Account Managers Today – You’re Doing it Wrong.

by Kat Grider

Dear Account Managers,

If you look around, you might find your job is in jeopardy. Recently, Ad Age weighed in on the value of Account Management, saying,

“everyone seems to be in agreement that account management is indeed valuable and needed.” Furthermore, Ad Age postulates that "with so many strategic players in so many disciplines, it can feel like an account person’s strategic role isn’t ‘real.’”

Everyone SEEMS to be in agreement that your job is needed??
 
Here’s what is real:  the value you bring to a team is seriously in question, and not just by the pundits of Ad Age. Bree and I are right there with them, which is why we submitted a SXSW talk under the same title as this blog. YES, this is a shameless plug to get you to vote for our proposal in the SXSW Panel PickerBut even more powerful than our desire to get on stage, inspire healthy debate and then go to the Salt Lick for some serious BBQ in March, is our desire to see the Account Management discipline not go the way of the DonDraperosaurus (that is, extinct).
 
Account (Client Services, Client Partner, etc) can no longer settle for just routing emails, buying lunches and finessing rate cards. That’s what we on the ranch would call, “All hat and no cattle”. The truth is, if the account management discipline is going to survive in a world of integrated teams and shrinking budgets, it must demonstrate tangible value to the client AND to internal teams.
 
We must actively MAKE THE WORK BETTER and GET THE WORK SEEN MORE OFTEN.
 
We must feel responsible for creating an environment in which our teammates can elevate their craft. This means everything from drafting an SOW that focuses on work that works, not just work that is completed on time, all the way to knowing how to organize a team (client included) around fluid business priorities every single day.
 
Once you’ve helped the team create great work, your real, distinct, only-you-can-do job begins. Charlotte Beers, not only a fine Texan, but also former CEO of Ogilvy and Undersecretary of State to Colin Powell, believes that Account Management’s job is to get the work “noticed, used and appreciated”.  We agree.
 
Yes, it’s a tall order. But we know it can be done and the Aha Method is committed to identifying and sharing the tools that make it possible as the digital world changes. We’d love to share some of these with you in Austin. But first, in case you missed it, we’ll need you to vote. Visit the SXSW Panel Picker now and give us a thumb's up. 

Sorry Soccer Fans, Goals Don’t Belong in Digital

by Kat Grider

Photo of April Heinrichs

Photo of April Heinrichs

Lately my motto has been, "cleats on". Meaning, get aggressive, get focused and stuff the freakin’ ball into the back of the proverbial net. The thing is, the more fired up I get about going after what I want (i.e. excellent work and winning), the more I realize that we as digital marketers have to redefine success as not being about meeting a finite goal. The truth is that unlike the World Cup, winning in digital isn’t about hitting a stationary goal - instead it’s about staying ahead of constantly shifting technologies and consumer likes and dislikes. (Talk about a moving target – this spring I heard a group of teens tell a Senior Strategist that Facebook is dead and Apple products could use some improvement.) Winning isn’t just about a ball in the back of the net - it’s about systems that reinforce winning results. That’s why I loved this line from a recent article in Entrepreneur.com:

"I've found that goals are good for planning your progress and systems are good for actually making progress.

Bangerang. Actually making progress. The article goes on to state:

"Goals suggest that you can control things that you have no control over…You can't predict the future. (I know, shocking.) But every time we set a goal, we try to do it. We try to plan out where we will be and when we will make it there. We try to predict how quickly we can make progress, even though we have no idea what circumstances or situations will arise along the way."

This is why when writing a Scope of Work (SOW) Bree and I use language like: timeline and budget are set, but scope is variable. Because, the truth is, we have no idea what changes in the market and/or in consumers will occur once we’ve hit send on the SOW. Finite goals and granular, lengthy, pre-defined deliverables and requirements hinder innovation and the ability to seize market opportunities. It’s no surprise, we love the solution James Clear proposes:

"…Feedback loops are important for building good systems because they allow you to keep track of many different pieces without feeling the pressure to predict what is going to happen with everything. Forget about predicting the future and build a system that can signal when you need to make adjustments."

The Aha Method is simply our way of taking the an agile mindset and applying it to the existing Advertising/Marketing agency system in a way that works (okay, kills it) - bringing a little sanity and a whole lot of net-stuffing progress to both team and client.

Continuing in the vein of “cleats on” I’ve been reading the book Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing. The authors state:

"Religious scholar James Carse makes a distinction between ‘finite’ games and ‘infinite’ games. Finite games have a beginning and an ending with the goal of winning. Between games there is recuperation and restoration.  Infinite games never end, and since no winner is ever declared, the goal instead is to get ahead."

Work is nothing if not an infinite game. One where winning (winning the pitch, winning the award or simply winning the meeting) is, again, a moving target.  All the more reason to lace up and get to work building a system that reinforces winning results. If you need help getting started Bree and I are ready to go, we pretty much wear our cleats to bed…and we’re girls. And that’s game advantage according to Carse: 

"It turns out that women handle infinite competitions better than men, often because they find ways to recuperate while still competing. Men, unable to shield their egos, do best in shorter competitions of a discrete length."

Game on.

 

From Marketer to Coder

by Bree Thomas

 

People always ask me why I made the switch from marketing to writing code.

Often, when it’s coming from a Marketer, the question is posed with an obvious tone of incredulousness. Like why in the hell would I want to spend my days looking at that horrible black screen, tucked away in a dark room, just a hair’s breadth away from turning into Gollum. The fear and loathing is unmistakable. And then sometimes, when the question is posed by a Coder, there is an air of distrust and skepticism. Like I am out to eat their young, or an evil secret double-agent, or simply that I am just a hair’s breadth away from certifiable cuckoo.

So here is the thing - I didn’t wake up one morning and decide, oh, I think I’ll go do that programming thing now. I’d already done with that law school and it only amounted to a law degree, bar certification, and annual dues I pay as a permanently “inactive attorney”.  My desire wasn’t to change careers and become a full-fledged coder. As a marketer, with a solid career in brand strategy, digital communication planning, project/account management, and campaign leadership to name a few... I didn’t have that much to complain about. I had worked agency and client side both, and was focused on growing my resume and climbing the executive ladder.

