Monday, May 17, 2010

The magic 90/10

One of my favourite ideas for life was given to me in casual conversation by the very great photographer Laurence Haskell.

He was describing his process to me. When setting up a shot, he explained, it generally took him 10% of the time to get it looking 90% right, then 90% of the time to make it that last 10% better.

His constant frustration was that clients rarely understood this and would wonder why he was taking so long when things looked ‘perfectly fine’ to them. The explanation always came when they saw the final shot. What he had done in that last 10% was the difference between a good shot and a really great one.

I loved this idea so much I wrote it into our employee handbook at This is Real Art. I think it can be applied to almost anything.

The problem is – and this is what prevents so much mediocracy from becoming greatness – that this last 10% requires such a disproportionate amount of effort that it is often hard to justify.

It’s also risky. Sometimes it takes even longer and sometimes that final push yields not very much. If 90/10 is a hard ratio to sell what about 95/5, 99/1 or worse? On a practical level these kind of odds are hard to plan for in budget, time and resources.

But we’ve all had moments where just when you feel you can’t do any more a great break-though comes. So how do you know when you’ve done enough?

My general rule is not to stop when it’s painful. Actual physical discomfort is usually a sign that I need to push on. If I’m enjoying myself too much, it’s possible I’m tinkering and it’s time to put down the tools. I’m aware this makes me sound like a bit of a martyr but in any endeavour that requires tricky problem solving, this has proven to be a good strategy.

The reality is that most of us, most of the time, don’t do the extra 10%. So, risky and painful as it may be, it almost always pays off as a way to stand out from the crowd.

Next time you’re planning a project take a leaf out of Laurie’s book: assume 90/10 will be the ratio and allow for it. That, and practice not stopping at the hard bit. Easier said than done but worth giving a go.

Friday, May 7, 2010

To free or not to free

Personally, I blame Napster.

They may have started all this by planting the idea of free stuff over the internet firmly in consumers’ minds. Big Music made a huge and short sighted mistake in not doing a deal and legitimising Napster early on before the expectation of free music really took hold but Napster made themselves difficult to deal with by not understanding their own business objectives. On one hand they were talking about pay-for-play deals with labels and on the other, they were fighting the very notion of copyright in the courts. They either thought the music should be free or not and if so, they needed to find another way to support themselves. (There is a wonderfully detailed account of all this dithering in Steve Knopper’s excellent book Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age')

Was there a turning point in the early days of the internet in which businesses could have rallied around pay-for-play models and turned the tide of consumer expectation for free before it really took hold? I doubt it, the early days of the internet were far too heady and chaotic for anyone to strategise in this way.

Most businesses, understandably, went for the ‘get enough eyeballs and the money will come’ approach because it was easier and quicker to achieve than trying to work out which business models would win in the long term.

It was a land grab and even now, with benefit of more than 10 years hindsight, it’s hard to see any pattern in who the winners and losers have been.

Today, it has become obvious that ‘eyeballs’ alone do not equal value and there is a lot of foot-stamping and hand-wringing over who’s gonna pay for all this.

As online audiences are becoming more discerning and there probably are many who would be willing to pay if it got them exactly what they want, there is a feeling that it’s too late because online consumers have learnt to expect stuff to be free.

For the purpose of this article, I’m putting aside businesses that sell ‘stuff’, (as in things you used to buy in shops but now have the option to buy online) and am thinking about the future of businesses that provide services, entertainment and information (i.e. content) of the kind that is currently available all over the internet for free.

I love wikipedia. Almost every day I’m delighted and grateful that it exists and I don’t believe it could exist in any other way than it does currently. But this model won’t and can’t work for everything online.

In a recent post on Wired Pen, Kathy E. McGill convincingly argues that the content carried in newspapers and magazines has always been free. The cover price pays for the delivery method (i.e., printing and paper) not the journalism. By this argument, the online analogy would be that we pay a small access fee to cover the ‘delivery’ (i.e. administering of the website, coding etc) and that online publications still carry advertising to cover the cost of the journalism. This model doesn’t help the consumer (preferably we want stuff either free or ad-free, not neither) and it also doesn’t help the advertisers who will continue to find the efficacy of their easily-ignored banner ads dwindle at an alarming rate.

So do we put everything behind a subscription wall and make the entry fee high enough to cover the cost of the delivery and the content? My guess is this will work for some publications and not for others. And this is a good thing. Let the consumer weed out what they feel is worth paying for and what not. (Rolling Stone magazine’s recent launch of their entire back issue archive online for a fee is a wonderful foray into this idea.)

But this won’t work for everything either. There is too much competition from people (such as bloggers) who are more than willing to give their content away for free because it serves some other purpose for them.

I don’t particularly care about whether or not the traditional big media survive the transition to online. There will be plenty of exciting new businesses to take their place if they don’t. But I do care about the clever and talented professional people (journalists, authors, film directors, photographers, musicians etc) who create the content.

If these content creators want to continue to earn a decent living in the online era it is looking increasingly like they will need to become entrepreneurial in managing their careers in order to survive.

Jancis Robson, one of the world’s foremost wine experts splits her writing time largely between being wine critic for the FT (a very prestigious and ‘career’ job for a journalist) and creating content for her own (part free, part subscription) website. I was fascinated to learn recently that subscriptions for her website currently earn her around double what writing for the FT does. This is just one of many examples I’ve come across of professional content-creators turning entrepreneur to boost their earnings.

The internet is a delightfully complex beast. It can accommodate, and increasingly will require, many different business models.

