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Episode 66
Allen Adamson Interview. FROM Marketing Theory - TO Routine Disruption

In this episode Samuel Monnie and Chris Lawson are joined by Allen Adamson,Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Metaforce. We discuss Theory vs Practice in marketing,the rewards and challenges of being an adjunct instructor and the power of routine disruption. Listen out for the quickfire round with brands for us to learn from, thought leaders that Allen has on his radar, and the difference between Brand and Branding.

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  • Theory vs Practice in marketing 

  • What marketing students should do differently

  • A Customer experience story via Facetime

  • Nuggets from Allen Adamson’s book Shift Ahead

  • We explain the difference between a Brand vs Branding

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Transcript:

SAM:

Welcome to Across the Pond - Marketing Transformed. I'm  really excited about this week's show. We've got a special guest coming up. I'm Samuel Monnie and we are joined by my co-host Chris Lawson

 

CHRIS:

Hey there, Sam, how are you? 

 

SAM:

I'm awesome. Really looking forward to this week's show, we've got an excellent guest. We've got Allen Adamson with us, he's co-founder and managing partner of Metaforce. He's got a book which is out right now called Shift Ahead: how to brand stay relevant in today's fast changing world. And he's an industry expert in all disciplines of branding his work. Broad spectrum of consumer corporate businesses in industries ranging from packaged goods and tech healthcare, financial services, hospitality, and entertainment.

 

CHRIS:

One of the reasons why we wanted Allen on this series is sort of that the fact that actually one of the elements that he holds true is making sure he really identifies what matters to audiences. And the other area is the agency that he's founded, Metaforce is really clear in terms of what it wants to achieve. And that in itself rang very true with Sam and myself in terms of what we're doing. It talks about deep expertise. It's not just around the strategy, but it's about the go to market planning and activation, but it also comprises CMOs, entrepreneurs and agencies, all stars. And I think that mix is something we try to get across via our podcast. 


 

Back to the Future

CHRIS:

Allen, we're going to kick off with a few questions. It would be great to just hear a little bit about you. You've had senior level roles across agency and client side, and you've got our branding experience. So what inspired you to do what you're doing now and branch out on your own? 

 

ALLEN:

Well first, thanks for that introduction. After that introduction, I should probably quit now and say, thank you very much  because it will all be downhill. I had a great run, in the last part of my career at a firm called Landor and clients typically came to Landor when things were not going well, it was not just, oh, let's do what we did last year. But usually they can't because what they did last year wasn't working. And so it was a good experience, but Landor was a very focused firm on identity and branding and strategy. And as Sam mentioned, I started my career at Unilever and enjoyed pushing lots of marketing levels and looking at products. And so I found that while Landor was a great experience, it became a little myopic. So I wanted to step out and go back to the future. And be able to look at problems agnostically, not just say, well, this is my expertise because Landor existed within WPP. And while WPP talked a lot about integration and being able to solve all sorts of problems, putting the pieces together inside WPP across functions. Having had to do that many, many times was a phenomenal challenge. So I wanted to start with a clean slate and say, “look, I want to solve problems. I don't want to be looking at a particular end of the market.” And that's what led to Metaforce.

 

CHRIS:

What type of client do you find most intriguing?

 

ALLEN:

I typically like a client that can't do what they did last year when the client comes to me and says,  "don't really touch anything. Just do a little bit of topspin on what we did last year. And we've got the, here's the problem we want you to solve and just do this", when it's very prescriptive and very narrow, it's not very interesting. When it's  "our business is crashing, we don't know what to do. Uh, we've tried everything. What do you think?" Far more interesting. 


 

The Marty Crane Syndrome

SAM:

You talked about back to the future there, which I'll come back to. Cause I like that concept in terms of the business world. As you've been doing your work and your you'd mentioned your client side experiences in Unilever and you've had agency side experiences, you've written a few books that have captured your philosophies and your experiences and your latest is called Shift ahead: how to brand stay relevant in today's fast changing world. So who've you admired in the last year? Who's lived up to this principle of staying relevant? 

