, Boeing, Maersk, Nestlé, CIBC, Bristol-Myers Squibb, etc all utilized their services.

The diagram situates BRS in the context of the larger world and illustrates the central role it plays in how corporations and target markets interact.  They guide corporations and governments in establishing rule-based operations that enable world-class compliance and adaptability.


As they are strictly business to business, the way they get clients is through thought-leadership, both Ron and Gladys speak internationally and they founded an industry conference that consistently attracts more than one thousand attendees.  Ron is the author of 10 business books and blogs constantly about industries best practices.

See their new website here.


The secret of brand storytelling

Telling stories has become a strategic priority within direct and indirect brand marketing initiatives. Through social media and content marketing stories, there are opportunities to emotionally engage customers in ways that extend to offline brand experiences.

The attraction is not as measurable as many marketing initiatives with a push for sales and an ROI. Rather, this kind of communication speaks the truth of a brand, infuses it with personality, empathy and shared values.

Storytelling is about showing how your company's actions demonstrate your promised brand experience. It is about attracting like-minded customers, employees and strategic partners. 

These two videos were created for Aequin, a new developer in Vancouver's changing landscape, to convey their commitment to building homes with an eye on factors like livability, quality and supporting local business.

A consistent brand message throughout their office, developments and communication platforms ensures that customers will not turn away in confusion. Part of our process, known as the Polarity Funnel, assembles the truths of an organization in a flexible chart that allows dynamic brand experiences and storytelling, always revolving around the core value proposition.

When putting together your yearly marketing budget and strategy it is a good idea to add the category of brand equity & loyalty and look for opportunities to authentically tell your story.  Who are you? Why do you exist? What do you believe in? And really - why should anyone care? 

Give a little bit of heart and soul

One thing that we always create for our clients is a clear, visual, brand model. This is the birth place of the brand strategy and all marketing & communications to come.  This shows the boiling point, common denominator, feature shared by staff / stakeholders / client, and depicts their relationship one another.  What makes each company tick is unique.  The model has a few key contributing factors; your products & services, beliefs & core values, what your clients are actually thinking, and what problem you solve for them. Your brand is a combination of all of these groups.


To truly understand the nature of your companies brand you must first examine what got you to where you are. Here are the three starting points; 1. you, 2. your stakeholders, 3 your clients.  Deeply understanding your motives by looking for evidence in your past can really shed light onto where you're going to end up.  As we have found time and time again - your past dictates your future.  The more you understand about your thought process, your stakeholders thought processes, and of course your clients then the more you can actively control your outcomes.  If one or all three of these things are a mystery to you then the inevitability of your future can move away from your control.

Digital Dialogue Interview

Digital Dialogue is great series put together by Bosco Anthony that centers around thought leadership. Bosco has a long list of interesting people that have been on his show including interviews with Mark Brand and Brian Scudamore.  I spent Sunday morning with Bosco putting together my segment for next season. He is a very thoughtful and intelligent chap who really takes the time to do his research and shows a genuine interest in all his guests.

It was a an interesting experience and I look forward to seeing the final result in the next few months.

Have a look at some of the previous interviews here.

The laid back approach to his interviews really helps you to get inside the guests heads and learn how they think.  If you are in business and looking for some insight this is a great way to start.  Lots of rich content from people who are active in the entrepreneurial space.

Pacific Coastal Airlines website launch

Pacific Coastal has been a long-time client of ours and we are very pleased to announce the launch of their new website. One of the key strategies of the site planning was to invite people to spend more time on the site and not just book their flights. The home page uses tiles with a filter to help people get fast access to the exact information they are looking for.

The former site only had booking capabilities on the home page, on this site the booking ribbon was created and designed seamlessly into every page. No matter where you are on the site you can book a ticket. We felt this was key to making the site more accessible and easy to use.

Pacific Coastal had unused items that didn’t have a long-term home. In this site we created many areas to leverage the years of content creation and make it accessible to the general public. A great example of this is Kids section with colouring books and puzzles that were put together. We also collected up all past issues of Soar Magazine and gave them a home.

Last but not least is the Fares & Passes. With Bravo, Classic, and Encore to choose from we really wanted to make it easy for people to figure out which one makes the most sense for them and their family or business. With all information readily available and with clear visual aids to help out the section has now been brought to life.

Top 10 lists: Traffic source or waste of space?

Top 10 lists are the fast food of the article world. They’re quick to write, people can skim them and feel they learned something, and it’s easy for the writer to position themself as an expert or someone with unique knowledge. But these articles are often misleading and provide limited (although often targeted) information. Does society prefer superficial knowledge? Noam Chomsky refuses television interviews because, “nobody wants a real answer, just a sound bite – if you ask me [Noam] a question I will give you the full answer. It may take a while.” Facebook overflows with top 10 lists. Are they empty and useless or a great way to spread your message?

