Yes Please. More Is Better!

When it comes to making decisions about a brand or marketing strategy, we are total hedonists. We want more. The concept of balance is great for your life, but when it comes to insights, we don’t want any restraints.

Your brand and your company are too important to make decisions based on emotions or gut instincts. You need data. First learn and then decide. This really rang true for us during a recent client project. We worked with our client about two years ago on a large quantitative study of their target audience. Based only on the results of that study, we collectively determined what would be the best positioning strategy for their brand. The recommendation was put on hold due to some client organization changes. Now fast forward about a year. We picked up where we left off and additional research was approved to gain more insights before moving forward. Great call. After additional qualitative and secondary data was acquired, our recommendation on their positioning dramatically changed.

Were we wrong the first time? Not really. The best decision was made based on the facts we had before us. But now with more insight, we were in a position to make a better decision. So, yes, more data is better. But how do you know how much data is needed to make an important decision? How do you know when you have enough and can feel confident to make the call on what to do?

How Much Data Do You Need?

There is no hard and fast rule. How much insight you need to make an important decision is a balance between the level of impact the decision will have on your company and your level of comfort. Colin Powell on one end, said that when you have an important decision to make, remember the “40 to 70” rule. Never make a decision with less than 40% of the information you think you need. And never delay making a decision once you have at least 70% of the information you think you need. If you wait until you have more than 70% of the information you think you need, the opportunity has usually passed and someone else has beaten you to the punch. Then there’s Steve Jobs whose style emphasized intuition and often made quick decisions. But we often tend to forget that Steve hired the absolute best and brightest to discuss and debate the facts and ideas before a decision was made.

Our Recommendation & Process

We tend to use the 40 to 70 rule (and more toward the top of that range). Or if that feels a bit uncomfortable, go with 50 to 80. Here’s how:

  1. First of all, you must establish a clear objective. Write out exactly what problem you are solving for. You’d be amazed at how something so simple can elicit a number of different responses from your team. Identify a singular goal. If you have more than one – that’s fine, but then you need to tackle each one on an individual basis.

  2. Next, list all the information you believe you need to know to answer the question. It could be 5 things or 15. The main point is that, once you have this list, you should feel extremely confident in that if you had the answers to these questions you would feel very comfortable in making the decision. And here is where the rule comes into play – you don’t need all the answers – somewhere between 70% to 80%.

  3. Finally decide on how you will get the data. You may already have some of the information internally or it may be easily attainable. Other answers will require some research. If you need to get the insights, how you do it will be based on how much time and money you have. A quantitative study, for example, will take a lot more time and money. Others may just need some secondary research (or maybe even a basic google search).

BIG MONEY CONSULTATIVE INSIGHT (free of charge of course): Never start with the methodology! Don’t start any effort of gaining insights with believing you need a focus group or a quantitative study! Start with the question and then determine the method. Think about how you will use the information once you get it. Otherwise, it’s like pulling out a hammer from your toolbox believing it will be the best way to get your answer when all you really need is some duct-tape.

Now that you have your insights, it’s decision time. Whether you are implementing a refresh of your brand or your new strategic plan, you will have the data you need. It’s better to move forward than either sit on the fence or endlessly look for more information to get to the right answer – the fact is, there is no guaranteed right answer, only a better answer. The strength and discipline of your team will play just as an important role in the successful implementation of your plan and the outcome you are looking to achieve, as will the decision you make on what to do.

What’s the best way to manage your team and implement your plan? We’ll leave that to another article – this one is getting too long already. And if you’ve read this far – thanks! That means we’ve reached our objective with this article.

Brand Activation

Oh no!  Not another wonky marketing term that sounds like made-up fluff - brand activation. Trust us, it’s not.

Of course, our opinion might be a bit subjective, but if you don’t develop a plan with an objective on what you want to achieve with the launch of your new company brand or product release, it will land with a thud.

Brand activation is the actual communication and bringing your brand platform to life. Regardless if it is a corporate or a product brand, there is a story to tell. This story needs to emotionally and rationally connect with your employees and your customers. It’s the creative execution with meaningful messages and experiences that let them know why they should care. Without a solid brand activation plan, you’ve wasted money on developing your brand platform.

A few examples

Old Spice A great example of a company rebrand is Old Spice (a P&G brand). They had been the staple of men’s deodorant for decades – it was your father’s or grandfather’s deodorant (founded in 1937). New-comers like Axe were eroding Old Spice’s market share by shaking up the market with their edgier campaigns targeting a younger audience – the future customer and where the growth would come from. In 2010 they premiered their message of “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” during the Super Bowl. After it premiered, they had about 220,000 views on YouTube. Armed with insights, Old Spice redefined their brand. Their positioning, personality, and tone of voice were based on being “manly,” which in turn also inspired new ways for them to engage with their customers with new messaging and increased digital. They now have over 55 million YouTube views of their ads, along with sales that literally saved the company.


Toyota When Toyota was launching their new RAV4 Hybrid SUV, they erected a 100-foot tall rock climbing wall in Times Square. The tagline for the launch was, “How far will you take it?” They had professional rock climbers and a Toyota race car driver climb and provide demonstrations. This was done in conjunction with advertising and other communications. Brand activations often include an experiential component, but they don’t have to. Your activation plan will primarily be guided by your objective and budget. But even if you have budget constraints, it should never stop you from finding creative ways to demonstrate what your company or product stands for.


Segway Conversely, there are also brand activation fails. According to a Harvard Business Review study, brand failures often occur because of a lack of planning. Companies put so much time and effort into designing, developing or manufacturing products and services, that marketing them becomes an after-thought or it’s just too little too late. There could be minimal insights, inadequate resources, lack of creative thinking, or simply just not delivering on the brand promise. Remember Segway? This was a classic engineering driven approach that didn’t respect the importance of good insights, a marketing plan, and effective messaging. If we build it, they will come. Not so much. Twelve months prior to the product release, they stated their new vehicle would be so revolutionary, it would be the alternative to the automobile. A bold promise that failed to deliver. Ads showing riders who looked like clowns riding around on the Segways didn’t help. What could possibly have been the message they were trying to get across? The $5,000 price didn’t help either. Instead of selling 10,000 per week, they sold a total of 24,000. In five years. Wonder how many of those went to mall cops.


What To Do

An effective activation of your brand must include these items:

  • An objective. What are your trying to achieve? The more clearly you define what a successful awareness and engagement campaign looks like, the better your plan will be.

  • An activation plan. Based on your objective, but then also your budget, think through what you want your target audiences to understand and do.

  • Employee launch. Your employees and critical partners need to first understand the brand before anything is released externally. The internal team needs to understand the meaning of the brand and the important role they play in delivering on your brand promise to every customer at every touch-point. This could be and should be just as fun and engaging as your external launch. It could include a culture video, a series of events over a week or month, as well as the typical town-halls, memos and updated info on the intranet.

  • Creative and clear external launch. This is the big reveal to the public. So make it impactful. Make it memorable. But even more importantly, ensure your message is clear and your target audience understands what you stand for and how it’s different than your competitors. Effective marketing and communication tell the story as defined by your brand platform. Help your prospects and customers quickly make the connection and why it is relevant to them in your own authentic way.

  • Don’t stop. Ensure you manage your brand every day. Take time to assess if your company is living their mission statement, following the values, or consistently speaking with the right tone of voice. Filter all the decisions regarding your products or services through the brand platform. Is it delivering on the value proposition? Is it being communicated, packaged, delivered, or experienced in ways that are consistent with your brand personality and vision? Are you hiring people that align with your brand values?

