Today in The Age of Disruption

In 2016, I was honored to present to a major publisher’s entire company. My topic was on what’s a publisher to do (in what was then known as age of disruption if you will recall), and my assignment was to discuss how my own business has changed, and how publishing is continuing to change.

I like to come early to such meetings and listen because I learn the mindset of the audience I’ll be addressing (see my blog Selling the Why and Why It Ain’t So). If you are a presenter, and you get that opportunity, you will never fail to learn some things that will help adjust your own presentation. Here’s what I learned then before I took center stage.

  1. If your budget is $14M, you can do a lot. One of the presenters talked about their campaign for a major brand. You saw people in the audience drooling: the spend was $14 million, and the campaign included everything from buying billboards to social media and print. It was a very effective campaign according to the presenter: the goal was 1.4 million impressions, and they delivered 83 million. But, what’s an impression? Like “hits” (or How Idiots Track Success), an impression is just that: a fleeting look. Granted, you need impressions to start the ball rolling, but spending all that money to create an impressions is, well, wasted if you can’t know who you are impressing or you can’t turn one of those impressions into a sale (or prove you did). That’s been the battle since Wanamaker said half his money spent on advertising was wasted, only he didn’t know which half. Unfortunately, most of the time that’s still true.

Today…Budgets are in freefall. The entire landscape (talk about disruption) has shifted and will never return to what people are trying to define as “new normal.” Our series — Navigating Sales and Marketing During COVID-19 — is one of the highest visited sections on our website.  Separate essays on Architecture, Manufacturing, Retail, Security and more are presented as ideas on just how savage this disruption has and is to business of most all sizes. In fact, size will not matter eventually; though size can help a company withstand disruption to a degree, it can’t save the company from the forces of disruption. There are opportunities, however, and in the Navigating Sales and Marketing in Media Outlets During COVID-19, some of those opportunities are presented for your consideration.

One of the things you will read is that today, EVERYONE is a media outlet. Any business with a website is a media outlet, competing with other media outlets for attention. In Rorschach Test: Who Is Robert Redford?, Shane Smith, the man who built Vice into a $2.5 Billion Empire, said something profound: “Vice has found that magical point of convergence…We want to do three things. We want to make good content, we want to have as many eyeballs as possible see that content, and we want to make money so that we can keep paying to do that content.” Isn’t that what every company wants to do after COVID-19?

  1. Be aware of triggers of opportunity. In the agency and publishing business back in 2016, sales people should have been looking for triggers of opportunity, or situations (client problems usually) where a door will open for you. There were plenty of them then, and an overwhelming amount of them now. One trigger then and now was research, and we were encouraged to follow the research – something we are a proponent of since we opened our own doors. But research can also lead to blind alleys; in fact, there’s an enormous amount of money spent on research that leads nowhere. And that’s how it should be. Research is inherently designed to help you make go/no go decisions. Probably the hardest thing a company can do is do research, find out they made a miscalculation, but decide to go ahead anyway and lose a fortune. It happens a lot – a lot more than you’d think. Transitions are another trigger. When there is a change in management, a change in a process, that usually spells opportunity. But to find them, you have to be listening – carefully. Sometimes transitions happen suddenly. Other times they evolve over time, with clues being scattered in front of you like breadcrumbs. The key is to pay attention, and then be agile enough to move quickly, neatly and efficiently.

Today…There is an overabundant amount of research going on, all telling us “no one knows.” That’s because no one does know. I shared with an audience of 200 professionals including designers and architects in a recent online webinar about finding and targeting customers in the COVID-19 environment these three points:

  •  Every market is in flux because of COVID-19, and no one has the answers.
  •  If no one knows the answers, YOUR answer is good as anyone else’s.
  •  Use the Blue Ocean, Red Ocean approach. Right now, the waters are actually blue.

The last point in particular is important: we are actually in very blue oceans because nothing is working as normal.