You won’t likely see me writing any top tens. Why? Because my writing isn’t geared towards earning Facebook likes or social popularity. What I sell is sophisticated and so are my clients. We don’t deal in cheap websites and $300 logos. We offer deep insight, accurate thought, and strategic guidance for ambitious business people. This isn’t meant to sound arrogant or elitist – quite the contrary in fact, because I understand that only a small percentage of companies need what we offer. My writing must focus on providing key information to a specific audience.

But what’s the right approach for you? Remember that communication has two sides: what you want / believe in, and what your client’s wants and needs are. It’s tempting to try to look contemporary by doing what’s hot now, but you risk looking dated, or worse, like a false expert with nothing to say.

Before investing in a communication strategy, do some research. Study your invoices to identify revenue sources. Picture each person who hired you. Where did you meet them? What type of person are they? Why did they hire you? For many business-to-business companies, relationships seal the deal. This is the basis of LinkedIn’s popularity. After meeting someone at an event, one of the first things I do is check their profile. What do they post? Do they have a professional page, headshot, history etc.? Have they written articles or created corporate videos? Profiles full of Facebook-like top 10 lists tend to set off a warning signal, unless they’re balanced with valuable content.

One of my recurring pieces of advice is to avoid following trends. Going for what’s popular may drive traffic, but is it the right kind of traffic for you? David Letterman’s Top Ten Lists are always a hit, but remember that his intention is to push for a response by being cheeky (and they’re really just a small part of his show.) Don’t base your strategy on tactics that work for others. Instead, devote time to figuring out why people buy your product or service. Then use your findings to guide the creation of a communication plan with a healthy balance of media types: video, images, written content, and if it fits your company… maybe even a top 10 list.

Six Marketing Pitfalls to Avoid for Your Growing Business

As a business consultancy that helps growing companies, we have seen numerous marketing traps business are susceptible to. We have listed the top six to avoid below:

1.Undefined Target Market

A start-up company looking to attract its first clients or customers may be tempted to serve whoever comes its way. As your business grows, it is impossible to attract your ideal demographic without knowing your target. An undefined target market leads to mixed marketing messages, confusing all stakeholders.

2.Non-Strategic Marketing

Through trial and error, we may form our own conclusions as to which marketing tactics work. What seems to be a fool-proof marketing plan, however, can sometimes be non-strategic. In addition, maintaining too many tactics that do not support each other is expensive and can result in insufficient frequency of deployment.

3.No Tracking System

After investing in marketing, many companies forget the importance of tracking their Return-on-Investment (ROI), making it difficult to determine which tactics succeeded. It is like putting money in the bank without asking for a return!

4.Outdated Marketing Plan

Your internal and external business environments evolve constantly. Last year’s successful marketing tactics may not work this year. It is crucial to assess your market and resources annually before committing to marketing.

5.Lack of Feedback

Many businesses focus on pushing marketing information to the world without establishing communication channels for their customers or stakeholders to provide feedback. The rise of social media makes marketing a two-way street.

6.Relaxing or stopping marketing

Some companies believe they no longer need marketing when their businesses thrive. Present competitors try to outgrow you constantly; new ones come onto the scene every day. Without proactive and consistent marketing, businesses risk becoming irrelevant.

The Anatomy of a Compelling Company Story

Every company has a story. Some are exciting like Virgin’s, some tug at your heart like Tom’s shoes, and others are more utilitarian (important note: confusing “utilitarian” for “boring” is usually a mistake). The most successful companies spend time finding their niche in our world – following market trends while looking beneath the surface of their product or service to uncover the true value of what they offer and why consumers should care.

If you’ve been in business for more than a year then people already care about you for some reason. But what is that reason – how do you discover your company’s story? Where should you start looking? Let’s look at some useful tools.

I recently had the privilege of working with Alyn Edwards of Peak Communicators to lead a Fortune 500 company through a half-day session devoted to discovering its story. This company, which makes hardware and software, is relatively unknown because it has always been content to be “the guy behind the guy.” But now it is considering changing its approach. Why? One reason is their realization that many people want to work for companies that are exciting, or accomplishing something important.

Take glassware company Corning, for example. When you think of glass do you see windshields, windows and drinking tumblers? If so, watch Corning’s video “A day made of glass.” It will change your perspective. Before this video I’d never given Corning a second thought, and I was probably not alone in this. But now that I’ve been exposed to Corning’s story I’m excited to watch them step into their role as leaders in the evolution of technology. If I worked for Corning I’d be showing off this video to everyone I know.

What’s your story?

From a branding viewpoint there are several questions that lead to a company’s core story:

Why did you start the company? You must have seen a need in the market: a cheaper version of something (Ikea), a better version of something (Virgin), a brand new idea (Google).
What drives you? Building a company is difficult. We’ve all heard the “80% of businesses fail in the first year” mantra. Why take the risk?
Where are you going? Do you see something others don’t? Are you interested in creating a good work environment or community?