Remember, your brand is not your logo (we’ll keep beating this drum over and over again). Your brand is the sum of all your customers’ experiences, through every interaction with your company or product. Your brand is not what you say - it’s what your customers say. So, if there was one singular item that was most important in activating and managing your brand, it is your people. Your employees are the ones who ultimately represent your brand through the actions they take – even if it is not customer facing. 

Oh yeah – and don’t forget to just have fun with it!

Generic Values = Generic Culture

Most companies have a set of values. Most of these stated values are generic and quite frankly, meaningless.

Take this test. Pull out a copy of your organization’s values – remove your company name and logo from it. Replace it with another company name. Does it work for them? Could it apply to that company? If so, then your company values are not distinct enough to have meaning and value. A company like a person needs to have unique values similar to your personal values which cannot easily be shared by anyone else. This is important because the culture of your company is a reflection of what the company values – it guides employee behavior and decision making. The more generic the values, the more difficult it is for employees to know what to do or how to represent the company that is in alignment with the culture.

 For example, here are the values of a company:

Communication – We have an obligation to communicate. Here, we take the time to talk with one another… and to listen. We believe that information is meant to move and that information moves people.

Respect – We treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. We do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment.

Integrity – We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly, and sincerely. When we say we will do something, we will do it; when we say we cannot or will not do something, then we won’t do it.

Excellence– We are satisfied with nothing less than the very best in everything we do. We will continue to raise the bar for everyone. The great fun here will be for all of us to discover just how good we can really be.

These values sound good. Communication. Respect. Integrity. Excellence. These could be taken straight from those inspirational posters from the 80s (and we still see on many corporate walls), like “Teamwork” along with the picture of people all rowing in the same direction. These values could possibly apply to your company and many others – and that’s the issue.

The values above are from Enron as stated in their 2000 annual report (page 53). At its height, Enron employed nearly 22,000 people, was one of the largest energy companies in the world, and was named “America’s most innovative companies” for six consecutive years by Fortune magazine. The company went bankrupt and executives were sent to prison, as they were found to be involved in corporate corruption and accounting fraud, which further led to the dissolution of their auditing firm, Arthur Andersen. Their culture did not reflect their values.

 Another example:

  • Deliver WOW Through Service

  • Embrace and Drive Change

  • Create Fun and A Little Weirdness

  • Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded

  • Pursue Growth and Learning

  • Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication

  • Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit

  • Do More With Less

  • Be Passionate and Determined

  • Be Humble

Many of you may have guessed who this is by the very first line of “Deliver WOW Through Service” – it’s Zappos. You would be hard pressed to apply these values as a whole to any other company. They are unique, well thought out, and truly reflect the culture of their company. They also drive decision making and corporate strategy, as a result, this is their brand.

Unique values are important – but that’s not enough.

Which brings us to the second important point of ensuring your company has unique values – they must be applied. No matter how prominently your values are communicated or placed in big lettering on a wall for all to see – if they are not used as a guide and applied to every important decision your company makes, then it was a waste of time to even have had them developed. It’s akin to spending time and money on a lot of research or strategic planning, to only have this nice binder sit on a shelf gathering dust.

Even a great mission and vision statement are not enough. They are important in helping everyone understand why they do what they do and where it will take them. The values are about how it will get done. Google’s mission statement is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” That’s clear. But how are they going to work together to achieve that mission? That’s where their values come in. They have defined it as the “ten things we know to be true” which include:

  • It’s best to do one thing really, really well

  • Fast is better than slow

  • You can make money without doing evil

  • You can be serious without a suit

  • Great just isn’t good enough


Unique and authentic values that are lived are fundamental to a strong and distinguished brand and will help attract and retain the type of talent that is valued in your organization.

Is the culture of your company what you want it to be? Do your employees know what to do when a challenge arises or an important decision needs to be made without having to look it up in a handbook or convening a meeting? If not, it may be time to rethink what your company values and incorporate them into how work gets done.

It's Spring! 10,000 steps (more or less) to Creativity

The spring weather is finally here and it’s fabulous! That means a lot to us folks in Cleveland. It’s still a crapshoot here with one day in the 70s and the next in the high 40s. But no matter where you live, spring offers a great opportunity to boost your creative juices.

 Take a walk

Walking has proven to boost creative thinking. A Stanford University study (Oppezzo and Schwartz, 2014) demonstrated that walking increases creative ideation – “the effect is not simply due to the increased perceptual stimulation of moving through an environment, but rather it is due to the walking. Whether one is outdoors or on a treadmill, walking improves the generation of novel yet appropriate ideas, and the effect even extends to when people sit down to do their creative work shortly after.” Even philosopher, Friedrich Nietzche thought so (back in 1889) when he wrote, “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.”

 So – go take a stroll, a hike, or a saunter, and let your thoughts soar! Want more ways to boost your creativity?

5 more proven methods to help the inspiration flow:

  • Play. Whatever your definition of play is, it’s an important part of being human and a way to stimulate new thinking.

  • Draw, paint, or doodle. Creativity sparks creativity. And there is no room for self-judgement here – just do it – whether it’s in the moment during a meeting or if you find the time to carve out and express yourself.

  • Be inspired. Be stimulated by other thoughts or ideas – simply by watching or listening to a TED talk for example (with your phone, inspiration is at your fingertips).

  • Music and daydreaming. Whether you are in your car (limit the daydreaming part perhaps) or in the shower or just relaxing, put on some of your favorite music and let it take you where it will.

  • Change your environment. Which is also a good way to incorporate a walk. Go to an art show, to the museum, a coffee-shop, anywhere that will inspire you visually and expose you to new perspectives.

A common theme?

Yes – it’s all about breaking your pattern of thinking. A key component that we incorporate into all of our ideation sessions is the use of stimulus. Pictures, concepts, questions, or exercises that make you pause and connect dots that you thought might not have any relevance – and they may not – but what it will do is spark a new idea. So, do your mind and your body a great service by taking a walk today!

What Does Your Brand Sound Like?

Your brand platform defines your brand – the personality, tone, voice, mission, vision, and other defining elements. Your logo and visual style are an expression of your brand. But does your brand have a sound?

Sonic Sound

MasterCard recently announced a brand update that includes their sonic sound. Not only did they introduce their sonic brand, it is replacing their name on their logo. According to MasterCard it is the sonic equivalent of their iconic red and yellow intersecting circles. Not sure how they figured that out or can hear their logo, but we trust they paid a boatload for that insight.

So why would they invest so much into the evolution of their brand? Look no further than the report recently released by OC&C Strategy Consultants that predicts voice shopping will reach $40 billion in 2022, from $2 billion today just in the U.S. and UK. This is being driven by the rapidly and seemingly viral spread of smart-speaker technology in our homes which offers consumers new ways to shop for what they want when they want it (and that is a trend that will never change).

Should your company be investing in a sound?

No doubt, agencies everywhere will soon be looking to hire aural designers to complement their stable of visual artists. If you are a retailer in particular, it may be worth investigating this further. 

But before you jump on the sound bandwagon (pun was not actually intended, but it works well here), first ensure you have your foundation firmly established with a solid brand platform and only then venture into how to best express your company across all the various types of media whether that is your visual or sound expression.

Mental Models

The Detroit Auto Show recently announced that it is moving to a summer event in an effort to boost attendance after a string of automakers such as BMW and Mercedes Benz decided to no longer participate. No doubt that visiting Detroit in June has more appeal than January, but will warmer weather be a fix for what has been the premier auto event in the world? Perhaps it’s not the weather, but a shift in consumers’ attitudes about cars in general.