But to keep my edge, and increase my value in the space, I felt like I needed to brush up on my tech literacy, specifically in the nitty-gritty details of actual coding. I felt like I was losing my ability to communicate effectively with developers because there was so much that I didn’t understand about their actual day-to-day work, which was work that I desperately depended upon.

Also - The Aha Method needed a website, and Kat and I were not in a position to bankroll that project. Fortunately for me, I had a host of very close friends who were developers and a few that were willing to mentor. And so I started slow. Just a little coding work and pairing sessions every week on building a tiny little static site. It took me three months at that rate, which was excruciating, because I knew my mentor could have built it in a day. But once it was done, and I pushed it live… holy shit. No past marketing campaign that I lead, not even three Super Bowl campaigns combined, could measure up to the feeling of satisfaction in that one little accomplishment. Because I had built it. Because marketing a product now paled in comparison to actually building a product. And I wanted to do more of THAT. So began my journey into a formal career change.

Luckily, I found Jumpstart Lab, which is now Turing.io. Jeff Casimir and the rest of his crew developed a six month, highly intensive and immersive program for taking those with no prior programming experience and turning them into real-live coders. I enrolled and was accepted. It was much harder than law school. It was a kick-in-the-teeth-humbling-experience in which I was pretty much failing for the first three months. I’ve always been a quick study and good at anything I put my mind to, but programming wasn’t something to be ‘conquered’ as I would discover. In her post, “Don’t Believe Anyone Who Tells You Learning To Code Is Easy”, I think Kate Ray most aptly describes what it means to learn to code and become a legitimate programmer:

... there is no mastery, there is no final level. The anxiety of feeling lost and stupid is not something you learn to conquer, but something you learn to live with.

And for as many times as it made me cry and doubt myself in those early months, the fact that programming isn’t something to be checked off some proverbial list - is exactly its appeal. It is truly constant learning and constant feedback. Progress is incremental, tangible, and deeply satisfying. It is a lesson in keeping things small and celebrating the cumulative wins.

And shit breaks - a LOT, which is a constant reminder to practice humility and don’t give up. Honestly - its made me a better mother if you can believe that. How I interact with and teach my son has been influenced by what I’ve learned in programming. We pair build legos in a whole new way, and it’s RAD.

So here is where I’m really going with all this, and that is that we need more developers with diverse backgrounds, hailing from all professional walks of life. There are a lot of opinions about what it takes to be a coder, including logic, problem solving, attention to detail, to name a few. And while those are valid and true, cultivating other aspects like passion, creativity, and even humor, are incredibly important. And you don’t have to be a math or computer science major to write beautiful code that works. The marketplace is in need of more developers (desperately), but it is also in need of innovation, new design thinking, and some fresh perspective from people with diverse experience.

I would challenge all of you in Ad-Agency-Land who don't write any code, to begin an investigation in writing code, even if just for the sake of understanding the world around you a little better, or to communicate more effectively with your coder-colleagues. Whether you simply task yourself with understanding how the internet really works, or you dive head first into writing your own applications, both are valuable and can be key to positioning you for growth in almost any aspect, be that marketing or parenthood. Seriously.

Here are some good places to start:


 

Agile Buzz and the Damage it Does

by Kat Grider

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In the last few years marketers of every ilk have geeked out on the idea of agile. Enter “Agile Marketing” into Google and get back over 32 Million results. Type in “Agile Marketing” in the Amazon Books search and get back 111 results with 50% of the titles being written in the last 2 years despite the fact that ‘agile’ has been around since 2001. So why would do Bree and I feel it's important to add to the noise? Well, we find the buzz to be misleading at best and totally impractical at worst.

 Here's some of the agile marketing buzz that really gives us pains (yes, some of these are from a few years ago, but they helped establish how people think about agile today): 

  • Agile Marketing is more suited for one channel than another. A lengthy 2012 iMedia article, “Why Agile Marketing is the Future of Digital”, puts a lot of emphasis on the idea that Social is the best channel for brand marketers to adopt agile best practices. We call shenanigans. Agile is channel agnostic.
  • Agile Marketing is an internal stunt or a moment in time. Think with Google has  “7 Agility Tips”. We don’t disagree with any of them, but we don’t think they actually help you put the rubber to the road in the reality of your situation. Co-locating the team and running day-long hackathons are awesome in theory but how often do you have the time, resources, support to implement these tips?
  • Agile Marketers do everything faster. Another 2012 article, the Hubspot “7 Reasons Agile Marketers are Better at Their Job than You” implies on more than one occasion that agile is about speed. Reason #5 is “Agile Marketers can create landing pages quickly”. Again, we don’t disagree that speed is a huge benefit of Agile. But too often Agile gets sold as “quick” which quickly deteriorates into another word for “cheap”. Nothing good is ever cheap...except for pork rinds and really, those are questionable outside of the South.
  • Agile Marketing practices are separate from, and parallel to, your current workflow. Mindjet’s 2013 article “Agile Marketing Series: How to Establish a Dual Operating System” implies that the best way to run agile in an existing hierarchy is to use a team of volunteers and focus not on the day-to-day but instead focus on exploration and innovation. The problem here is that the day-to-day is where most of us live and where we’re required to innovate.
  • Agile is best for short-term projects. A recent post by Marketing Profs, “Agile: What Marketers can Learn from Software Developers” states that Agile Marketing for corporations is best suited to small teams focused on quick projects. We’ve found that focusing on the right talent and the right approach is far more important than cherry-picking a project...or worse yet...waiting for the ‘perfect’ agile project to come along.
  • Agile Marketing is a set of seven values and eight principles. The 2012 Marketers Agile Manifesto crafted by a group of 30 marketing practitioners and based on 17 suggestions is a list of bullet points. Again, we don’t necessarily disagree with them…we just think they are well…a waste of precious time given that a well-phrased, concise and actionable agile manifesto already existed.

And, what's worse, buzz is just that, buzz. Hard to implement, replicate and scale. Which is why Bree and I are trying to cut through the vast amount of noise and provide a true signal:

  • We embrace agile as a mindset, not a single process and believe it can and should be applied outside the realm of just software development and startups.
  • We empower teams with concrete, tangible methods to apply an agile mindset that are designed to adapt to their account/project.
  • We are convicted that the agile mindset is missing in the upstream work - the strategy, planning and scoping that all happens before you ever design or code a single thing.