Watching Alyn help companies discover and articulate their stories has been enlightening. During his 25-plus years in broadcasting and 10 years in PR, he has developed an ability to bring people and companies to life in a way that is timely, relevant, interesting, and authentic. Where my branding-oriented approach focuses on a company’s single, key story (see the three points above), Alyn’s PR-centric method delves into any and all stories that provide further insight into a person, company, innovation, and so on.

Sharing your story through advertising

The complement to branding and PR storytelling is advertising, which has a distinct purpose: noise and conversion. Grab your audience’s attention, then ask them to do something, make a purchase, sign up, share, etc. Advertising messages can differ greatly from those of branding and PR. The story might be told in a few seconds or over the course of multiple ads, and the truth isn’t even necessarily required. The 2013 campaign for Magnum Gold was built on a story about two art thieves finding love by stealing a gold crown, which they value as much as Magnum Gold ice cream. Realistic? Of course not. But Magnum Gold seems to be doing just fine.

So where do you begin with your company? I recommend following the order of this article. Branding is the foundation and establishes the core values that you want people to associate with your company. PR adds life, depth, and authenticity. Then advertising starts making noise and fighting for attention in crowded marketplaces.

What is a random market - and are you serving one?

Do you know your ideal market, or markets? Were your marketing materials deliberately designed to appeal to this group? Are your messages and taglines targeted to your particular client demographics? Have you performed market research and based your advertising on the findings?

If you answered no to some (or all) of those questions, then you may be trying to serve a random customer base. Is this a bad thing? Yes and no. Let’s explore.

A short time ago my agency positioned a medium-sized company. Despite saying “no” to all of the above questions in our initial meetings, they were still making substantial revenue and profit. So if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Right? Why rock the boat? Well, how about this: after taking them through our processes, identifying their ideal market and reworking their messaging to appeal to this market, our client’s revenue went up by 28% in a very short time. That is the power of a deliberate customer base.

Promoting to a random market can feel like grabbing at money in a wind tunnel – and much of the time it’s exactly that. On the other hand, a strong marketing plan guided by a careful strategy identifies and isolates the market segments with the best potential, enabling you to gain maximum value from your marketing and advertising budgets.

You may be able to achieve financial success and experience strong growth without defining your ideal market – many companies have. However, cultivating long-term relationships and building trust and loyalty among your clientele requires engaging them in a meaningful way. In the absence of a deliberate approach guided by a deep understanding of your market, deciding on the most effective ways to communicate with and serve your market is a challenge.

If you’ve identified yourself as serving a random market (i.e., you don’t have a clearly defined clientele, yet you still make money), then ask yourself, “Do I want to push further?” If the answer is yes, then it’s time to start asking questions. Talk to your staff, existing clients and stakeholders to get a better sense of what people actually think about your company.

Once a picture begins to emerge, start creating a deliberate marketing plan that clearly identifies your market, goals, and budget. Campaigns can be incredibly expensive – agency fees, magazine placement, radio, PR, etc., add up quickly – so be sure that you’re only spending money in the areas that target your ideal clients.

Keep in mind that you can’t figure this out once and decide that it will work forever. Expect your target market to change from one demographic to another and back again over time. This is the game of business (marketing, specifically) and, as always, the best way to play is to stay proactive by looking ahead, watching market trends and keeping yourself informed.

Credibility up in smoke? Building a brand in a controversial industry

Imagine your company not being graded for its merits, but on public perceptions based on lack of information or the actions of others. It’s hard enough keeping a business alive to begin with, what if people viewed you as a crook before you started? This happens. Let’s explore.

In October 2013, I was invited to teach a branding seminar at the Greenline Academy Medical Marijuana Conference in Toronto. Being a non-smoker with no knowledge of the topic, my first thought was: what can I offer people in this industry? But I was intrigued. Earlier in the month the federal government had announced the launch of a $1.3 billion medical marijuana industry and the topic had been covered by CBC News, The Toronto Star, Business In Vancouver and The Toronto Sun. I accepted the gig, reminding myself that the core principles of branding and strategy apply just as much – perhaps more – in controversial industries.

Controversy rooted in stigma

Outspoken voices in the worldwide marijuana discussion range from Vancouver’s own Mark Emery, to Cheech & Chong, to Virgin CEO Richard Branson, to Ronald Reagan and his famous “War on Drugs.” Needless to say, there are stigmas. The Greenline Academy conference hall was full, but attendees declined to be photographed and many hid their nametags. My brother’s advice before the seminar? “Distance this talk from your brand or you’ll lose clients.” All this despite the Canadian government’s recent endorsement of the industry.