 Automakers are increasingly looking to find new ways to be relevant to their target audience and are now showcasing their latest models at places like the Consumer Electronic Show. Something that would have not been believable less than a decade ago. Is Detroit listening or are they stuck in an old mental model and just can’t see how the world is changing around them?

1962 was a peak year in market share for GM, with 52% of the U.S. car market. Today they stand at 18%.

The decline was not sudden nor should it have been unexpected. There were rumblings of change all around them, beginning with the rise in oil prices in the 1970’s, but they were ignored. By the 80’s they finally realized that the Japanese could not only make better cars, but also make them more efficiently, and they were popular with the U.S. market. What took the leadership so long to realize this? Part of the answer is the mental models they operated within.  

 Mental Models

 In his book, The Fifth Discipline,Peter Seng defined mental models as “deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand our world and how we take action.” Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effect they have on our behavior.” This is not new. The idea of mental models was first introduced by the American philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce in 1896. 

 The assumptions under which GM functioned were never written down, but the following were obtained from interviews with retired former senior GM executives: 

  1. GM is in the business of making money, not just cars

  2. Success flows from rapid adaptation, not technological leadership

  3. Cars are primarily status symbols - people want to upgrade

  4. The U.S. car market is isolated from the rest of the world

  5. Fossil fuels (oil) will remain cheap and abundant

  6. The government is an enemy and so are unions

  7. Planned obsolescence works (quality less important)

  8. Efficiency of mass production beats other approaches

  9. Bigger is better – we can manage anything

 Imagine how these filters and perceptions of the world affected the decisions GM was making. Mental models are subtle, yet very powerful. And not all models are bad, in fact they help us organize and navigate our lives. For the most part, they have helped us survive. The issue is that they can influence our behaviors without us even being aware. And, they can at times cause a collective herd mentality that in the case of GM had disastrous effects.  

 What are the unwritten rules or mental models in your company? 

 It’s the stuff you talk about that is not in your employee handbook, or the bits of wisdom you provide to new employees to help them adjust to your culture. Are the mental models of your most senior executives different from the rest of the staff?  How are your individual or corporate-wide mental models affecting your decision making? How are they possibly blinding you from growth opportunities, competitive threats, or changes in your target audience purchase patterns?

 What to do

  •  Take the time to reflect and write down your unwritten rules – whether in your company or in any other aspect of your life. Question them.  How do you know them to be true?  Are they helping or limiting beliefs?

  • Share your mental models with others in your company and look to get to the data behind them. See if they can really stack up or if they are just assumptions that filter your thinking and actions.

  • Get real insights. Has your company taken the time to complete a thorough customer journey path to help reveal exactly why your customers are buying your product or service? Do you understand not only what they are doing through each of the pre, during, and post phases of a purchase, but also what they are thinking and feeling?

Being consciously aware of your mental models and intentionally managing them can not only free up your thinking to new possibilities, but also uncover your blind spots. It’s important to push assumptions to the side and acquire the insights to shed light on models that may be steering (sorry, couldn’t help with the pun) your company in the wrong direction.


Trick or Treat?

Don’t play trick or treat with your marketing budget.

We hate to see when clients purchase services that don’t meet their expectations. This only creates a bad taste in their mouth, and they become more suspicious of agency promises. Agencies conversely, lose the opportunity for a long-term relationship.

If we randomly picked any dozen or so marketing agencies in your area and asked them if they did social media, web development, advertising, media planning, strategic planning, and brand development, bet you that they would all say yes to every one of those specialties.  But how could they all possibly be good at everything?

The short answer is most are not. Some of the larger full-service agencies do have all those capabilities internally. However, most of the small to mid-size agencies only do a few of those things well. Some will outsource the other work, which is an excellent model allowing them to be more nimble. Also, clients aren’t paying for extra overhead they are not using. Unfortunately, some agencies don’t subscribe to this philosophy, and they try to do the work themselves.

We’ve recently seen this trick. A company hired an agency that does great web design and development. The agency also sold them on developing their brand platform. The new website is excellent. The brand platform was all wrong. The client realized their mistake, and the brand platform is now in the trash. In another situation, an award-winning creative agency sold personas to their client.  The personas lacked the depth of detail necessary to be used as part of a marketing plan. In these cases, the client will never work with these agencies again, and the agencies are probably wondering why they aren't getting more business from the clients.

Why do some agencies do this?  We can’t speak for what an agency is thinking – it can range from a sincere belief they can do the work, to trying to save some money or just big egos. If you are an agency, please don’t try to fake it. Be transparent. Elevate your work with the best partners you can find – the investment pays off in the end with better work and hopefully continued engagement.  Treat.  

If you are a client, you also bear the responsibility to ensure you are getting the right agency for your money. Don't go with the first or flashiest agency with the cool office space. Talk to a few agencies to get a perspective.

Whatever it is you need, always do this: 

  1. Get examples. Ask them to show you examples of work that are similar to what they will be doing for you.

  2. Learn their process. Have the agency team explain, in very clear (not marketing speak) and logical terms precisely what their process was to deliver on the examples provided. Pay close attention to how they conducted their research or obtained the insights needed before starting the actual project.

  3. Ask for referrals. Speak to other clients whom the agency has completed similar work for and get their feedback.

If both sides do their part, there will only be treats. Happy Halloween everyone!

CMO & CFO - The Perfect Partnership

A collaborative relationship between the CMO and the CFO is vital for any company.

Through both our client and agency experiences we’ve seen a broad spectrum in these relationships, and when strained, it has far-reaching negative consequences.

A strained relationship is one where the CFO sees marketing as a cost center and doesn’t see the full  value of marketing or brand investments. Marketing often the first thing to cut when budgets are scaled back. It’s a pragmatic decision because the cost savings go straight to the bottom line. 

36% of CFOs believe marketers use “vanity metrics” and another 22% believe their marketing team doesn’t reveal the full picture of their successes and failures, according to a 2018 Viant study. 

From a CMO perspective, this can be frustrating. The lack of support may not only compromise short-term objectives but have a long-lasting negative brand impact. Not to mention that if the marketing team does not feel their work is appreciated, it can lead to lower employee satisfaction and engagement levels.

To make the relationship work, it takes effort on both ends of the spectrum. According to Terry Mosier, the CFO for Fat Heads Brewery, “successful marketing is a symbiotic relationship between what the organization’s products are and the authentic communication about those products with the customer.”

Most CFOs want to see their marketing return on investment. Often, easier said than done when longer strategic or branding related initiatives are in play. As more marketing spend shifts to digital, this helps given it’s easier to track the outcomes.  Though not all spend can or should be digital, nor should all marketing calls to action be purely, “click, call, or visit to buy now.” 

Our advice for how a CMO and CFO can optimally work together could not have been better articulated than by the CFO of Jo-Anne Stores, Wade Miquelon. 

“The fundamental thing is alignment. What can you be aligned? First and foremost is recognizing that we are both here to create value. Value creation happens in a lot of different ways. It can happen through cost-cutting. It can also happen through brand building. You've got to keep bringing back the conversation to a scenario such as, if we were both owners of this business, running it out of our garage, and we were responsible for feeding our families, is this the decision we would make? Would we invest or cut cost? From that perspective, the decision you would make is how you can get to common ground.  The other point of alignment is having clear strategies that have been co-developed within the organization. Many organizations don't have a clear strategy. Moreover, some may have them, but it's implicit, and it's a little bit different in everyone's mind. That leads to conflict.”

No organization can afford to have senior executives who are not aligned. Not to say that the CMO/CFO relationship is the most important, but it is a critical part of the equation.