For example, recently, Gary Johnson, Ford’s chief Manufacturing and Labor Affairs officer, was named manufacturing technology leader of the year by Industry Week. Congratulations are certainly in order, but he didn’t get that award for making vehicles: Partnering with GE Healthcare, he was instrumental in delivering part of the 50,000 ventilators needed to fight the virus, as well as 19 million fade shields, 42 million face masks over over 32,000 powered air purifying respirators collaborating with 3M. If they had insisted on making vehicles, where would Ford be today? Moreover, many of us don’t have the resources to shift to give people what they need like a Ford. But that premise of business — giving people what they want — is never wrong or disrupted by anything like a virus. Just think about toilet paper when COVID-19 struck!

Such shifts when disruption happens are essential. In the Maslow Challenge, which was written in 2013, I discussed James McQuivey’s book DIGITAL DISRUPTION, which was and still may be a must read for anyone trying to do business in this world today. While my argument with McQuivey was about his interpretation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, what McQuivey said about disruption has proven to be true in 2020. The question has always been: what does a business DO about it?

Jim Lovell, the Commander of Apollo 13 said, “There are three kinds of people in the world: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who wonder what happened.” In this world today, you have to make that choice evident — and real. There’s actually no room for hesitation.

  1. The website is the center of the experience. We’ve been preaching this for many years, and it was good to hear it being reinforced back in 2016. More than anything else, a company’s website holds the opportunity for success or failure in any marketing venture. In this case, the presenter recommended creating a blog on the client’s website, and using all the marketing tactics to drive people to that blog. A very strong idea, and proven time after time. You should consider it.

Today…Nothing has changed: the website is the key component for EVERYTHING a company does. Pre COVID statistics were being quoted that 75% of people go to Google first to find things. Post-COVID, I’ve heard statistics as high as 95%. The companies that were revamping their websites when the virus hit are out of business. And the first thing any new business venture does since it hit is build a website. Or a ZOOM room. 🙂

  1. You can’t be a know-it-all. Another presenter discussed the uncomfortable situation where a salesperson doesn’t know the answer to a question that’s being asked. Sales people (even before 2016 when this took place) like to know everything, and many find it tough when this situation of not knowing the answer to a question arises. Some make up answers. Maybe because I used to be a teacher, I don’t mind saying, “I don’t know.” Now people who work for me will find what I just said to be a contradiction. I tell them those are the three words I hate the most: “I don’t know.” Our clients expect us to know, because they don’t. If they did, they wouldn’t need us. However, when you are in front of a client, saying “I don’t know” it is actually a good thing, especially if the conversation has led you into an area where you don’t know. Gene Kranz wrote FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION. In it, he noted: “The first rule of flight control is if you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything!” That’s because doing the wrong thing would get people killed. He concluded: “I had gained something precious. I now know how much I didn’t know.” As a salesperson, not knowing is a chance to help a client find out a solution.

Today…Sales people are in a tough spot. Not only because no one really knows what’s happening, they are in a tough spot because no one really knew. The most important attribute of a sales person is being able to listen — to really hear what’s being said. And today, there’s so much clutter, it’s difficult to tell the single from the noise as  Nate Silver in his book The Signal and the Noise talks a lot about. Silver says finding a true signal is more like trying to find the right needle in a pile of needles.

But what you can be is a know-it-all in your own field. We recently onboarded a new digital marketing person for a client who came from outside the industry — a tremendous advantage actually. The person was smart, insightful and embraced metrics. Our “advantage” was that we knew the industry. Our common bond was the shared marketing experience, and counting on conversion — no response — to help us judge what the former digital person kept to herself and from us. We’re looking forward to being part of the team, not because we “had the answers,” but because we can hatch strategies together to shape approaches in the disruption going on out there.

  1. You are the sell sheet. Salespeople have always depended on printed material – on something to put in front of a client. Part of the important discussion I heard was when one person turned to the audience in an open forum and said, “YOU are the sell sheet.” The lesson was to go in without anything in order to listen to the client or prospect and figure out the problem. I once started a meeting with a President of a major firm and after the brief introductions, he said, “What do you do?” I told him I solve problems. He said, “I don’t have any problems.” I replied, “Nice to meet you,” and got up to leave. Stunned, he said, “Where are you going?” “You said you didn’t have any problems.” We had an excellent discussion that I blogged about following that move and you might find it interesting, even today.