I was reminded of my own conditioning while meeting two brothers who I’d seen sporting hip-hop fashion around the conference: baggy clothes and hoods up. My first impression? “Here are two guys who think they can get rich while getting high.” I was wrong. One brother was confined to a wheelchair due to a swimming accident and experienced muscle spasms to the point that his legs would pull him out of bed at night, even hitting him in the face and breaking his nose on one occasion. Medical marijuana controls his symptoms, enabling him to sleep and function in a way he could not before.

Public opinions aren’t written in stone

My seminar’s message was simple: public opinion can be changed. Sometimes the best perspective is from outside, so let’s step away from the controversial world of medical marijuana and look at our favourite breakfast meat… bacon. Did you know that Edward Bernays – creator of the term “public relations” – was hired by the bacon industry to fight for bacon’s place on America’s dinner plates? They wanted to increase sales and saw this as the obvious path. But solutions aren’t always obvious.

Instead of fighting giants, Bernays approached from a different angle. He commissioned doctors to publish papers claiming that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” The papers also promoted the concept of the “Big Breakfast,” which included – you guessed it – bacon. Then the advertising campaigns started. Bacon sales went through the roof. This strategic orchestration of PR, branding, marketing, and advertising made the bacon and eggs breakfast combo a cultural institution.

Success through truth

Bernays realized that bacon’s problem wasn’t branding or PR – it was competing in the wrong market. And remember this vital fact: breakfast is important! His campaign to change public opinion was based on truth. Bernays also recognized that, as a dinner entree, bacon doesn’t have the appeal of steak, roast beef or chicken breast.

I’m sure Bernays would love this medical marijuana challenge. But it’s an extreme example. Look at yourself. Are you a real-estate agent wanting to distance yourself from the stigma of the glorified car salesman? A life coach trying to establish trust among people who’ve had negative experiences with your contemporaries? Or a brand strategist fed up with being thought of as an overpriced graphic designer who talks too much?

Being a thought leader in a controversial market means identifying, developing, and promoting the benefits of your industry while acknowledging and addressing the negative aspects. If you’re undertaking an ambitious initiative like establishing a brand in an untested or contentious industry, here are three things to keep in mind:

1. Establish credibility and position yourself correctly. Amass the proverbial 10,000 hours of experience that it takes to truly understand your trade. A few weeks, a certificate and a $2,000 brand package will not cut it.

2. Once your position is established and reinforced, speak up! Be proactive, spread the word, defend your statements and start reframing what society thinks.

3. If you’ve hired an agency to help with your project, keep an open mind. The bacon industry thought their path to profit was on America’s dinner tables. If they’d refused to budge from this belief, their story would be very different.

What if Virgin hired a Dragon? The importance of corporate alignment

The term “corporate alignment” is often slipped into conversations, speeches or proposals in an effort to establish credibility. The problem is that everyone has their own idea of what it means. How important is alignment? And how do we put a value on this often-misunderstood term?

[Originally published by Business in Vancouver Magazine on November 7, 2013]

My recent seminar at the 21st Annual Supply Chain Management Associations conference in Kelowna explored the importance of alignment by discussing interconnectivity between your company’s brand, your personal brand and your market. To illustrate my point, I contrasted Dragons’ Den star Kevin O’Leary and Virgin CEO Richard Branson – two well-known, successful businessmen with very different philosophies.

Let’s jam a square peg into a round hole and imagine Kevin O’Leary running Virgin. It’s an interesting thought because Richard and Kevin are worlds apart when it comes to belief systems and business practices. How different? Read the following quotations:

Richard: “The way you treat your employees is the way they will treat your customers.”

Kevin: “I’m not trying to make friends, I’m trying to make money – if you want a friend, buy a dog.”

Richard: “At Virgin our people come first because they are the core of our culture and the force behind the success.”

Kevin: “Being an employee is a bad outcome – you want to avoid that.”

Richard: “Never go into business purely to make money. If that’s the motive, you’re better off doing nothing.”

Kevin: “I want to go to bed richer than when I woke up. The pursuit of wealth is a wonderful thing.”

Richard: “I cannot remember a moment in my life when I have not felt the love of my family.”

Kevin: “I am not planning on giving my kids any of my wealth.”

Please note that these quotations do not represent any interaction between Branson and O’Leary. They came up during an online search using their names and terms including: “family,” “values,” “culture” and “money.”

It’s clear that Richard Branson’s priority is a supportive corporate culture built on a foundation of carefully selected staff. Kevin O’Leary wants employees who are happy to show up, follow his directions and collect their salary. Neither approach is wrong – both can result in successful companies – they are just very different.

However, if Kevin O’Leary were brought in to run Virgin, it would never work. But why?