When this relationship is not ideal, the short-term cost savings of treating marketing as a cost center may blind the company from seeing the impact of lost growth opportunity.  And when it works well, there is far more growth to be realized because cost-cutting your way to profitability is not a strategy.

How to Conduct a Research Interview

Sometimes you just need to take matters in your own hands when it comes to conducting research. You don’t always need to spend a lot of money to get the insights needed, as we have previously discussed in our article on how to right-size your research.  In some cases, you just need a handful of qualitative interviews to get the needed information.

Assuming you already have your objective and target audience identified, next is to conduct the interviews. We personally prefer to conduct them over the phone than in person. It helps in scheduling and we’ve found that it minimizes time spent on discussing topics that may stray from the objective. Here are a few guidelines on how to conduct your interviews:

Start with establishing a good relationship with the respondent. This is all about breaking the ice, and getting your respondent comfortable with speaking.

  • Establish personal contact early on.
    • Refer to the person by name and be sure to thank her for participating.
    • Confirm how long it will take and that you plan to stay on time.
  • Help the respondent feel relaxed from the beginning.
    • Simple humor tends to work here.  Seriously, even talk about the weather.
    • Ask her to tell you a little about her role and responsibilities in the organization (for a business), or her family (for a consumer).
  • Win the respondent to your side.
    • Let her know you are dependent on her to inform you about her world because she is the expert.
  • Create an environment where anything the respondent says is ok.
    • There are no right or wrong answers, and that you are simply looking for her opinion.


Don’t lead the respondent

It’s very tempting to lead the respondent down a certain path.  This is particularly the case as an employee of the company who knows a lot about your product or service.  Ask each question in a very open manner without any opinion.

Do Ask:  

  • What do you think of XYZ Company's service?

Do not ask:  

  • XYZ Company prides itself on its service, what do you think of the service?
  • What do you think of XYZ Company’s service?  Everybody has been saying it’s great.

Don’t be defensive if the respondent says something you don’t want to hear.  Simply note the statement and follow-up with clarifying questions if you would like.  Do not try to explain why it is or why that perception is incorrect.  This is not a debate, regardless of how incorrect their perception of your company may be, stay objective and note the response.


Ask only one question at a time

In everyday conversation we ask multiple questions of someone at once.  In research, you want to take your time and only ask one question. Asking multiple questions is natural. It’s how we normally have conversations, such as, “How was your dinner party?  Sorry, I missed it.  Did you get the turnout you expected?"

  • Ask one question at a time.  Then wait for the respondent to answer before moving on to your next question. It may seem awkward at first, but it’s the best way to get accurate answers.
  • Become comfortable with pausing. The urge will be to fill the silence with another question or comment.  Wait a few seconds – they will respond.
  • If they ask you a question, answer it back with what do you think it should be or what would you like it to be?  For example if they ask, is the XYZ product available online or only in stores?  You would say, what would you like it to be?


Avoid “Why?”

Based on responses you are receiving throughout the interview, you may want to probe deeper to get a better understanding of an answer.  If so, try not to ask “why.” It puts people on edge and seems like a test or that you are challenging their answer.  Softer ways to get a better understanding of their answer include:

  • Help me understand.
  • What are the reasons for that?
  • Tell me more.
  • Can you elaborate on that?
  • What was the thought process behind that?
  • Could you explain a bit more?

Good luck, and have fun with it.  Interviews can provide a wealth of insights you just can’t get any other way. If you have any questions or would like to discuss more, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us.





Your Secret Weapon to Generating Ideas

How effective are you at getting the most out of a conference or presentation? This may seem blindingly obvious, but it starts with taking notes. Not all note taking is the same. There are proven and tested note taking methods that can dramatically help you retain more information and generate more ideas from your notes. And that’s the real reason you are there, to expand your mind, come up with new ideas and concepts that will benefit you and your organization.

The secret is – writing

Ditch your computer. Start with paper, not your computer. Don’t take notes with a laptop. Studies have shown that people who use longhand remembered more and had a deeper understanding of the material.

Keep writing. Humans forget things easily. As more time passes, the more we forget (shocker). In a study by Professor Walter Pauk with Cornell, we forget:

Notes Graphs.png

The study on university students found that note-taking combats forgetfulness by providing a reference point for later. Only 10% of a presentation or lecture may last in memory, but those who took and reviewed their notes were able to recall about 80%.

Doodle. You are human and your mind will wander. Whether the speaker is boring or dynamic, you may find yourself doodling in the margins. That’s awesome – keep it up! Research published in Applied Cognitive Psychology found that people who doodle recall information (up to 29% more) than their non-doodling counterparts. Doodling is also a great way to spark new and innovative ideas and make them more tangible. There is a reason why we speak of those million-dollar ideas that were initially sketched out on the back of a napkin.

Creating Ideas

Taking notes is great, and for some people, simply listening to someone and taking notes sparks ideas. It doesn’t matter whether you start flowing with ideas or don’t have many from listening to a speaker. Ideas can be sparked in the moment or may come later. And it’s these ideas that are important to you and your organization. Here are a few tips to generate more ideas from your notes:

  • New time. Put down your notes and re-read them the next day. A fresh perspective and sleeping on it is very helpful. A study in Memory and Cognition found that people perform problem-solving tasks more effectively after sleep.
  • New perspective. Start by thinking of a challenge - one challenge or problem you are trying to solve at a time. Review your notes and with that challenge in mind, you may come up with a new idea by looking through this new lens.
  • New location. Take a hike. Grab your notes and go to a coffee shop, walk a trail, and get a different perspective. Reading your notes in a different environment will help generate different thinking and new ideas.
  • New atmosphere. Listen to music while reviewing your ideas. A co-study by the Behavioral Science Institute of The Netherlands and The University of Technology in Sydney, found that listening to uplifting, happy music (your definition of what that is) increased people’s ability to come up with more ideas.

You Have an Idea! Now What?

Don’t lose it. Immediately write it down. The most important thing is to capture the essence of the idea – you can always go back and build upon it. But if it’s forgotten, then it’s lost forever. When you have that spark of an idea, capture these three key elements:

1.     Name it. A creative name or a functional name – this is your baby, whatever you like!

2.     Describe the idea. It doesn’t have to be a lot, just a sentence or two that defines your idea. You will elaborate upon it later.

3.     Make it real. Add a few details that describe how it works. Write just enough to capture the essence of your thinking.

Tell Your Story

Now it’s time to share your idea. The three brief items from above will probably not be enough to effectively communicate your concept. Things to do:

Expand & Add.  Expand on the idea to more fully explain the idea and how it works. Add new information that you believe the people in your organization will want or need to know. These could include items like cost, how long it may take to develop, or the type of resources needed such as people and tools.

Share. How you share your idea is based upon the culture of your organization. Some are formal and it requires a well-developed presentation. In others, it may simply be something that is discussed over lunch with key stakeholders. Regardless of your organizations style, here are a few tips that may help you:

  • Know your Audience. Think about what’s important to the audience. How does the concept align with the organization’s goals and mission? Position the concept in a way that demonstrates how it helps achieve the organization’s objectives.
  • Stay Flexible. Be willing to modify the idea. Embrace the feedback and think about how the concept can evolve to help ensure it either gets prototyped or tested. It’s a big step moving from concept to reality.
  • Grease the Skids. Before launching into a big presentation, float the concept to a few people and get their thoughts. This feedback can be used to help modify and hopefully improve the concept or how to better communicate it. Even go as far as seeking out the one person that may be the biggest skeptic.
  • Use Visuals. Consider adding visuals or other aids to bring the concept to life. This could be a chart, graphs, or a drawing. Visuals can at times convey a lot more information quickly than just words. And it’s also what your audience may prefer. Some people love visuals while others need hard facts and insights that support the concept.