We're planning on rolling out a few of the Aha Method frameworks to you over a series of posts in the near future. Giving you the tools to 'do' agile in your corner of the world. And, we don't want to hear anyone hiding behind the fear that clients expect a certain thing when they hear Agile Marketing  - the buzz is so diverse that most clients/managers have an idea of the 'why' (nimble, flexible, responsive) but no preconceived notion of the 'how'. That means you're free to adapt, evolve and embrace the mindset in ways that make sense to your project/team. 

 

We're Sorry. Don't Leave.

by Kat Grider

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Let's address the obvious. It's been a really, ridiculously long time since we posted. We'd like to think you all went through the 7 stages of grief and have, in the final stage, accepted us for our flaws and are hopeful we'll return. If you, in fact, did this...then yee-ha pardner! We're back and want to set things right.

If, instead you took one of the more likely paths of (1) being oblivious to us falling off the face of the earth or (2) simply decided we were inconsistent hacks who didn't deserve your time then we'd like to win you back.

Here's why it's been so long:

  • Bree learned to code. Last week she said, "This is 10 times harder than law school". In other words, it's a challenge and very time consuming. She writes, sporadically, about the experience here: noob-life. She's also been working on a talk for Rails Conference, "Branding for Open Source Success".
  • I'm helping launch a global website and attempting to roll out the Aha Minimum Viable Product tool across my agencies regional offices. In other words, it took me a minute to realize we did NOT need to translate this post into 37 languages (helping improve the BRAT's speed to market on this update dramatically) although even the EN-US took us a bit!
  • And, finally, we were diverting effort into the first draft of a book. But have now decided to roll the book out on the blog as a series of posts. So, keep an eye out for that this spring.

Here's why we think you'll come around:

Agencies and brands are finding ways to adapt agile into every aspect of their work and the work is better for it. Check out this post on Medium by the strategist at a Undercurrent.

"For our past project with Amex, we abandoned the waterfall and did strategy like an agile developer: 5-day idea sprints.
Yes, we still had brilliant strategy statements and research-driven insights, except that they were executed in parallel — with our idea sprints.
The benefits: instead of spending one week on the recommendation, we spent eight. Instead of recommendations based on research/taste, they’re based on customer-feedback. Instead of words on a slide, we had prototypes and MVPs, a head-start on every idea.
In short, we achieved one thing that no waterfall process can: usage."

Firsthand I can tell you that when you have a strategist who is willing to run sprints alongside your UX, Design, Copy and Dev team, providing direction and correction as you go, you end up with work that is more relevant and meaningful. And, just as importantly you have an entire team that stands behind the work with confidence and conviction - which means you have a client who can do the same. 

In the same way, Bree and I are making sure we don't get caught up in our own strategy. We're coding websites and building global brands all in the hope that the workshops, the posts, the insights are more relevant and useful to you. So, please, don't unsubscribe. Don't write us off because the writing will keep coming. It just might be a bit longer in between and may include more cursing* than normal from Bree.

*To both our well-educated mamas who believe cursing is a sign of ignorance - we're sorry and we know you don't know how to unsubscribe anyway, so quit threatening.

 

Frequency Hopping and Book Writing

by Kat Grider

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We've become slightly infatuated with Hedy Lamarr. You may have noticed her face repeatedly gracing our posts. From 1930 to 1989 she appeared in over 35 movies and was called the "most beautiful woman in Europe". 

“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”

Sexy, snarky and smart. She patented one of the technologies involved in today's wireless communications - frequency-hopping spread-spectrum. She received her patent in 1942. However, it wasn't until 20 years later and after the patent had expired, in 1962, when the technology was finally used by U.S. military ships during a blockade of Cuba.

Now, Bree and I have no idea if she employed a fail small, fail fast approach to her invention or if she was a fan of iterative releases. But we do know that she had a valuable idea that people didn't appreciate right away and that she approached life with a certain sense of optimism. 

"Hope and curiosity about the future seemed better than guarantees. That's the way I was. The unknown was always so attractive to me... and still is." 

Bree and I are in the middle of an undertaking that is unknown and highly attractive to us - writing a book. And after spending a weekend batting ideas around and questioning each other on the validity and ingenuity and relevance of our ideas we settled on two things we think Hedy would agree with:

  • No matter what, we must do it with our own voice, personality and panache
  • You can’t rely on the validation of others to tell you that you have a good idea (but since our idea doesn’t have anything to do with missile defense we're pretty sure it shouldn’t take 20 years for it to be put to good use)

 

Gmail Knows their Shit

by Bree Thomas

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It was 2010 and Kat and I were sitting together for Google's Gmail Panel, “Gmail Behind the Scenes”. Kat was taking copious notes about their redesign efforts and I was patiently waiting for it to get interesting. And suddenly, there it was, complete with a curse word and all, Product Manager Todd Jackson, on explaining how the Gmail team works said:  

“You can either be a shit funnel or a shit umbrella.”

Thank you Google. Enough said. And what did he really mean?

“...as a product with hundreds of millions of users (and a company with thousands of employees) there’s a lot of stuff constantly being hurled at the team — as a shit umbrella, the product managers protect engineers from getting distracted. It’s not enough to be a “shit funnel” where they would pass some of the junk down to engineers, they need to fully protect engineers.” - diTii.com

So why has it taken us nearly two solid years before acknowledging this little gem and writing about it? Because being a shit umbrella takes a tremendous amount of energy, time and focus, and it isn’t just reserved for product owners and engineers. 

However - even with our day jobs, mom jobs, small independent biz job, part-time faculty gigs, continuing-ed students in life and work, and then of course our desperate attempts to qualify as authors -  the energy required for us to play the role of  ‘umbrella’ still pales in comparison to the Gmail team who can boast the following (courtesy Kat's Evernote):

  • 30-1 engineer to product owner ratio
  • Approximately 100 person team
  • 70,000 pages to manage/revamp
  • Over several hundred thousand lines of javascript
  • Hundreds of millions of users
  • 53 languages and growing faster internationally than in the US
  • And every single stakeholder and user has their own opinion on everything

Yes - the Gmail team is no doubt dealing with shit that flies, rolls downhill, and swims up creek without a paddle in volumes of ridiculousness that far outweigh what Kat and I manage day-to-day.