The key difference is corporate alignment. We know that the Virgin team share a belief system or they wouldn’t be there in the first place. Their likemindedness enables them to operate as a unit, naturally identifying and learning how to best serve their ideal market, without Branson looking over their shoulders. So what happens when Kevin O’Leary brings his strictly vertical employer-employee philosophy and profits-above-all approach to the helm? He’s proven himself more than capable of running a successful company, but his belief system would mean dramatic changes to the corporate culture, which would influence the client base. So what’s the ultimate impact on Virgin’s bottom line? Does it hold steady? Maybe. Decrease? Possibly. Increase? Not likely.

Think about your team. They aren’t famous, but they have strong beliefs. Would they align themselves with an ambitious company initiative because of a few enthusiastic meetings? No. Their loyalty to the new direction – and their ultimate value to the company – depends on their belief system corresponding with yours. It’s common for change to pull some team members closer while pushing others away. If one of your team members is uncomfortable with your company’s new direction, it may be in everyone’s best interests for them to step down.

So Branson and O’Leary experience substantial success despite their differing views. Then how important is alignment? It depends on your market. If you supply circuit boards, screws or A-V cables to manufacturers and never deal with consumers, it may not matter at all. On the other end of the scale, where would Virgin Atlantic Airways, the Apple iPhone, Nike or Google be if they hadn’t spent considerable time and resources developing a guiding philosophy for their companies and used it to forge an emotional connection with their target market?

Where does your company sit?

In marketing, the client isn't always right. Nor is the agency

Trying to please demanding or inexperienced clients often leads to ad agencies producing below-par campaigns that don’t help anyone. The best approach to this problem is avoiding the client-vs-creatives battle of wills from the outset.

[Originally published by Business in Vancouver Magazine on October 9th, 2013]

A designer for a major agency recently told me, “We change the work we put in our portfolio because clients always kill the ideas and make us produce crap.”

I’ve never worked at an agency, so this was a disturbing surprise. Digging deeper, I learned that this is an industry norm. Phrases like “don’t rock the boat” and “the client is always right” hang in the psychic background of most agencies. How did this happen?

Ineffective campaign? Who to blame?
On the creative side of agencies lurks a whispered truism, “clients ruin everything.” But on the accounts side, they’re happy as long as the client is. Why? Because the client pays.

But what happens when the campaign doesn’t work? The client blames the agency and hires someone new, the creatives are left with a portfolio that doesn’t represent their tastes and talent, and the account manager is scrambling to find new clients.

An agency’s portfolio must be an accurate reflection of their campaigns. Real work being replaced with “portfolio versions” is a sign that something is seriously wrong. But who’s to blame? The creatives for refusing to compromise? The accounts department for rolling over? The client for trying to take charge?

Everyone is motivated by something different – integrity, profit, ownership and being heard – and there are multiple ways of finding a solution. The easiest route is to compromise and give everyone a bit of what they want. But this rarely leads to the best result.

As a client, how do you know if you bought “crap”? Start by comparing your ad to what the agency shows in their online portfolio. Are they displaying your actual campaign? Or is it a polished version? If so, it may be because the agency spent too little time learning about you before starting the creative process and their ads missed the mark. Or it could be that the person at your company in charge of working with the agency tried to take control. Both are signs of trouble.

Designers: Do your homework
Designers: did you have Photoshop going within a few hours of meeting the client? That’s a problem. Creating a meaningful campaign often means spending weeks or months examining the client’s business and experimenting with ideas. If you consider yourself a strategist you know this already. Flashes of brilliance do happen, but they aren’t the norm. Dig in, research, experiment, brainstorm, and don’t be shy – a realistic client doesn’t expect perfection on the first attempt. Get it wrong first, ask the client for input, then refine and try again.

Business owners: Choose the right agency and trust them
For business owners, are you comfortable with an agency taking the time to explore your brand, ask probing questions and examine your business from new angles? If not, your campaign is in trouble. We’ve all seen mediocre brands succeed through brilliant marketing. If you’ve spent years designing a revolutionary new product, why cut corners when it’s time to showcase it to the world? Find an agency whose work you admire, then trust them to do what they’re best at.

And most importantly – communicate! Throughout the process there must be clear communication channels between the client, the account manager, and the creative department. When time is spent considering and exploring every reasonable idea that surfaces, the process will take longer, but the result will be better.

Advertising: short-term brilliance or long-term strategy?

Imagine that you are an established company who creates a product that is valued by consumers. You devote a $50,000 advertising budget to boosting your market presence – but your revenue doesn’t change. Who’s to blame? The magazines for misrepresenting their readership? The radio stations for exaggerating their audience? The agency for not being “clever” enough? Let’s look at a few places where this process can (and often does) go wrong.

The relationship between your company, staff, product, and clients evolves constantly, so start by examining your brand. But first: do you understand what a brand is? I’m not being condescending. I’ve met many smart, successful business people who didn’t fully understand the concept. If you think you’re safe because you paid someone to create a website, brochure, presentation folder and business cards – then you may be the problem.