It doesn’t matter whether you are going to a multi-day conference or just attending a one hour presentation. You are still using your valuable time, so you might as well get the most out of it for you and your organization.

Take Notes. Create ideas. Share. Be brilliant.






How To Find The Perfect Agency

There's no such thing as the best agency - Only the one that's a right fit for your organization

When you are ready to find a new marketing agency of any type, of course you want to hire an agency that ideally meets your requirements, aligns with your culture and is within your budget. Our experience shows that as with any endeavor, the more thought and effort a company puts into the process upfront, the better the results will match expectations.

It’s incredibly frustrating, disruptive, and costly when after an exhaustive search, the relationship does not meet the expectations of either the client or the agency. Although you can never guarantee a perfect fit, there are steps both the client and the agency can take to help ensure that the partnership is successful.

While we were on the corporate side as a client, we hired and worked with many agencies of all types and sizes. And, during our time working within an agency, we responded to countless RFQs, RFPs, discovery discussions and of course, pitches – a lot of pitches. Most recently, we identified and sourced a new agency of record for a major hospital system.  We’ve seen all sides of this process, the client side, the agency side, and being the facilitator in between the two. So, what works and what doesn’t?


Our Top Ten 10 Tips For Agencies & Clients


For the agency

1.     Get It There On Time

Seems basic, but we see this happen a lot – still blows our minds. If the RFP says, “due by 5:00PM on a certain date, in a certain format, etc.” -   then that’s what you need to do. And this applies to other guidance from the client. It’s great for an agency to take some creative license to go above and beyond the basic requirements, as long as they still follow the guidelines.

2.     Be Nice

The client knows you are smart. Your agency wouldn’t have made it this far if they didn’t think highly of your capabilities. It’s a fine line between demonstrating your expertise and coming across as being smarter than them.

3.     Highlight Your Team

During the pitch, only have people in attendance that add value (not there to answer questions in case they are called upon or to just take notes.) Don’t allow anyone to dominate the discussion – especially the senior person. Let your team shine and demonstrate the collaborative nature and the varied expertise within your organization. This is a great opportunity for them to get a sense of your culture.

4.     Ask Questions 

There is no need to guess. Many clients will have formal question and answer opportunities. Take full advantage of these. If they don’t, then find out from the client how to best get your questions answered. We’ve seen agencies fail to deliver upon some key points only because they didn’t understand the assignment, but could have easily called or emailed for clarification. 

5.     Be Transparent

Clearly outline how you plan to work with your client. Don’t bring in the A team for the pitch and then substitute the C team for the day-to-day work. Have the person that will be their primary account representative present during the pitch. Be willing to explain what you believe is the ideal client/agency relationship, and why. Inform them not only what you will do, but what your agency won’t stand for.


For the client

1.     Have Well Defined Requirements

Be clear about what you are asking. Be as detailed as possible. Take the time to think through what you liked best about your other agencies and what didn’t work.  What is the ideal working style and level of communication? How much time or access do you expect to have with senior agency staff? How would you like to handle disputes? Who on your team can direct the agency and be responsible for their direction and costs incurred? If you have multiple agencies, what are your expectations and guidelines on how they will work with the other agencies? What is the scope of work and what are your desired outcomes? Are you looking for strategic thinking or more tactical execution? And of course, what is your budget? Being clear about your budget is critical. Be transparent about how much you can spend, what you are willing to pay for and what you won’t. This is not the exhaustive list of things to consider, but it should give you an idea of what to be thinking about.

2.     Choose The Right Size Agency

If you work with a huge agency, you might be the little guy on their roster and not get the attention or quality you expect. If you work with a small agency, you could be one of their biggest clients and get a lot of attention, but you might not receive the full service or type of expertise you are looking for. Do you need a full-service agency that can plan, execute and manage everything for you? Or do you primarily need support in handling PR, digital, branding, or insights, and would be better off with a niche or boutique agency? Have a sense of how much you want to handle internally vs. what you expect the agency to do for you.

3.     Consider Compensating Agencies for Participating

Are you asking an agency to fly in to see you? Are you asking them to develop spec creative. Agencies earn their money by being smarter, more innovative, and more creative – this takes time. Time that they spend on responding to your RFP vs. time they could spend on one of their existing clients. And, there is no prize for second place. Many agencies won’t even consider you as a client once they weigh the risk vs. reward factors. You can help ensure you will get better agencies to respond by helping minimize their risk factor.

4.     Don’t Underestimate The Importance of Cultural Fit

The agency with the most experience or best perceived capabilities won’t be effective if the working relationship is a mismatch. Communication break-downs will occur and trust will be tested. You and the agency should feel as if they are part of your company. They should feel as if they are an extension of your team and are looking out for your success and best interest at all times.  Ensure the agency shares compatible values.

5.     Decide If You Want a Partner or a Vendor

Not all relationships are created equally. If you want an agency to just follow your direction and orders, that is perfectly fine, but be clear about this up front. Agencies that really care about your business, that will think, feel, and act as if they are one of your most highly engaged employees, requires trust, collaboration, and respect. A good agency will challenge you, push back, continually bring new ideas to the table, and is continuously thinking about your business and how to make you more successful.


Hopefully this has provided some food for thought


A trusting and respectful relationship between a client and their agency is the cornerstone of being successful in your marketing and branding efforts.  The mistake of entering into a relationship that is not a good fit is costly and taking the time and effort to do it the right way, pays huge dividends in the end.


Rightsize Your Research

You need research, but you want it fast, cheap, and high quality. It’s often said you can only have two of those, but never all three. 


We disagree.

If you ensure you are doing the right type of research and not jump to a conclusion of what you think you need, you may be able to achieve your objective with spending less than you think. Additionally, new emerging technologies and tools allow you to get results quicker at less cost without sacrificing the quality of the insights. With some of these tools, the insights are even richer.

To start off, first determine what type of research you need. We often hear from clients that they want a quantitative study – they want numbers (or there is a senior exec that only believes in numbers). Then they find out how costly it can be and how long it will take. However, through consultation, they find that they might not need it. 

While quantitative does provide numbers, it does have its limitations.

It can tell you the what, where, and how many for example. However, it does not answer other important questions, such as those related to the how and why. We may find out that xx% of people chose brand Y. But we don’t understand their thinking or reasoning of how they came to that decision. Often, that is where great insights come from that lead to relevant marketing.

It’s like a weekend project at home. First you think about what it is you need to get done, fix a leaky faucet or mow the lawn for example. Then you decide what tool or method you will use to get the job done. Same with research, first think about what you need the research for and how you will use it, then decide what method you will use to get the insights.

To start, ask yourself these three questions:

1.     What is my objective – or problem I am trying to solve?

2.     What questions do I have or what answers do I need to help me solve my challenge?

3.     What is the best way to get those answers?

Of course, time and money come into the equation as well. We may decide that it’s something as simple as a series of phone interviews that will get you the needed insights. Or, it may be one of the newer online technologies that would be best. The platforms offer sophisticated features that are not only powerful, but offer unique methodologies that can only be conducted in an online environment.

One of our favorites is from a company called Aha Technologies, but there are many great ones out there.  These online qualitative tools allow for quick target audience identification, design and approach, and launch of a study within days. The respondents can write stories, interact directly in real time, draw pictures, or have Q&A sessions. They can even video tape themselves through an app on their phone, logging how they engage with a product or service and create a video blog of their purchase journey. Now we have rich consumer feedback that was gathered quickly allowing us to analyze it and develop insights much faster.