 

ALLEN:

Well, you know, when we set out to do this book, I guess it was about four years ago, it was because lots of clients were coming and saying, "gee, just give us a little bit of this and everything will be okay." And their problems were far more significant because they had gotten into what we call the Marty Crane syndrome from, an old TV show [Frasier] where they just were very comfortable with doing what they did yesterday and their business, and become less and less relevant every year. And by the time they realized the sky was falling, it was often too late. So little did I know that  when we set off to write the book, we thought the world was changing at a rapid pace of three years ago or two years ago, how rapidly it's changing now. The only thing that I think was most relevant based on what's happened in the past year with the pandemic, is that if you wait for your sales to drop, or if you wait for your customers to sort of say, "Hey, um, I'm not sure I'm getting what I want from you" you're almost too late or you're definitely too late. 

 

And so one of the most interesting things about  this is what was true three years ago, when companies struggling to stay ahead have only become more true with the pandemic. Because if you wait for your customers to stop buying your product or tell you that they're no longer happy, it's too late to figure out what to do and then how to get it right. 

 

Tennis or Golf?

SAM:

Are people waiting? What's causing that delay? Is it proactive, waiting, sitting on their hands or what are you seeing? 

 

ALLEN:

It's usually comfortable, thinking everything is working, and everything is not working! Or you know, the business was built on certain guest practices and people. And then when it comes to trying to try and do something else, they're not very many companies, (despite what they say) are not very good at figuring out what comes next. They are usually very good at optimizing. I go back to my experience at Unilever. A lot of what Unilever was really good at was just optimizing everything from the product formulation, to the distribution, to the marketing, to the advertising, to the PR. They weren't really good at saying, "Hey, let's come up with a totally new idea" or "let's talk to consumers and how can we help you more?" And they were, they were in the optimization business to maximize profitability and grow businesses. 

 

SAM:

Well, that's the point that you made about optimizing and they're not great. A lot of us who've worked in that space or looking at these companies would assume they were actually good at those spaces. So you said they focus on optimization and not coming up with new things. Do you have a sense of why they kind of got blindsided or why they're so focused on optimizing?

 

ALLEN:

It's never one reason why companies become less innovative or less entrepreneurial. It's usually a number of them, but one of them is that they often attract talent that's great at operating and keeping the topic moving and they get very myopic in looking inside it. You know, one of the things that we found by talking to lots of companies is that most of the time they are fixated on who's right in front of their nose. So when I was at Unilever, we were totally fixated on Procter and Gamble; Procter moved left, we moved left, Procter and Gamble moved right, we moved right. Same when I worked with Pepsi. every meeting started off: did you see what Coke did last week? Right. And that is important. You need to stay ahead of the person competing with you. As you know, and as many people know, often companies get zapped, not by the person right in front of their nose, but by something off to the side or behind them. You know, Gillette did not get disrupted by Schick. It got zapped by the dollar shave club. So part of the problem is if you're totally fixated on who's in front of you, you don't see change happening because it becomes a chicken and mouse game. You're just following the leader and going back and forth. Describe it as sort of like playing tennis. But in tennis, if you want to try to survive a little bit, you really need to just focus on your opponent, across the net and try to hit the ball or not. 

 

But in golf, what your opponent does, it's depressing. Cause they'll hit better shots than you. But if you want to do better, you have to just focus on the ball, the wind where things are going. And so too many people in corporate America are just looking right in front of them. Or looking very close in there trying to drive by looking where the curb is, as opposed to trying to look out and see where things are going.

 

SAM:

Yeah. I love that. I love that picture you just painted a lot of people talk about in an ice hockey, so skate where the puck is is going, but I love the golf analogy because you're focusing on the puck in ice hockey, and that never resonated with me or the tennis analogy or focusing on where your opponent isn't, but the golf analogy is the ball, it's the whole way [of seeing things]. And that kind of opens up the whole view. I love that. 

 

ALLEN:

The theory is easy. Everyone knows this theory and it's really hard to practice. Everyone knows you need to stay and you talk to any company. "Oh, we're constantly staying relevant. We are always talking to our customers. We're in touch with the market." But you'll find most of them inside the conference rooms, or it used to be in the conference room maybe now in their den. But most of them are just with their nose in a screen reading emails and talking inside the company. Very few people in companies of any organizations of any type or out looking around, looking outside of their bubble. And that's really critical, especially in fast changing times, because by the time the changecome you're flatfoot. 