A collection of digital and print collateral does not make a brand, no matter how nice they may look. When assessing your brand, it can help to personify your company. A five-year-old brand is like a child. It needs guidance and nurturing. So when deciding how to position and grow your company, it’s vital to focus on the interests and needs of all parties involved (yourself, execs, staff, clientele, etc.)

You may have experienced agencies who begin pitching ideas after spending a few hours with you.STOP this madness! Without time spent studying you and your market, the agency is working with information mostly supplied by you. The danger here is that if they come up with an idea that you like, there’s a good chance that you fed it to them, even if unintentionally. Ads created in this fashion can – and have – earned substantial attention, but will they appropriately represent and build your brand?

Time is expensive, especially when it’s wasted. That’s why we don’t rush through advertising campaigns.

The following are some tips to help maximize that $50,000 advertising budget.

1. Seek sound, professional help. Whether you hire a marketing consultant, PR or branding agency, social media strategist, etc., make sure that they’re the genuine article – the industry is full of people who overestimate their talent. Ask them to show you past work, explain their process, provide client references, and ideally, provide evidence of their success.

2.Taste – do you like the agency’s work? This is subjective, which is precisely the point. Every agency has their own style and area of specialty. Does your target audience respond to bright, in-your-face advertising? Or does your campaign’s success rely on building a trust-based relationship over a long sales cycle? Choose the right person for the job.

3. Pace yourself. Great brands grow over time. Just ask Google. There’s a reason that the top search rankings are occupied by websites that consistently generate rich content. This is exactly how you should work. Build your brand’s foundation, then begin reinforcing it with a steady stream of strategic, engaging material.

4. Communicate. Once your foundation is set, spread the word. Start with your staff. Keep them informed throughout to ensure that they understand the campaign and can be “brand champions” on the grassroots level by practicing on their friends and families.

5. Build campaigns. If your chosen agency, PR group or marketing specialist doesn’t recommend an integrated campaign, please stop them. Protect your money and respect your buying market.

What is an integrated campaign? In short: a single concept oriented to your brand and market and communicated across multiple media over a length of time with the intention of building brand equity and/or growing sales. I recommend doing multiple campaigns each year, ensuring that they share one or more brand-consistent threads.

“We’ve tried everything and nothing worked.” If your long-term, tasteful, accurate strategy didn’t work then chances are: a) you hired the wrong people, or b) you hired the right people but didn’t trust them. If you hire an agency with a proven track record, let them do what they’re good at. Your job is running your company, their job is to use their third-party perspective to help you to shape your market and establish your brand’s presence by leveraging all available resources.

If you find yourself fixated on finding “ideas that pop“, please reread this article (and, if you have time, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War). One brilliant flash in the pan won’t create a great company. That’s long-term strategy’s territory.

Pacific Coastal Airlines Ad campaign

Pacific Coastal’s passion is British Columbia. They are intimately familiar with the most idyllic and untouched parts of a province where over half of the population occupies only 0.5% of the land. Since many of their past promotions were aimed at business travellers, Pacific Coastal launched the 4for3 campaign to inspire BC residents to explore their own unique province. Living Blueprint brought the campaign to life through a video accompanied by web, print, and point-of-sale advertising.

Pacific Coastal Airlines invites BCers to explore their province
When planning a trip, four people is often a tipping point for considering alternatives to piling into the car. A kayaking adventure along the Broughton Archipelago? Experiencing the Great Bear Rainforest’s pristine beauty? Unwinding at a luxury fishing lodge? A group trip from Kitimat to do some shopping and catch a Whitecaps game? The 4for3 campaign that Living Blueprint designed for Pacific Coastal reminds us that these seemingly exotic destinations are within reach.

Avoiding abrasive, hard-sell tactics, the video opts for a casual, “man on the street” approach that features several subjects describing their idea of the perfect coastal BC getaway for a group of four. The fun, conversational style lends itself readily to social media sharing and was supported by simultaneous print ad and web banner campaigns.

Continuity between the campaign’s print, web, and video elements was established using the unmistakable image of the airplane seat. Evoking the immediate accessibility of British Columbia’s wilderness, the video features the seat and interviewees surrounded by mountains, water, and lush greenery. To communicate the deal’s value “at a glance” in the print and web ads, the chair was photographed in alleys and fields, affixed with the cardboard FREE sign.

To provide added value for the client, we made the video’s campaign-specific elements easily removable. When the 4for3 promotion ends, a minor edit will make the video suitable for Pacific Coastal’s general purpose media library where it can continue to engage the public and highlight the unique role that Pacific Coastal plays in the province for years to come.

You can't fire me - I don't work here

Need somebody to tell it to you straight? Suspect that one of your execs is just along for the ride? Looking for untapped potential within your business? Want to push yourself and your team this year?