Companies today can get truly meaningful insights faster and cheaper than ever before, while never sacrificing quality.

Tools For Success

Soon after we announced the milestone of our one year in business, we began to receive questions about exactly how did just the two of us do it. But not the deep questions about our strategy or leadership styles. They were about the tactical things such as, who created your website? How did you design your business cards? Or how did we market ourselves?

Good questions, but more than just creating a list of references and tools, we realized two big things when answering these questions. The first is that online tools available today are powerful, inexpensive (sometimes free) and with just a bit of trial an error, fairly easy to master.

These tools are effective for an existing business owner, entrepreneur, and some can be used in any size organization to help with communication. 

The second is that if it weren’t for the incredible support and selflessness of the positive business community in Cleveland, it’s not clear how well we would have made it, if at all.

This list is by no way an end-all or possibly even the best in each category, it just happens to be what we used and what worked for us. We recommend you do your research, speak to others, and try a few things out and see what makes sense for you.


Web Domain: GoDaddy

This domain provider has strong brand recognition stemming from some racy Super Bowl ads.  However, their marketing strategy has shifted and beginning in 2012, they have decided that their sweet spot is the small business entrepreneur – and it shows.  They have a solid platform that makes it very easy to search and lock in your website name with a variety of ancillary options along with pricing tiers. It’s kind of one stop shop, as they can also help you secure your email address and service along with hosting your website.


Email:  Microsoft Outlook

This one gets personal, as we have yet to find that perfect email service we love. But outside of a few quirks here and there, Outlook gets as close as we think possible. Their desktop and mobile app work well. And given we primarily use the suite of Microsoft products such as PowerPoint, Word, and Excel, they all play together nicely - except for macs.  We are Apple lovers and sometimes things just don’t work as smoothly as you would like them between the Apple iOS and Microsoft products. 


Website:  Squarespace

Love it.  We built our site over the weekend. Then of course, we’ve spent the last year endlessly tweaking it, but that would be the same regardless of platform. There was quite a bit of trial and error – but let’s be clear, you are building a website, not just signing up for a domain. If you have the patience and at least a moderate level of comfort with using something more advanced than email or social media on your computer, you can do this. Before plunging in, take the time to really think what you want to say. Look at other sites you love and ask yourself what you like about them. Write this all out ahead of time, it will make the process of building it much easier. We also felt it was important to have good photography. Don’t use some generic stock photos – it will look amateurish and impersonal.  There are a several sites that allow you to download high resolution photos from independent photographers, and many are free. One of our favorites is


Accounting:  QuickBooks

Our accountant said so and he is amazing. It allows you to give your accountant access to the site to help manage it on your behalf.  It links to your bank account and most importantly, we can send all our invoices through the program. The great thing about that is by linking the program with your bank account and sending the invoice via email, your clients can pay you electronically (meaning – you get your money faster and less banking stuff to do). One of the best ways to find professional help such as an accountant or lawyer is to ask your friends or colleagues for a reference.


Data Storage: Dropbox

This is how the two of us keep our files organized and collaborate on our work. We can access all our documents via the cloud through our computers or on our mobile devices. It’s secure, though know, that nothing is 100% secure. It also allows us to work on a document simultaneously. It’s kind of creepy though when one person has the file open and is making edits, and it’s telling you what the other person is doing. Some of our colleagues use Google Docs which allows for real time co-editing and more powerful collaboration tools, however, the program converts the document into a google docs version of Word, PowerPoint, Excel, etc. and as a result, you have to get used to a different interface. That just wasn’t our preference.


Email Marketing:  Mailchimp  

If you are going to be sending out batches of emails, this is the way to go. You have to spend a little time learning it, but after you create an email template, it’s simple to use and provides great analytics for simple email marketing campaigns. The amazing part is that if your list has less than 2,000 subscribers and you will be sending less than 12,000 emails per month, it’s free! The important part is that by using their service, you can help ensure you stay within the email marketing laws and guidelines.

Tools will only get you so far. Find your support structure within your business community.

Jumping into the abyss of entrepreneurship was as scary as it was exciting. High hopes mixed with high anxiety. And it’s still there. Though now our focus is not on how do we launch the business, instead, how we keep evolving and continue to grow. Other agencies, even those who offered some of our same services, reached out an offered guidance and support, and not just in words. One agency asked us if we had a logo or a color palette. We said no. They said, why don’t we create something for you? Another asked where our offices were. We said, in our homes and through a variety of coffee shops around town. They offered use of their facilities. Another sat down with us and gave us a two-hour lesson on how to build our social media presence. Our accountant wouldn’t take payment until we started generating income.

Grit, authenticity, tenacity, resourcefulness, and curiosity go a long way. But the added support of your community is as MasterCard said, priceless. We have a lot to be grateful and thankful for. And we look forward to giving back, paying-forward to other aspiring new businesses, and to play our part in helping the Cleveland economic environment prosper.

So, check out some of these tools and if you are wondering where you might want to launch your new business, come on over to Cleveland- it’s pretty awesome here. We’d be happy to show you around and introduce you to an amazing business community.

Curiosity Solved The Challenge

At the heart of what marketing agencies do is find solutions to challenges their clients present to them.  Every client has a problem or a challenge – otherwise, they would be content with the status quo. The problem with being comfortable with the status quo is that the rest of the world will leave you behind and your company will soon find itself being irrelevant.

No company can thrive unless they are continuously evolving and adapting to the ever-changing market, customer attitudes, and competitive pressures.

 Call it a problem or a challenge, but companies are at point A and they need to get to point B - whether it’s a brand challenge, customer acquisition strategy, or coming up with new ideas. Often, companies come to an agency with either a predetermined notion of what they need, such as a new website or they just want a solution such as, “more sales.”  The worst thing an agency can do is to just say yes.  Whether the agency is full service or specializes in a certain field, the temptation to apply their expertise and get the work started, often overrides the requirement to get curious, assess the situation, and understand the core challenge before presenting a potential approach to a solution. 

At the heart of solving any challenge is curiosity, objectiveness, and critical thinking.

 Regardless of the challenge, the fundamental process has three basic steps:

 Investigate - Why?  Defining the challenge is the first step and often the most difficult.  Asking why, what if, or how might we, is a great place to start.  Search for the root cause.  Clearly articulate the problem or challenge you are solving for. Try not to combine a number of challenges together. This gets everyone on the same page and establishes a conversation and a common goal.

 Illuminate - What?  Now it’s time to get smart.  Ask yourself these four questions.  What information do you need to solve the challenge?  What do you know?  What don’t you know?  And how will you fill those gaps?  This can be done by simply creating 4 columns with each of these questions at the top. Research leads to insights. Insights provide the clarity and focus - they help tell the story as well as arming you with the information you need to develop a strategy or plan on how to get from point A to point B.

 Integrate - How?  The plan now needs to be put into action.  The details matter here – this is the step where the tactics are developed.  It includes the specific actions, along with timing, budget, metrics, and responsibilities that ladder up to the strategy.  It may sound strange, but often, many companies will start here and entirely skip the first two steps.  If they succeed, it may have just been luck.

 What’s truly awesome about beginning with a curious mind and then letting the process lead you to the answer is that you will find new possibilities and solutions that you may have never discovered.  At our firm, this is what we love more than anything – knowing that in the process of working with our clients, we will not only find a way to solve their challenge, but discover new possibilities, inspiration, and entirely new ideas as an outcome of the process.