 

CHRIS:

Yeah, I think the other thing I'm reflecting about it is how much of a role is about coaches now as well, coaching and mentoring, as you're sort of trying to work through that and I've known you're committed to being a marketing educator. And that for me is a really interesting phrase and it'd be great if you could bring it to life. And, also that difference in terms of principles and approach in terms of (doing that as you would like) from an education perspective versus how you then apply it with clients. 


 

“Jerry Seinfled would have been a great marketer”

ALLEN:

Yeah, to me, one of the things that's refreshing about working with the students is they don't come in with a pre-programmed prescribed idea. You know, many clients you work with, they say  "here's what we need to do. Here's what we want you to do. This is the answer. Just do this." and if you say, "well, what about that?", they say "No, no, we've already thought this through, Allen do what I'm asking you to do. Thank you very much". With students you get in front of and chat about things and you get lots of "Why? How come? Have you ever thought of this?" And it's very refreshing. And I try to bring some of that back without being too annoying. When I work with clients, they'll come in with the prescriptive; here's what we think you should do. Being able to zoom out and being able to look at things with fresh eyes and say, "well, gee, everyone else is doing that. You think it's going to work too? And why is that?"  and becoming more like a student with clients helps. And of course, when I'm with students, bringing in real life experience helps a lot because you know, part of the benefit of the things I enjoy about writing books is you get to people who have succeeded, and they'll tell you why, but lots of people talk about that. But you also get to people that have not succeeded. And they are introspective and they say why they didn't succeed. 

 

CHRIS:

One of the things that I find so refreshing about sort of entrepreneurs or early stage  is almost naivety in a way. It's like, "why can't we do it like that?" You know, I have no prior experience in marketing and sales. So what stops me doing it like that? And actually you need to challenge yourself in those aspects sometimes. 

 

ALLEN:

Exactly. I always thought that Jerry Seinfeld, if he hadn't been a great comedian would have been a great marketer because he looks at the world, and says "you ever wonder why people do this?" He's a great observer of what is, and to be, well as everyone knows, to be a great marketer you have to be great at observing what people are doing and saying, not just necessarily what they're asking. 

 

CHRIS:

How do you think last year's pandemic has changed how people are learning? 

 

ALLEN:

That's a great question. I don't know if it's changed how people are learning that much. Although they're learning faster because if anything, (lots of debate). But I suspect the one thing that people realize is that the change came really fast and the pace of change continues to accelerate. And what you did yesterday doesn't necessarily prepare you for success for tomorrow. So perhaps what they're learning is that they need to try new things and try them soon and not do the typical "well, I'm thinking about that. I'm planning this, I think in the fourth quarter, we might investigate a new line extension." Hopefully part of this is them thinking  'we need to get out too, because the people that have succeeded in the pandemic are the people that jumped in early.' And change your business, change your customer care, you need to react in real time, as opposed to what typically happens. 'We'll just sit quietly for a while and I'm sure things will get back to normal soon.'

 

CHRIS:

If you had to think, apart from reading more of your books, of course, what would you like your students to do differently in terms of like their approach to learning, what would that be? 

 

ALLEN:

It would be more like, pretend you're playing chess when you're learning. Everyone is pretty quick to say, "oh, we should do this", which is, you know, move the pawn two things up. But of course what makes the difference between success and failure is what happens if I  move two and three. If you do that now, what happens and how are you going to satisfy that customer?

Can you afford to run two ads this week? While spontaneity and impulses just do it as an important aspect, everyone knows success in business is more of a marathon than a sprint game. Being a little bit more prepared for Murphy's law, then as opposed to "what we're going to do is this. Then we'll open the champagne on Tuesday and we'll go on CNBC on Thursday."

 

SAM:

I was listening to that and just channeling my time as an adjunct (instructor) as well.  I say to people: “What's harder? Explaining to the CEO or the general manager that I've got a million dollar gap in my numbers or keeping students awake at 9.30 pm when it's negative 18 (degrees fahrenheit) in a snowy Chicago on a Thursday night?" I know which one's harder and it's not the million dollar explanation. And I'm hoping you'd agree with me.

 

ALLEN:

As you've just said, I think the thing you learn is that the one thing for sure is a PowerPoint slide 48 is not going to do it. I'm sorry. 