But perception is reality, right? And while we may deal on a smaller scale, our frustrations in dealing with shit funnels (clients and colleagues alike) are no less exhausting. Because where the members of a team, in any position, fail to keep the task-at-hand top of mind, fail to prioritize around a common goal, refuse to filter out white noise by stopping to think and ask, “why and what is the priority?”, or just plain skirt all responsibility in making decisions - well, that creates waste.  And as Kat so eloquently stated in a prior BRAT Blog post (What the 'Rose Ceremony' and your RFP have in Common) -- the BRAT abhors waste. 

And therein lies much of the drive behind our methods - empower teams with real tools to deftly navigate through any amount (or anyone’s) shit slinging to limit the waste created by progress impeding distractions. Distractions that are coming from all different angles, business units, stakeholders and the ever-present peanut gallery. Avoid lengthy processes, and focus on workable, scalable frameworks that empower teams to answer the following critical (and seemingly obvious) questions: 

  • Visibility - can you even see the wasteful distractions as they are flying toward you?
  • Mapping - are you confidently empowered to chart  a course that delivers measurable results (sans the distractions)?
  • Strategy - can you even identify what qualifies as a distraction and do you know how to respond?

Because protecting the team, yourself included, and having the means/methods in which to effectively do so -- can be a game changer. In the work product. In your professional dynamic. And for some of you, it might even make the difference between “work/life balance” becoming a reality as opposed to just a shallow headline pasted into that job-description.

Hacking the Matrix

by Kat Grider

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Neo wanted out of the Matrix. So do I.

After that red pill, Neo knew the Matrix was only a simulation of what life could be, should be. A simulation built by the evil super-computers who had taken over the earth. 

After working in a small, consistent agile team, I know the agency model of assigning work using a matrix view of employees and projects is a simulation of what my work life at an agency could be, should be. A simulation built by some well-meaning business folks back in the 70s. 

People living happily in the Matrix thought Neo was nuts. 

Likewise, it's really, really hard to explain to prospective Aha Method clients and even to my own team exactly why a matrix management style is so painful for me. 

Most of them believe that because agencies deal with an ever shifting volume of work and that the type of work fluctuates just as wildly that then, in order to be successful, "we need to manage in multiple dimensions: horizontally where we align and optimize business processes and projects that serve the customer, and vertically, where we manage the resources that are then deployed to the horizontal arena."  (Definition of Matrix Management from a 2012 Human Resources Management Report.)

But I've had the opportunity to work on brands like Audi and The North Face using an agile management approach. We eventually managed these accounts from the perspective of a small, cross-functional, agile team (not just dev, but everybody) that was built to adeptly handle the fluctuations and the variation in the work. 

Yep, Bree and I have lived in a third dimension if you will...and it was ah-mah-zing.

But don't take my word for it, Dave Aron, wrote a Harvard Business Review article where he predicts that by 2020, 30% of work will be performed by permanently employed, self-managed clusters. 

While his definition of a Cluster (an external team hired by the company as a unit) is slightly different from the Aha Method definition (a self-organizing internal team of the company), the four main benefits he outlines apply to both:

  • Higher levels of business performance through higher motivation. The cluster model, when executed well, addresses known performance drivers such as purpose, autonomy, and mastery (see Daniel Pink's book Drive for more on these).
  • Higher levels of business performance through a custom work environment. Clusters can create and sustain leading-edge electronic work environments since they are less burdened by bureaucratic decision-making and the need to serve the diverse needs of many types of teams and individuals.
  • Talent management in the right place. The cluster model removes the burden of team and individual performance management from the business — where it typically sits uncomfortably and ineffectually today — to the cluster. The cluster knows its own members, contributions and development needs much better.
  • Higher levels of personal happiness. Clusters are sufficiently small for members to genuinely know and care about each other, and they are stable and autonomous enough for members to support each other's long-term personal development.

I know most of the agency folks threw their hands up about 6 paragraphs ago, rolled their eyes and muttered something about "well, lucky you miss fancy pants to be on big fat retainers where you can dedicate a team...but few of us are that fortunate." Yes, I first lived in the agile cluster utopia on a retainer. BUT, I've run the numbers with the director of PMO at my current gig and using the right approach we can work the work like we're on a retainer, even if we aren't. It just takes some smart resource forecasting (potentially across multiple accounts), a dedication to incremental growth on existing accounts and a willingness to take a risk. 

I say risk because it will require your internal teams to be willing to try something new. But the truth is, it's actually an investment because, guess what - clients don't want to get stuck in the matrix either. They know when you are simulating talent. Meaning, when you pitched it one way but end up staffing it another due to your best players being drawn and quartered every day in the Matrix.

There was a great headline in a January issue of AdAge: Kao USA to Agencies: We Want Your 'A-Team' on Our Account. They went on to quote directly from Kao's Request for Proposal:

"Kao wants to be an important priority for your agency and does not want to get lost or relegated to the 'B' team."

The headline I hope to read sometime in the near future reads:
Kao USA Discovers that 'A-Team' Stood for 'Agile-Team'

Until then. I hope at least a few of you will consider hacking the system along with us.

A Happy Family is an Agile Family

by Kat Grider

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Giving parenting advise is dangerous. Although, I have to admit, Bree is full of fabulous one-liners for using with small people:

  • "You are in charge of your own fun."
  • "You are cute, but not that cute."
  • And my personal favorite: "Stay focused on the task at hand."

That being said, neither one of us is dumb enough to write a blog on how to run your family. We are, however, smart enough to pass along this awesome article full of Agile tidbits from WSJ titled: Family, Inc.

Excerpt:

"When my wife and I adopted the agile blueprint in our own home, weekly family meetings with our then-5-year-old twin daughters quickly became the centerpiece around which we organized our family. The meetings transformed our relationships with our kids—and each other. And they took up less than 20 minutes a week."