 Your plan is like a journey, and while your company or team is travelling down the path, the terrain will change and you will discover new or different things along the way.  Unlike in physics, the most direct path from point A to point B is not necessarily a straight line.  So, be ready to adjust as needed, but never lose focus of the objective.

For The Love of Brainstorming

Brainstorming works

 Ideas matter more than ever.  Every organization is looking for them. Ideas on how to grow, better connect with customers, improve operations, engage employees, develop new marketing concepts, invent new products - the list is as endless as are the types of ideas that can be manifested. Ideas are the result of tapping into our inner creative ability (and we all have it, not just creatives, artists, right-brainers or other stereotypes of the kind of people that can come up with many good ideas). Ideas are the building blocks that help companies get to the next steps and develop innovative solutions and solve challenges.


Brainstorming is still one of the most effective ways to generate ideas.


Brainstorming has been the typical approach for how to generate ideas. Yet, it has been bashed and has flowed in and out of vogue ever since Osborn developed methods for creative problem solving in his classic book Applied Imagination (1953).


Most people don’t know how to brainstorm.


Don’t blame the concept of brainstorming; the issue with not getting the results you want out of a brainstorming session is often a lack of understanding on how to run an effective session. When done well, we can guarantee that you can generate hundreds of ideas in a few hours. Are they all good? Absolutely not. But when those hundreds of ideas are distilled into common themes and further stretched into what is not only possible, but can be commercialized, you’ll find the diamonds. 


It takes time and planning.


What is ineffective is gathering a random set of people (or your go-to favorites), hustle them into a room with a whiteboard and ask them to think of new ideas. Effective brainstorming needs a plan and the plan needs to have the following:

1.     A clear objective.

2.     A diverse set of individuals.

3.     Tools and exercises.

4.     Time to prepare, moderate and analyze the output from the session.


Creativity & The Brain

Recent studies by neuroscientists, suggest that the left brain/right brain distinction does not provide us with the full or real picture of how creativity is manifested in the brain (The structure of creative cognition in the human brain.  July 2013, Department of Neurosurgery, University of New Mexico). The entire creative process taps into a wide range of cognitive processes (including your conscious and unconscious) as well as your emotions. The process of creating ideas comes from your entire brain.


Include a diverse set of people to participate.


What this means is that when planning for a brainstorming session, it is important to plan ahead on who will be invited to join. Since we are all wired differently and have different life experiences, this rich diversity of thought is critical in helping generate diverse ideas. If you only include the same type of people in your sessions, you will just keep getting the same types of ideas. Diversity of thought and experience is very important. You want to include artists and engineers, millennials and older generation, introverts and extroverts, and varying tenure within the organization. 


Planning & Facilitating

 Now that you have your people, what will you do with them? Having a good plan with the right set of tools is just as important in generating ideas as are the people who will attend. 


Have a clear objective.


Do not make this a spontaneous event. Start by having a clear objective.  Everyone should know and understand what problem they are solving.  Construct your objective in the following manner:  “We are generating ideas to ____________.”  And the more specific the better.  For example, “We are generating ideas to increase revenue” will not be as effective as, “We are generating ideas to increase revenue from our new product line in the xyz segment.” The ideas generated will be sharper given the target is better defined.

 Define your objective days if not weeks in advance.  This is the foundational building block for your brainstorm.  Once you have your objective and you know who will be there, you can start planning the various types of exercises to generate the ideas.


Establish ground rules.


Review these ground rules at the beginning of the session and don’t hesitate to remind anyone during the session if they break them:

  • Encourage wild ideas.

  • Encourage building on each other’s ideas.

  • Don’t judge. Be aware of using language that shuts down other people, such as the use of the word, “but”, or phrases like, “we’ve tried that before”, etc.

  • Stay focused on the objective.

  • Have fun!


Quantity leads to quality.


With a diverse set of individuals, you will need to employ a variety of tools to help generate the ideas.  You can search on the internet and find all kinds of tools to use in the process.  Some of our favorites include spider charting and picture stimulus to help the brain make connections and new leaps of association.  Have all these tools and stimulus aids defined, printed or gathered, and set up in the room before the team arrives.

 Spider Chart:

  • Break out into groups of 3 to 4 people and have them stationed at a white-board or large easel pad.

  • Have one word written in the middle of the page. Everyone will build off this word by writing another word that they think of or associate with the main word. Everyone can continue this simultaneously either off the center word or any new words written. Every new word should spark new ideas and the chart keeps growing.

  • Finally have each person write out their best or favorite ideas on a separate sheet of paper that is turned into the facilitator.

Picture Stimulus:

  • Rip out dozens of pictures from magazines. Have a wide variety of pictures. What they are is not as important as the need to have a very diverse set of photos. The pictures don’t have to be related to the objective or the organization in any way. They are there simply for stimulus purposes.

  • Each person picks 2 to 3 pictures they love the best (whatever they want).

  • In groups of 3 to 5, everyone can share their photos and the teams can engage in free-association with words that come to mind when viewing each picture. Then the group talks about ideas that those words spark.

  • Ideas are written out by each person and shared with the facilitator.


Once you begin, the focus is on quantity, not perfection.  Each exercise should take about 15 to 20 minutes.  It’s a fast pace, and most people will complain that they didn’t have enough time.  That’s OK – keep them moving.  They will have more opportunities to get their ideas generated.  The important part is that after each exercise, have everyone take the time to actually write out, on their own, each of their ideas.  Give them another 5 to do this. Have them capture each idea as clearly as possible – one per page (large post it notes work great for this).  If you don’t do this, then you just wasted time trying to decipher the scribbles everyone puts on the sheet.


Bring it all together by converging the ideas and possibly building upon them.


Now it’s time to work with the ideas gathered and distill the data into the smaller set of really good ideas. Take all the ideas, then:

  • Discard the duplicates

  • Consolidate the ideas that are similar

  • Look for common themes and see if they can be further developed

  • See if two or more ideas can be brought together to form a bigger idea or concept

Depending on the objective, the ideas can then be elevated and better defined by filtering them through parameters such as time to develop, required financial or other resources to bring to life, or their perceived uniqueness. Again, these ideas are the building blocks to help form more well developed concepts through research and additional thinking.


It takes practice.


Effective brainstorming that leads to many high quality ideas takes a bit of work to do well. If you are new to developing and facilitating brainstorming efforts, like with any skill, the more you do it, the better you will get. Try not to facilitate and participate at the same time. Having someone assist you during the session can be very helpful. Start easy or have a practice run with friendly co-workers that are willing to play and learn along with you. Try out as many different exercises as you can. It will only get better and the results will amaze you. Have fun out there! 

The Wells Fargo Culture Problem

photo by Gabriella Demczuk for the New York Times

photo by Gabriella Demczuk for the New York Times

The Wells Fargo Bank scandal of opening millions of secret accounts without customers’ permission is an issue of culture. 

Within the financial services industry, the retail business of Wells Fargo was always admired and in many ways was viewed as the gold standard because of their profitability. Much of that profitability had to do with retention of their clients and the income generated from the multiple accounts their customers had with the bank.  It’s a no-brainer, the more products and services you have with a bank, or for that matter, almost any company, correlates directly to more revenue.

Yes, what they did was not only wrong, but illegal. We’ll let the federal government and the mass of regulators and lawyers figure out what to do with that. The fundamental issue is that their pursuit of profits outweighs their values. And it’s how well a company lives up to its values that determines the culture. 