There’ll be more pay-for-access, more ‘freemium’, more opportunities for micro-payments through things like Amazon’s Affiliates, more ad-funded sites (but increasingly using consumer-driven platforms involving interaction and choice) and many new ideas and models that no-one has thought of yet. And of course, loads more great free stuff.

Everyone with a large stake in content-ownership is trying to work out which horse to back but I don’t think there will be any clear winners. Probably the best bet for content-owners and creators is to – like any good investor –diversify. A bit of income from this, a bit of income from that.

No doubt it will be a bumpy ride. Businesses, advertisers, content-makers and consumers alike will be muddling through these issues for quite some time yet. As Clay Shirky explains in his brilliant article ‘Newspapers - Thinking the Unthinkable,' the fall out from revolutions can last for many years.

This, of course is not good news for large businesses who are burdened with costly infrastructure and need a solution soon to survive. But it’s great news for clever and brave people who are willing and ready to have a lot of fun trying out all the new possibilities.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Selling-in without selling-out

I’ve just finished reading Dirty Little Secrets’ by Sharon Drew Morgan. The book, which is subtitled ‘Why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell’ is more long-winded than is necessary for its premiss but it contains some interesting thoughts nonetheless.

The basic idea is this: most of the time when a sales lead runs cold it is to do with reasons connected to, but beyond the basic reach of, the solution that is being sold. Morgan hypothesizes that if sales people spend more time understanding the internal issues of the business they are attempting to sell to, they can help their buyer navigate potential hurdles and therefore increase the chances of ultimately closing the sale.

It sounds obvious. And it is. But Morgan is right in thinking that not enough energy and resources are dedicated (on both the seller and the buyer side) to figuring out and preemptively dealing with, issues that may get in the way of implementing a particular solution.

We are all familiar with being left scratching our heads over what happened when a great prospect is suddenly not returning our calls for (what seems like) no reason.

Morgan’s book is directed mostly at large business-to-business contracts but I think this idea is applicable to the relationship between agencies and clients and the selling-in of creative solutions.

Any person who has worked in new business for a design or advertising agency will tell you how much time and energy it takes to close a deal even when the client seems to be very willing to
work with you.

The part I’m interested in here is what happens next after the contract is signed and we move from selling mode to doing mode. We tend to think the ‘selling’ part is over and we can now concentrate entirely on the problem at hand. But every time we present work to a client at every stage of a project, we are (or should be) selling not just our creative ideas but the solutions required to implement them.

In my experience agencies almost always underestimate the time and resources this part of the process will take. And as a result budgets and schedules overrun and frustration on both sides boils over.

Think of the situation where you’ve fought hard to win a job. You’ve thrown everything you had at it, bowled the client over in the pitch presentation, sealed the deal and drunk the champagne and now you get down to the really fun part of doing the job. Your team knuckles under and comes up with what is arguably the perfect solution to the problem that the client has commissioned you to solve. The first presentation goes well. The client loves your solution and is excited about taking it back to discuss with the rest of his team. Two weeks later you get a call saying they need to discuss some ‘changes’ and here begins the age old client/agency arm wrestle to try to get your work implemented in the way that you originally intended.

Both the client and the agency are at fault here for underestimating the amount of upfront work that still needed to be done. I believe we will increase the efficacy of our creative solutions and reduce the amount of wasted cost and heartache if we all (both agency and client) get better at doing the ground work.

I’ve heard tell that Pentagram have a policy of not undertaking any project unless they can deal directly with the head of the company. This is a very good policy and one that makes it much easier to get good work implemented. But it’s a policy that you can insist on if you are an entity with the heritage and reputation of Pentagram. If you are a small agency or one just starting out, this will be almost impossible to achieve in many cases. The alternative is to start the project with some very serious conversations with your immediate client on what the chain of approval will be and make sure they understand that secondhand feedback passed down from above will not be helpful to anyone. A good boss will either be in the meetings or will trust their team enough to delegate the decisions.

But it’s not just about internal approval. There are often real, practical hurdles to getting a solution implemented no matter now perfect it is for the problem at hand.

I worked with a client recently who asked us to redesign their corporate website. In the information architecture stage we came up with a solution based on improving user-experience which required a completely different approach to customer segmentation than the one they had been using for many years. The clients in the marketing department who commissioned us loved the solution and were eager to implement it but a rearranging of how their customers where segmented lead to a rearranging of how their product portfolio was sold which meant retraining and reconfiguring a global sales team. All of this is good, important stuff but as the creative agency it means the development of the website and hence the final payment of your fee could be delayed for a long time. Thankfully, due to the determination and persistence of the client team, this particular project turned out well but these situations can bring small-to-medium agencies to their knees financially.

Any really good, significant creative work will bring about some change in the organisation it is designed for.

Before embarking on any important project both agency and commissioning client should ask themselves ‘Are we really ready and able to apply all the effort that will be required to make this change?’. And by ‘this change’ we need to be looking at it in the context of all the connected changes that will also be needed.

At the risk of repeating myself, you cannot overestimate how long this part of the process will take. You should budget for it and schedule for it and not even let your creatives switch on their Macs until you can brief them on the full range of problems surrounding the one you have been commissioned to solve. And, more importantly, be willing to keep solving new issues as they come up at every stage until the project
is complete.

My advice to creatives is, if you are not good at, or just don’t want to, get your hands really dirty in your client’s business in this way then hire someone who can. Either that or accept the fact that you will come out of many meetings saying ‘We’ve given them a perfectly good solution so why they hell won’t they just buy it?!’

My advice to clients is try to think about all the chain-reactions you are about to set off before you commission a creative solution and make sure you have the access and the resources to manage them. And once you’ve begun the project, allow your agency the access and resources to help you implement the best solutions.