We are also behind enough in our writing that this post is from February. But, we thought it still worth sharing in the case that you haven't read it yet. 

Strategizing is for Prom Queens

by Bree Thomas

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I hear the word “strategy” thrown on just about everything. Like rhinestones on a South-Texas-prom-queen’s dress, “strategy” is too often a cheap and easy bedazzle on everything from powerpoint slides, to someone’s superfluous commentary in a meeting that is already running too long with too many attendees. Anymore, in my day-to-day, Strategy is quite the loose little buzzword.

Often, it is a noun, as in “brand strategy” or “I am a strategist." Sometimes it is an adjective, as in “strategic vision” or “strategic insights." Also, as an adverb, such as “strategically developed” or “strategically placed.” And lets not forget it as a verb, as in “strategize” (which for the record, makes me want to punch the speaker in the nose every time I hear it).

And that isn’t to say that I don’t use the word often myself. But I used to accept the word at what I believed was its face value - a sense of something great and purposeful. A sense that when I heard “strategy” - I knew we were talking about the key to winning whatever was at stake, the secret sauce critical to achieving the mission. I knew we’d be talking about something tangible, and most importantly - something actionable. (Strategy is, by definition a military term that, in a nutshell means using your brains and your guts to not only stack the odds in your favor, but empower you to make the right decisions when confronted with any obstacle.)

Now, given the bedazzling trend, I’ve made it my personal charge to pay much closer attention when the word “strategy” is presented. Analyzing it quietly in my head, from every angle. Challenging my own application of it constantly. Because the real disturbing trend, is not that the word gets overused, but rather that the very concept of strategy has become a crutch. A well disguised excuse NOT to act. An exercise in lengthy requirements gathering to plan for problems and scenarios that don’t yet exist. A perceived need to create a long list of tasks for what should happen in the future, when instead we should be driving for real feedback via iterative launches in the present. I see terms like “strategic goals” and “strategic vision” plastered across powerpoint slides, and the actual bullet points associated with most of these goals and visions, amount to little more than minute tactics positioned as passive options to explore. Presented in the context of “we are working on”, or “working toward”, or “think there is great opportunity within this area”.

And with that lack of conviction, certainty, drive - fucking nothing can be won. It’s all a lot of bling with very little bang.

So here is what I'm really driving at - let's all of us in the industry be more thoughtful with strategy. That when creating, executing, presenting, or thinking about strategy in any context, let’s be critical of ourselves, of our interpretation of strategy and when/how/why it matters or is applied. As an example, do we sometimes create formality where it isn’t warranted - like laboring over a “social media strategy”, when maybe all we really need is to just be social? Or when our strategy feels like it is a moving target, and people struggle with how to articulate it - should we check our premises? Are there assumptions at play that have been driving a weak, obtuse strategy? And if the goals are ill-defined, then no amount of “strategic planning” is going to get us anywhere, even if we wrap that anemic goal in a shiny label called “strategic vision.” 

Diamonds are a girl's best friend for a reason  - because they have real value. The real, lasts-for-a-100-years-and-cut-glass kind of value. Fortunately, making sure your strategy has actual value is really pretty simple - just ask yourself, is your strategy something your team can:

  • Articulate without a slide in front of them?
  • Apply in any given situation?
  • Execute against to deliver desired results?
  • Feel empowered and confident in so doing?

Aha-Method.com Launches. Noobs & Newbs Welcome.

by Kat Grider & Bree Thomas

Kat: You may have noticed that Bree’s been absent from blog posts lately. That’s because she’s been coming home from her day-job, hiding in her basement pounding Red Bulls and listening to the Beastie Boys while coding our sweet new site. Okay, the reality is that she’s been grabbing little snippets of time to pair with a few of our favorite devs from Mode Set in Denver to learn how to code our sweet new site.  

Bree: (R.I.P. MCA) Yep, in my vast amounts of spare time, I’ve been learning front-end code because: (1) I’m a nerd at heart, (2) a well-known control freak, and  (3) Kat and I both believe having a coder, no matter how much the noob, brings value and better perspective in our roles as marketers and Aha Method founders.  

Kat: Of course, we’re also stoked to have somewhere to send folks inquiring about our Aha Method approach. And, in true iterative fashion this site is our MVP. We look forward to learning what works and what doesn’t and continuing to improve the content. Drop us a line with your comments/suggestions. (On that note, feel free to comment within this post on the word ‘noob’. While co-authoring, Bree and I got into a spelling debate.)

Bree: My first lesson in coding was a spelling lesson given by one of my all-time favorite grumpy developers (and personal friend).  See email chain below (developer respectfully kept confidential) for what was definitely a hysterical, if not humbling and sobering exchange. The truth is that even when we are in essence saying the same thing, the unsaid context is always what trips us up. Shared language and shared perspective is how we get to shared success.

Kat & Bree: And that is why The Aha Method was born.  

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Balance is for Sissies. We're Looking for Tension.

by Kat Grider

model-is-wearing-jacques-faths-town-suit-photo-by-willy-maywald-in-musc3a9e-dart-moderne-paris-1951.jpeg

I had a strategist friend, Ken, tell me recently that all great brands have tension in their brand values or characteristics. For instance, if a brand is both curious and responsible or a bridge as well as a driver, those  values being somewhat in opposition, then there is a healthy tension that makes for an interesting, rich, compelling brand that can stand the test of time. 

That has brought me great peace of mind as a mother.
And great reassurance as an Aha Method founder.

Let me explain:
Women are always talking about trying to find balance between work and home, self and family. Or, they are upset that anyone even acts like there is a balance - the idea being that everything is a tradeoff in which something or someone is suffering  whether you admit it or not.  My guess is fellas have the same struggle. And even if you don't the next point still applies.

If we are all, as individuals, our own brand, then Ken would tell us we shouldn't be looking for balance in the first place. We should be identifying and embracing the tension in our lives that makes us interesting, beautifully complex individuals. This tension creates a check and balance that keeps us on point, keeps us sharp, gives us a certain vitality.

I'm not saying it's easy to manage the tension. I'm not saying it doesn't require give and take and a very honest look at your priorities. But I like the idea of my essence, or personality, being crafted by very dynamic forces. But then, I've never been drawn to boring.