Today…Print is dead — and dying. Even though we recently distributed over 5,000 printed catalogs for a client, most people now receive and distribute content digitally. Naturally, a situation will determine whether you print or not, but the idea of needing something printed to sell something is mostly an excuse for transmitting sell copy.

Does that mean magazines are dead? Of course, not, but they will NOT be in the overabundance they were before, and the virus has only accelerated their demise. The new ones that do come out will not be published as often. The ones that are out there keep shrinking before our eyes (we used to receive over 1,000 print magazines in our office before COVID).

  1. Big Ideas. Clients, according to much of the discussion going on, want “big ideas” or “less traditional advertising.” The Big Ideas of 2016  in one discussion was what they called “road shows.” That is, they targeted the top ten cities and brought the “event” to those target audiences in those cities. 20 years ago, we did road shows with magazines. Instead of holding one press conference, we took the press conferences on the road to magazines in major cities. Connecting people is never out of style. It never will be.

Today…You know what COVID-19 did to trade shows. This once “big idea” is not a whimper because who knows when trade shows will return. And if you have attended any virtual ones, you know how different they are from what we are used to.

But re-definition is what disruption does and what it will continue to do. According to the Farnsworth Group and NHPA, 41% of retailers are expecting their budgeting for sales to decrease! But the real suspect statistic about one of the survey statistics was “NHPA surveyed roughly 300 retailers across the industry, representing 1,500 storefronts. nearly 90 percent of retailers reported a year-to-date sales increase in 2020, with the average sales increase hovering just above 24 percent.” How can that be?

Simply, it can’t, unless you’re Amazon. According to Sourcing Journal, here were more than 11,000 reported fashion store closures—11,060 to be exact—in 2020 by mid-December. Christopher & Banks Corporation filed Chapter 11,  on January 13, and expects to close a significant portion, if not all, of its brick-and-mortar stores and is in active discussion with potential buyers for the sale of its eCommerce platform and related assets and expects to file the appropriate motion shortly.

The moral of the story? Today’s big idea can flame out faster in a disruptive climate. Therefore, judging BFIs (what they called big ideas in my agency days, you figure out the “F”) takes patience, thoughtfulness and flexibility to change on the dime. Who can do that these days?

  1. Walls are Crumbling. A panel was discussing selling custom content and how to get editorial involved. This was a big topic in publishing in 2016. Then, according to eMarketer, “The lines between native advertising and editorial content are continuing to blur, as more magazine publishers involve their editorial team in the production of native ads than use a separate native ad team.” It was also pointed out that magazine execs are worried about the lack of division between their editorial and advertising side – something that was expressed in this panel discussion I heard. One of their fears was a sales person making a commitment that they couldn’t keep. I learned also that magazines will use freelance writers when required – something I forgot about. There was discussion about getting the opportunity to write clients’ white papers, a discussion about custom content versus sponsored content and how important it is to lay-out the entire scope of the project. They also discussed social media. “We did a Twitter chat and it was more legwork than I thought,” said one person.

Today…Major media outlets are in total disarray. As print evaporates, they have run to the digital highways, only to face increasing competition from their own customers: the manufacturers and producers who have realized their own websites are the secret to success. If you Google today “Should I ever lower my price?” you’ll see what I’m talking about. I’m always amazed at the company I keep on page one (it’s called SEO).

When I went on back in 2016  (I was last up before dinner), I was not only well prepared because of my original content; I had all these stories to weave into my own narrative. It was a great experience for all.

Today…If I would be asked my a media outlet today, I would do the same, and chances are, many of the stories would be the same. How to gather customers, what do people want in terms of content. But the real question then and now is: how do you define a media outlet?

That definition — like all definitions in a disruptive climate — has shifted. But the formula for success hasn’t: he who has a thing to sell and goes and whispers in a well is not so apt to get the dollars as he who climbs a tree and hollers. I read that on a sugar packet (when they made such things) many years ago, and it was the best piece of advice I ever heard about selling. Thanks as always for reading, and please let me hear your comments!

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