For these types of goals, consider seeking outside help. There are people who specialize in providing impartial guidance as your team searches for clarity and pushes for alignment. Think of it as an insurance policy for a great year.

Consultants with experience in guiding executive teams are an invaluable resource because they specialize in identifying untapped potential and recognizing and highlighting signs of trouble before they become substantial problems. And they are the only people who will be truly honest with you because, unlike your management team and other staff, they are not afraid of being fired for asking questions that employees don’t like to ask, raising uncomfortable issues or criticizing your business approach.

So what can you expect from hiring such a consultant? Here are three common training approaches:

1. Day-long facilitations: brainstorming and “ideation”

Day-long sessions can focus on any topic, but for one-offs it’s good to stick to “brainstorming and ideation.” It’s easy for everyone at a company to play along with the status quo, believing that all ideas have been examined and that everyone is aware of what the rest of the team is thinking. This is rarely true.

Lunchtime conversations and hallway meetings can be valuable, but there’s no substitute for leaving your usual headspace (and the office, if possible) and working with someone who will provide a fresh look at your company. Because a third-party facilitator has limited knowledge of your company, they have the freedom to ask the “dumb” questions. A guided discussion of fundamental company principles is guaranteed to hold a few surprises for you and your executive team.

2. Two-day workshops: skill training and goal setting

Here’s a chance to clarify specific mandates from your business or strategic plan. Is there a company goal that relies on support from the entire team? Is everyone aware of their role in achieving success? Facilitators should be carefully chosen for these workshops. It’s vital to isolate your company’s need or want and then do your research to find the best person and system to lead your team. This type of session can include your entire executive team or be divided into sub-groups as appropriate.

3. Full-week immersion: alignment and year-long focus

Many companies do this yearly. It’s the big one, so carefully consider the session’s size, scope, duration and location. The goal is alignment. For example, if you have one person controlling 300 staff you want to be confident that their vision corresponds exactly with that of the company.

Before this session it is often worthwhile to warm up your team with a visioning and goal-setting process designed to get them into the appropriate mindset. Immersion sessions are no small event, so be sure to plan well in advance. Team members are taking time out of their lives and devoting large amounts of headspace to the project.

Are you considering seeking outside help? Here are three questions to ask:

Is this an alignment problem? How would I know if it is?
Do I need to shake up my team a little bit?
Is this an important year? Would some extra insight be valuable for our annual plan?

Finding the right consultant is not a task to be taken lightly. Workshops and retreats are an intimate process and it’s imperative to find a facilitator with the appropriate skills and background to meet your company’s needs. Research carefully. Do they have video testimonials from recognizable clients? Or just a collection of written statements from unidentifiable sources? Ask for references – and contact them. Speaking to past clients can give valuable insights into a facilitator’s compatibility with your executive team. And don’t be afraid to ask about their past projects – any good consultant will be happy to share success stories with you.

Want to win in your marketplace? Stop dreaming

So your competitor is doing better than you, are they? Why did that happen?

You have been in business for a few years now, have a handful of employees and are still struggling to get by. You meet someone at an event who is in the same marketplace as you, with the same product or service, with the same time in the market. Difference is, they have 10 times more employees and customers.

Could it be they are infinitely smarter than you? Or could it be that they understand the client in a way that you don’t?

I have been in business long enough to know the first is not usually the case. I would like to share an idea – better, a process – to get past the obvious in the pursuit of that little bit of magic that seams so hard to attain.

Stop dreaming. Yes, I did say that. But why did I say that? Go to YouTube and search for “Epic Fail X Factor” or any of the other talent shows all over the planet. I do love watching the talented people – but it’s when you watch the ones that are not so talented you can really learn something about human beings. Or, better yet, you can learn about how we limit ourselves by focusing our future on things we are simply not capable of.

I want to be clear: I am not really saying don’t dream – I am saying get to know yourself and stop living in a dream. This is true not only for businesses but also for people.

For example, when I brand and position companies, I focus on who they have been, what they have done, I use evidence. Stop telling me things that haven’t happened. The fact is everything you have done or thought got you to where you are today. My job is not to sell you an ad campaign that I made up out of thin air – my job is show you in the best possible light.

Think of it this way – when you go to buy clothing do you ask the person to give you cloths that might fit you in five years? No, you get clothes that fit you today and that you are comfortable in. So what made you comfortable in those clothes? They don’t only fit your body, but they also fit your personality and lifestyle.

Most advertising that we are subjected to is essentially a pissing contest in which each undercuts the other and simply tries to confuse the buying public. Is that really fair? Here is another way to approach it. The best product doesn’t actually win – the best campaign does. Go one step deeper, the best ad agency wins. So what do you value? Do you value confusing people to make money or do you value bringing something to the world that you can be proud of?