Which is why, one of the things Bree and I juggle along with kiddos, full time jobs, husbands, PTA, marathon training and reading a good book now and then - is the Aha Method. 

Leading to my second point:
Our approach is firmly rooted in the idea that everyone who touches the work participates in the decisions that will guide the work. 

The strategic decisions: what are the business objectives, the risks? Who are the stakeholders and how will we know if we are successful? Ultimately, what is really required to deliver on the objectives successfully?
The tactical decisions: what will it take to build whatever we've decided on? How big is each task relative to the rest?

This team effort could result in conflict, but we've found that drawing on agile and lean best practices allows us to uncover and capitalize on a healthy tension between:

  • What the client thinks they want (they are part of the strategic team)
  • What everyone thinks the user needs
  • And what the team can actually do within the timeframe

It leads to a healthy give and take between individuals (again, anyone who is touching the work) which always results in the best 'thing' (website, app, presentation) for the end user and, therefore, for the business.

If the best brands, (even our personal ones) spring forth from a bit of healthy tension, I'd say the same is true of the best teams. Hit us up at the Aha Method if you're in need of a little coaching around how to create healthy tension in your work life and teams. When it comes to uncovering the dynamic elements in your personal life you are on your own - but Bree and I both recommend going for a good, long run...or, of course, a pole dancing class. NOTE: this post remains gender inclusive as we've seen guys both on the trail and in the dance studio...the latter being a very memorable Aha Moment!

What the 'Rose Ceremony' and your RFP have in Common

by Kat Grider

Transient

The point of the Bachelorette is for the audience to view a bevy of good looking men come trouncing through Malibu castle doors offering up the best, most evenly spray tanned, versions of themselves in order to get picked by a single eligible female. And the Bachelorette in question is apparently working off the assumption that you don't know what you want until you see it, professionally wrapped and done up with a bow -- so the more men the merrier. 

The point of some agency reviews is for the brand to get a slew of talented agencies to submit their best selves in PDF or PPT format and then, a lucky few, may come sell their wares in-person.  And, according to certain CMOs, this is as delightful as a group helicopter date complete with champagne. They, like the Bachelorette, assume the more ideas, wrapped in pretty packages, the more likely you are to find something you want.

I don't smell roses. I smell something the cows left behind.

First of all, smart, talented people should not be working insane hours on a pitch, all the time wondering whether they are subject to a procurement exercise and prancing their ponies just for show, or whether they are actually in the running. Such exercise is wasteful. The BRAT abhors waste.

Second, and more importantly -- true love happens when you know what you are looking for in a partner. Yes, there will be some surprises along the way, but if you don't know yourself well enough to know what you need to, dare I say, complete you, then it will be impossible for anyone to please you for very long. Brands are responsible for knowing what they need to drive the business forward and clearly articulating those goals.  The agency is responsible for explaining how their team would tackle those goals. The agency review process should be about finding the best business partner, not the sexiest creative or another "big idea."

So here's a thought, let's rework the traditional pitch process all together and start valuing more substance over gift-wrap.

WHAT IF:

  • Agencies brought less creative comps and more analysis? 
  • Brands paid agencies to pitch? (Not necessarily an hourly rate, but a token of respect and a way to ensure you only get called in if they really think you can win.)
  • We all quit estimating each line item and instead talked about the skill sets required to meet the business opportunities (which, by the way, change all the time)

I know, I know, the Bachelorette has been on for almost a decade because certain formulas work. Tradition should count for something. But, as a recent Ad Age article about this very topic said,

"...maybe you should consider that a decision based on habits and myths may not be strategic.  It might be as stupid as it sounds."  - Ad Age Article

Habits and myths are powerful things. But you know what's even more powerful -- common sense. People want to do good work, they want to compete and they want to know they aren't chasing tails or giving away their work. Now, I'll drink champagne in a heart-shaped hot tub to that. 

Source of Inspiration: Microsoft Open Technologies

by Kat Grider

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Bree and I are big fans of the MVP -- Minimum Viable Product, as popularized by Eric Ries (theleanstartup.com). It's essentially a strategy for building fast and building small in order to launch and measure iteratively - gaining valuable and REAL user/consumer feedback along the way. This feedback defines your go-forward decisions in product and features.

The result is less waste, more timely innovation, and ultimately a much better chance of legitimate success. I know, it sounds like a wonder drug promising to help you lose 100 lbs without even breaking a sweat...and it kind of is.  We embrace it as a mindset, applying it to everything we encounter professionally and while we still break a sweat it looks more like what we Southerners call a 'glisten'. We even use it to build huge PPT presentations for pitches and it's been one of our most successful Aha Method tools.

In a recent meeting with some folks from the Microsoft Open Technologies team, a subsidiary of Microsoft dedicated to building and maintaining code that bridges proprietary Microsoft software with the open source community, we were chatting about how powerful MVP is as a mindset. They told me that they don't use MVP, they use MRDV.

They think about it as the Minimum Required to Deliver Victory.

While the acronym is unfortunate (it brings to mind those TV ads that promote aforementioned wonder drugs and  quickly and quietly list the side effects which typically include hair loss and/or death) it has resolved for Bree and I the nagging issue around training teams in an MVP mindset. The thing is, they take one look at the word minimum and take it to mean cheap or quick.  Sometimes clients forget that delivering on objectives and success metrics is rarely cheap or quick. The MRDV title places an emphasis on success, aka Victory,  in a way that might help us avoid these incorrect, pre-conceived notions.

So, a big thanks to the Open Technologies team for sharing their take on this tool. And, here's to MRDV...which, like so many great marketing techniques, probably shouldn't be combined with heavy machinery and/or Benadryl.

Way to Go Deutsch

by Bree Thomas

Hedy Lamarr - Sex Symbol and Genius Inventor

Hedy Lamarr - Sex Symbol and Genius Inventor

I spoke at the 4A's Create Tech 2012 with David Slayden, founder of BDW, regarding the talent problem facing many agencies today - in that they are hard pressed to find the right talent and even harder pressed to retain it (video of our talk on 4A's Site).  One of our key takeaways for the room was that it wasn't about how much beer an agency had on tap, or even how much money they might throw at a would-be candidate.  To attract and retain today's digital talent, the first step is to realize that today's talent no longer needs the agency, and their real motivation lies in making great product.  So for an agency, giving today's talent the space to think, make and innovate - requires a change in process, team structure, thinking and ultimately - culture.  