Doing what’s right for the customer, is a core value of Wells Fargo (as found in their Vision & Values brochure). Specifically stating, “One of our top priorities is protecting customers’ confidential data and information. Customers trust us to use that information to provide them with products and services that can save them time and money. They expect us to help guide them, help grow and protect their financial assets, and help them succeed financially. Our focus on customers is unwavering. That is how we have been doing business for more than 160 years and is the key to our future.”

When a company’s values, mission, or vision statement, are just words and not lived and followed, the result is what happened here. The brand is weakened. Do you remember Enron? They had awesome values. Unfortunately, they were also just words. Additionally, the entire banking industry will suffer a bit from the increased lack of trust many customers feel when they think of banks.

For a bank to be making money is not a bad thing. I hope they continue to do so and do it well. The ability to deposit a check from your phone, travel to another part of the world and get cash out of an ATM, and other services we may now take for granted are impressive. It also costs a lot to develop and support these services. However, customers are only willing to pay for them if they see the value and if they know the bank is watching out for them. Though – they have to make that decision, the bank cannot make it for them. 

What Wells Fargo forgot is that they do not define their brand nor do they determine who chooses to do business with them. A company’s brand is what their customers say it is. The brand is not only the products and services a company provides, but how well they actually live up to the standards they promote.

It's Strategic Planning Season! Are You Ready?

An effective strategic plan is a critical component to running a successful organization, yet only few companies do it well.

According to a study by Bain, they asked nearly 300 global executives to rate their company’s planning process, and only one in three said that the strategy was effective. 


You may be already swimming in a sea of data, PowerPoints, and debates on whether a stacked bar chart or an exploding pie chart is the best way to tell the story.  Good strategic planning is a methodical process.  However, it's important to keep the objective in mind and not get lost in the process of planning.

5 guidelines for effective strategic planning:

1.      Align with the mission and vision of the company.  This not only helps keep your organization's brand authentic, it also serves as a guide when making decisions.

2.     Make strategic planning an important ongoing process, with continual process improvement, regularly managed throughout the year, and not an annual ritual that is part of a corporate to-do list.

3.     Have clear objectives.  Objectives that are quantifiable so everyone knows what they are aiming for and a way to be able to measure progress.  Tactics follow strategy.  

4.     Update your insights. Your company does not live in a bubble, everything around the company; your customers, competition, the regulatory environment, and many other factors are continually changing.

5.     Don’t isolate the process by managing and making decisions solely on a select group of c-suite executives that push down a plan through the organization.  A strong strategic plan incorporates the views of the customer as well as employees who will be executing the plan. 

Elevate your strategic planning from an annual exercise into an integrated part of your company’s business management process. Take into consideration the voice of your customers, the perspective of your employees, and the insights from market research.  This could be the difference between an acceptable strategic plan vs. one that is inspirational, guiding, and effectively defines how the entire organization will work together to achieve your objectives.

Branding For Nonprofits

Applying for-profit marketing models to the nonprofit sector demonstrates a lack of understanding on what makes a nonprofit unique.

 Many nonprofits continue to use their brands primarily as a fundraising tool, but a growing number of nonprofits are developing a broader and more strategic approach, managing their brands to create greater social impact and tighter organizational cohesion. However, as nonprofits are realizing the benefits of having a strong brand image, agencies often rush in applying for-profit models and end up with less than effective outcomes as a result. 

Your brand is what you stand for. A brand is more than just your logo or other graphics used by an organization. A brand is the perceptions of all the constituents that are aware of your services, people, or movement. Brand management is the work of managing these opinions. In the for-profit world, marketing professionals talk of creating “a total brand experience.” In the nonprofit world, the conversation should be more about their identity, what their organization stands for and the impact they are having. Your brand ultimately is a reflection of what your organization represents and believes. 

3 Important Points. There are important differences and nuances between for and not for profit organizations that go beyond fiscal management or categorization. There is a deep source of pride that nonprofit leaders and their teams have in what they do—pride in the social mission, participatory processes, shared values, and key partnerships. For agencies to be effective in working with nonprofits, they must:

  1.  Take the time to understand and align marketing decisions with the mission and values of the organization. Join and volunteer with the organization if possible. 
  2. Look at the big picture and work to develop or enhance their brand to align with their long term vision. Nonprofits are not driven by quarterly income/earnings results. Yes, they should have clear metrics in place, but often a nonprofit has a greater long term vision that may take years or decades to achieve.
  3. Be sensitive in understanding the balance needed to raise money while staying true to the cause – balancing and respecting both mission and margin. Sometimes the right thing to do is not necessarily what will generate more revenue or increase membership.

Taking a thoughtful approach to nonprofit marketing requires more than just having an understanding of their purpose.  Closely listening to the voice of all the stakeholders and leveraging the passion of the team is a key to developing marketing strategies that are just as bold as the vision of the organization.


"I Want More Sales" Is Not A Plan - 5 Things You Should Be Doing


Clients will often tell us “I want more sales” when asked for their marketing objectives. Wow!  Who knew? Unfortunately, this is an all too common response. 

 Sales are an outcome of activities. Activities or tactics informed by having a clear business objective, supported by a strategy.

 The increasing complexity of marketing due to more informed and demanding consumers and exponential growth in channels, data, and content, causes many marketers to throw their hands up in exasperation on how to formulate that strategy. At which point, when pressed on what to do, it is not surprising to hear about just wanting to get results – give me more sales!

 So what are marketers and agencies that support these clients supposed to do? The answers have not changed, and there is no need to reinvent the well-established principles of marketing. The advent of digital and social media only amplifies the need for a company to truly understand their target audience and ensure they are authentic in how they deliver on their value proposition. Focus on the fundamentals: 

1.     Have a clearly defined objective. You can’t hit what you are not aiming for. An objective is a clearly articulated measurable outcome (e.g., A 5% increase in a our new product line within 1 year).  Each objective needs to have a plan. We are not marketing for marketing’s sake. If the investment your company is making in marketing is not supporting the overall objective of the business, then you are wasting your money. This requires every marketer to establish measures on how to assess the impact of the marketing investment.

2.     Do your homework. Hope is not a strategy. Once you establish the objective, conduct a classic gap analysis. What do you know, what don’t you know (that you need) and how are you going to get the insights? What is your competition doing? What are the trends in your industry? Data is not enough – use your data to develop insights, which in turn can guide your marketing strategy. 

3.     Know your target audience. This is arguably the most important component of any marketing strategy. Too often, especially in a B2B company, there is this notion of having developed the most awesome product or service – and when we tell the world, they will just flock to us. The question to ask is, how will what you are offering to your target audience improve their lives? Know them. Know how they think. Know how they feel and act when something triggers a need for a product or service. A “build it, and they will come” approach rarely, if ever, works.

4.     Know your brand. Authenticity is key. It comes down to the basic virtue of doing what you say. Has your company established a clear and inspiring vision and mission? What is your value proposition – what are your customers going to get in exchange for their time and money, and what are your employees expected to deliver on a consistent basis? Taking it a step further, when is the last time you reviewed your company values and how they were being applied?  

5.     Create great experiences. If you know your customers and you consistently express your brand, that is the key to both attracting and engaging your target audience – leading to the sales. However, creating awareness and even an initial trial is not sufficient. The traditional marketing funnel model has evolved into an ongoing fluid journey. We live our lives with needs and wants and endless distractions while being bombarded with brands constantly.  But if the right message intercepts us through channels we use and aligns with what we believe will make our lives better, we will take the time and energy to consider what you are offering.  And, hopefully share our experience with others and come back for more.

So, when things get crazy or somewhat overly complicated, go back and focus on the basics. Never forget who your customer is, be true to your brand, and create great experiences.