It is easier to purchase the same clothes as others, the ones that are hot right now – but seriously, get some self-esteem and buy something that actually fits you. Go to an agency that will work with you and not just dazzle you with ideas.

Here are things to look for when trying to avoid agencies that will just package you with a meaningless flashy idea pitch.

How much emphasis do they put on getting to know you? One to three hours doesn’t cut it. It should take a few weeks just to get a proposal – and then a few more weeks of question asking (make sure they have thought these questions out – check their references).
Are you dealing with a salesperson or the actual strategist? A strategist means someone with deep knowledge and experience of the topic who can relate that to you. It does not mean someone who thinks a lot and charges you for it.

If disappearing into a market will make you money then please, forget you read this. But if all your competitors are in a pissing contest and you want to win, read this a few more times and ponder for a while before you sink your money into the next great idea package.

You're a perfectly fine company - so why don't I like you?

Why a customer's choice of products or services often comes down to what feels right - and how to tap into that.

Have you ever had to choose between two products that were almost identical? What made you pick one over the other? Assume that a potential client has seen your advertising and is comparing you to one of your competitors. How can you tighten up your brand and company to ensure that they choose you?
Have you heard or said any of these statements?

  • "I have a feeling about these guys"
  • "Everything seems to be in order"
  • "This just feels right"

As a brand strategist, this is my business. This is not capturing an audience through advertising or marketing – rather it's creating a brand experience that inspires a particular feeling.

Imagine that every element of your company has a red X (bad) or green checkmark (good) on it: shop space, offices, website, letterhead, packaging, storekeeper, salesperson, car, watch, business card ... everything. Read the title of this article again, "You're a perfectly fine company – so why don't I like you?"

As a customer experiences your brand (website, advertising, store visit, staff interaction, etc.) those Xs and checkmarks will act like a subconscious scorecard. If you score below your competitor, you've lost a customer.

So what creates that positive or negative feeling about a company, product, service or person? Often it isn't the obvious, but a gut feeling. This is why I leave nothing to chance when detailing a client's company and brand. I don't want them to lose business after failing a "gut check" because of a minor item like cheap business card paper or a messy waiting room. Remember, every element of your brand contributes to the experience.

Here is what I would like you to do this month - be picky and critical about your brand. Don't cut any corners, but if there is something you can improve quickly - DO IT! A few places to start looking:

  • Website: Do you have "under construction" pages with cute animations of someone digging a hole? Delete them.
  • Print materials: Maybe you moved a year ago and corrected your address with stickers or white out? Print new ones and recycle the old.
  • Office: Get rid of the plastic plants!

Of course I have given business to companies with many red Xs on their scoresheet, but those companies don't often earn my loyalty. Just like finance is about money, branding is about feelings. So be a smart competitor - make your company "feel" like the right choice.



It's all been done before - or has it?

I have never been a fan of that statement because it implies that we're doomed to a lifetime of repetition. I see the world offering an endless, ever-changing array of opportunities. A complementary statement is that each of us has more potential than we may think; and the possibilities evolve along with our life experiences.
Most of my life has been spent trying to understand my medium for self-expression. This quest left me feeling that my personal brand was inconsistent – even schizophrenic – until I recognized a pattern. I have always been searching out creative projects that involved enjoying the company and talents of other people. This has led to experiences in the music industry, film and television, construction, advertising, branding and now public speaking and writing.

Do you have a personal brand? Of course you do. This does not mean a logo and website. It means that you affect people and situations on an emotional level with every interaction. In fact, you probably even influence them when you aren't present. That is branding.

Earlier in life you had no choice but to play along and see what happened. But with experience you learned to take an active role in your interactions – choosing what to wear, where to go and who to associate with. This is personal brand management and marketing.

In a speaking engagement a few weeks ago I discussed this concept and during question period a woman asked me if her company name was her brand. The answer is no. The name represents the brand but it takes time for its true meaning to develop and for people to associate the name with that meaning. Think of the name of a close friend – instantly your brain paints a picture of them and you begin to feel an emotional response. Now think of the name of someone just met – the response is likely more of a shallow impression.

Think of what it takes to understand a close friend – the time investment, energy spent nurturing the relationship, and dedication to personal growth. This is how you need to think about your company and the people associated with it: employees, stakeholders, clients and, of course, yourself. You must also understand the company itself. Maybe you already do, but consider the possibility that there are things you have overlooked. Remember that you are only one side of the equation.

I'm offering no "five ways to…" bullet-pointed task list this month – just a single concept. Think of ways to personify your company, keeping in mind that "it hasn't all been done." Sure, you and I may both sell cups, but we're also both unique. So dig a little deeper – why do you sell cups? Who are your influences? Why do you choose particular brands, or create what you create, or think the way you do? This is what makes your company unique and is the root of your true value.

Trendsetters unite! Help me show the "it's all been done before" crowd that they're wrong.