And then Winston Binch, CDO of Deutsch LA and keynote speaker for the conference, spoke the following day regarding inventioni.st  (video of talk on 4A's Site), the agency's new offer/product structure for clients.    And I think Deutsch may have just nailed the aforementioned issue right on the head….with a reinvention of themselves for a new kind of client.  Way to go Deutsch.   A product innovation team within the agency, working with clients in 5 day sprints, 45 day cycles and/or 6 month deep dives.  Lean marketing has arrived.  Building shit instead of talking about building shit.  Truly working iteratively and even defining a new department of new resources around the idea of building shit and testing it out - inventors.  

If you are slapping yourself on the forehead right now, and thinking "fuck! I wish I'd thought of that!".  Well good.  Because the truth is - we should all be thinking more like that.  And here is the thing….  a lot of people are certainly talking about thinking more agile, or talking about how to market iteratively, or talking about how to think like a startup to attract today's talent - but most of it is just that - talk.  And that isn't to say the talk isn't important, but we all know how cheap it can be.  And lately, I think "agile", "iterative", "lean" have become the new black in buzz words, with nobody wearing them well and all starting to feel like a cheap thrill for selling in the latest "digital capability" or for trying to attract the latest "inventors."

But change is hard right?  And all this talk feels a little mad scientist in nature, what with experimenting and inventing, agile mindsets and lean approaches, what does it all mean in the real day-to-day world and why the hell should you care - as an agency or as a client?  

Simple - because you could be doing more on less, if you just knew what that meant and how to get there.  It's about turning cheap talk into an invaluable process and point of difference. Deutsch is doing it. The Aha Method is doing it. What's your take on doing it?

Sweet Seattle Cribs and Why You Care

by Kat Grider

Transient

Tom Kundig: "The smaller the project, the more human it is."

Thanks to POSSIBLE I got to hear from one of Seattle's most well-known architects, Tom Kundig, speak about design principles. As he clicked through stunning images of landscapes and built objects both big and small, my gears were whirring - his approach to building beautiful buildings and our approach to building successful digital projects have a lot in common. Here are a few takeaways that really resonated (many of these are paraphrased as I  was trying to not look like that jackass who was texting during a presentation).

Remember the source. 
Kundig made it clear that his source is the landscape of Eastern WA where he grew up. His respect for the landscape is evident in the materials and scope of his project. He said, "Small buildings allow you to sense the landscape." Check out this 1,000 sq foot cabin

Likewise, Bree and I try to remember the source of our passion - the exhilarating, enterprising, adapting landscape of humans and technologies that make up digital. Our goal is to be a small, nimble team, teaching other small, nimble teams who can sense the surrounding landscape and respond with smarts and elegance. 

Right size.
He said "It isn't just about being small, but about being the right size." He deals in volumes, in the size of spaces. Digital teams deal in the volume of work, the scope of a 'thing'. Too often clients hear: agile = small = cheap = job done. When instead they should hear: agile = small = efficient and focused work = job done right (which is rarely cheap!). 

The work is about humans.
"The smaller the project, the more human." Kundig tends to do more residential work because he likes working with a family, with their story. He said that leads to a lot of inspiration for him. But, even in his more commercial work he keeps it 'human' by recognizing and showcasing the work of skilled tradesmen and women.

Apparently, this breathtaking winery, relied on a concrete team who had only done sewage and water treatment plants before - but they were craftsman nonetheless. In the same way we teach teams to focus on the humans involved  - the end-user and their teammate who is a craftsman or woman. Successful work is about successful relationships and we give teams frameworks to grow productive and meaningful partnerships with clients and with their peers. 

I think one of Kundig's last lines of the evening may become the Aha Method motto: 
Keep it simple, elegant, small. 
Focus on how time will affect it. 
Think about the humans doing the work.

Oh, and when we make it big, I think we'll go with this for our office space

Suits are for Suckers. Discuss.

by Kat Grider

Transient

I was inspired by a recent 37 Signals post on formality, "We’re breaking down the stranglehold of formality everywhere. No more personal secretaries, memos on official letterhead, meetings that must happen in person. There’s never been less mental mask switching between work and play. We wear the same clothes, use the same technology. It’s a liberation of the mind and it’s the new world order."

This got me thinking about 2 things:

  1. People respond to generalizations. Readers got fired up about whether or not wearing a suit is a legit sign of a progressive workplace - there were 63 comments as of today. We'd love that kind of conversation on our blog - so plan on the continued use of opinionated generalizations that you may or may not agree with, by The Brat. For instance, "Texas is the finest country on earth". Now, discuss.
  2. Agencies have broken the chains of unnecessary formality...until every Monday morning at 10 am. Yep, we are flexible, creative and a bastion of progress until Monday morning when timesheets are due.  Finance sends out a note reminding everyone to submit their time. Then employees go back to their calendar and try to remember what they did last week. Inevitably we take a few good guesses, fill in the form and just try to get the thing done so we can get back to our real job. 

This feeds the estimating and forecasting machine.  The machine sucks. 

The machine is archaic (based on the old print/radio/TV days) and a formality based on mistrust (between Employer and Employee and Agency and Client).  In sum, the machine should be dismantled, put through a chipper, doused with Aqua Net, lit on fire and then buried in a cement (pronounced See-ment) tomb under the Alamo.  

Too much? Okay, how about this - How about we just quit estimating by roles, variable rates, minute tasks and half hours. 

Digital is different. Digital is about a team building a malleable piece of software that depends on  changing technologies and a rapidly evolving consumer. Digital estimating should be about identifying the right people needed to do the work and then dedicating their time for a set period.

So, let's use a flat rate which creates a set number of hours based on the budget and then have people work against this in short sprints and, gasp, allow for and even encourage responsiveness. Give the client visibility as tasks change and how that impacts the budget and the timeline.

It may sound idealistic. But guess what, it can be done. Bree and I have used this process with clients. Our buddies over at Mode Set operate this way all day long. And while the alternative of sticking with what we know may be more comfortable, remember that formality by definition is: a necessary but insignificant procedure: a procedure that must be followed because it is a rule or custom, but has little significance or effect in itself. 

Timesheets are a custom, a formality. They have little significance in generating or driving actual work. It's time to evolve this financial processes. It will look differently for every agency, every organization. But it will look like the future.  

Now, personally, I don't care if you are in a 3-piece suit or your birthday suit when you rework this process. Whatever gets you there faster.

Bloopers from Boulder

by Kat Grider & Bree Thomas

Transient

We ran our workshop at BDW this last weekend and, as always, had a great time with the students. (Heads up to those looking to hire their next digital powerhouse - this year's crew is shaping up to be full of 'em.)    Here are three of the best takeaways from the weekend:

The soundbite: "There are like 400 Terriers"
Yep, that's true. And, odds are you haven't seen every single one of 'em. Likewise, when someone says 'form with multiple fields' you will have a tough time thinking of all the implications on your own. Does it need to accommodate multiple languages? How do they do the zipcode in Europe? When is a drop down better than an entry field? What data integration challenges does it represent? Do we have to use a stupid Capcha feature? 

The point: Estimating should be collaborative across teams and departments. You haven't seen it all, but all together you might have.

The soundbite:  "Let's just go CRAZY!"
This is funny when you are iterating using tennis balls and buckets. It isn't so funny when you are facing a massive deadline and have a lot of code to write and creative to comp. If your team is in sync, and knows what 'flow' feels like, they won't try to 'work harder, work faster', instead they will be managing client expectations long before the final sprint.  Oh - and a wine bar never hurts.

The point: Teams get crazy (in a chainsaw kind of way) when they crack the whip instead of managing the workflow from the get go. 

The soundbite: "Kat, we'll never compete with porn"
Okay, this learning happened over a glass of wine at the end of the day as we discussed our blog. Apparently, when you type in Bree + Kat + Brat...you don't get our blog on the first page. You get a buffet of babes who aren't selling agile...but do talk about being flexible. (Eeew.) Kat couldn't quite believe that we hadn't done a keyword check before we launched the blog and tried to ask Bree about metadata, paid ads, etc.  Bree just laughed and said, if all else fails, clearly there is opportunity for the brand in other areas.

The point: It's important to not over-plan or over-think every possible scenario. But do think of the likely keyword searches before launching. Duh.

Punch that Sucker in the Middle

by Bree Thomas

Transient

In my transition to client-side, I inherited a client/agency relationship with the predictable kiss and punch cadence. Both of them spouting piss and vinegar behind one another's back, and then smiling through passive aggressive cheap shots in meetings with one another, all in a very obvious effort to assign blame for missed expectations/deadlines.  But, instead of puckering up or putting on my gloves, I simply put the teams on a sprint format, gave them a little coaching, and it worked wonders.  They realized immediate efficiencies, faster pace in the work and most importantly - they begin to trust one another.  There was however, still one person I constantly had up against the ropes...our Account Manager on the Agency side. 

Here's the thing - the group doing the work, the team who built the software critical to our organization, was merely contracted through the Agency.  So for the day-to-day sprints, my designated client-side team was working directly with the agency-contracted-development-team in the sprint format.  And this is good. The people doing the work, should be the ones having the conversation.

Unfortunately, the Agency, in desperate need of proving their worth, kept trying to find ways to insert the appointed Account Manager into the day-to-day.  And this is bad.  This is where I start putting Vaseline on my forehead and wrapping my knuckles.

A natural outcome of the sprint dynamic is the elimination of superfluous roles/team members.  I cannot emphasize this enough - if you do not bring value to the team, meaning you are not a decision maker, nor one actually doing the work, then you are at best a middle-man.  

And you should be Knocked the Fuck Out (of the equation).
Because the middle-man creates waste.  
And waste erodes relationships.

The time for both agencies and clients to understand what it takes to market, create and manage in digital is long overdue.  And to be clear – the answer is not just in hiring digitally skilled resources to make digital things - and then try to "manage" them. 

A client once told me, “I never outsource my brain.”  That has stuck with me for years.  Because when you think about it, simply hiring "digital talent" to make your "digital things" is outsourcing your brain, and it isn’t enough anymore. Today's teams don't need another box checker or messenger.  They need qualified members and relevant stakeholders to participate in the development of the end product in a meaningful way.

The frameworks and tools that Kat and I provide to agencies and clients, won’t teach teams how to write code, but they will teach teams how to self-organize into small, productive groups and how to work collaboratively and rapidly within that group.

And this is 1-2 punch combo that is critical to affect measurable change within your marketing, your teams and ultimately – your ROI.

Going for the Gold

by Kat Grider

Transient

While all of you were watching the Fierce 5 (bad ass little ladies), catching up on those crazy badminton regulations (no throwing the game you kooks) and admiring the morning dressage (the royals are just common rich people after all) I am watching Nike and Adidas.

And I've learned one thing. 

Doesn't matter how much you spend, what you sponsor or how many places your logo appears - what matters is your ability to tell a story in a finite amount of time that creates infinite ripples. 

Ad Age reports that:

"As the Olympic Games began last week, Nike's "Find Your Greatness" landed at No. 1 on the Viral Chart, with 4.5 million views (about 1.7 million paid). Compare that to Adidias, an Olympics sponsor, whose "Take the Stage" campaign, which arrived at No. 3 on the chart, with 2.9 million views, according to Visible Measures.

Overall, "Take the Stage" has had 5.7 million views (about 1.6 million paid) since it launched in April, so Nike has nearly caught up in just a week. Having firmly linked itself with London, many viewers believe that the brand is affiliated with the games. Last week, Ad Age reported that an online survey by Toluma Global Omnibus Survey found that of 1,034 US consumers, 37% identified Nike as an Olympic sponsor, compared to 24% for real sponsor Adidas."

Here's the point. We won't be the first or the only to talk about agile, lean and changing the agency/client relationship. But we will do it with a stronger voice. We will do it with more panache, more energy and more soul than the rest. 

As Bree would say, "We just f'ing do it".  And, you are going to want to do it with us.