 

SAM:

Right, exactly. There's a discerning audience who want to be educated and also want to make it real. As I'm thinking about  some of the things you've been talking about and bringing that to the classroom, but also bringing that to your clients in terms of actually, back to the future, but also thinking two or three steps ahead of the students. There's a lot of skills being applied there. And as you think about marketing and the transformations that we're kind of essentially talking about. 


 

You have to be extraordinary to stand out in marketing 

SAM:

What's the biggest change or some of the biggest changes you've seen in marketing transformation over the last few years?

 

ALLEN:

I think a big one has been, and it's been going on for awhile, is playing off my phrase of back to the future, it used to be that when people bought services or products, they asked somebody. They went to the store or they asked our neighbor and then that went away for a long time where we just sat and just watched somebody on a screen, tell us what's good. But in the past five years, word of mouth and word of eye, picture sharing, video sharing. It's become the 800 pound gorilla by far. So how do you win in that world? And again, the theory is disarmingly easy. No one shares something ordinary. No one says, "oh, I flew to Philadelphia. And the pilot found the town and arrived within two hours." You know, they'll either tell you that I flew to Philadelphia and the pilot got lost and we ended up in Chicago or something extraordinary happened. "I got there early. The pilot took me home in his or her car."  So you have to go to extraordinary lengths to get people to talk about you and just getting your package there on time and not having it broken and having it work most of the time, is not going to help you win. 

 

SAM:

Do you have an example of someone who comes to mind, what people have talked about, and how that's come to the fore versus perhaps how the brand was showing up previously? 

 

ALLEN:

I think most companies are catching on, but it's hard to keep up, and I think the big winner in word of mouth is customer care. When you used to call Apple and had a question, you have to say, "well, I have apple care and  I know your products  are under a warranty", but increasingly when you call them. And even if it's something silly to talk about, like, "I can't get my email to open on Tuesdays", they'll spend time with you. And people get used to that level of customer care and people online, doing interesting things and just being much more responsive. 

 

I was installing a, this is a ridiculous story, a new thermostat, a wifi thermostat, which  according to the ad could be done in five minutes. Of course, in two to three hours you're all freezing in the house. When I got customer care on a line, they said, "let's do a FaceTime video and let me see what you're doing." Wow. And I could show them, and they said " now Allen, the yellow line goes to the red line."  But even simple changes, like that  gave me a story to talk about. Not only couldn't I read instructions, but I had to get the tech guy to do FaceTime with me. But I think that's where you have to be  creative. Just thinking through how you can make every experience better.

 

SAM:

Let's go into more experiences. I love the fact that you said that there was some setup or system with the customer service where that was doable, right?  Their protocol allowed them to say, "let's do a FaceTime" versus, "oh, no, you've got to fill this form and go to this department" and that horrible music for 17 minutes while the next person makes it worse versus making it better. As you're thinking about transformation and things that are coming and the brands that are really winning, I know there's some work you're doing now, looking at the future in disruptions in the future. And I'd love to just hear a bit more about those brands that are able to do that well. Can you tell us a bit about what you're doing? 

 

ALLEN:

What I like looking for interesting brands that don't (get people). Everyone talks about, I just did myself, Apple and everyone knows Nike. But there's interesting things happening all around and part of is part of the fun is finding them. For Shift Ahead, I went to speak to the folks at the public library.  I said, "what are you guys doing? I can't imagine coming in here to take a book anymore" and it turns out, they're doing a lot of interesting things. And in fact, I went to the very well-to-do library, the Greenwich library, and they had become sort of a tech help desk. They said, “well, if you've got a project we'll actually help you search and show you how to use Google. If you have trouble with your computer, we can hopefully have a tech person here to do that. We've turned it into more We Work.” And so here's a place. If you want to start a company, we can give you some office space and we can have one of our librarians help you research the tuna fish market. And so all of a sudden, my impression of a library was you go there, you pick a book up and you put it on the counter and they scan it and you take it out. But behind the scenes, they're thinking through how to reimagine themselves. So I love finding stories outside of the beaten track. 

 

SAM:

As you're thinking about brands, you talked about some of the winners and you talked about, sometimes you get to speak to people. Who've had successes and those who have failed. Are there any of those experiences as you start to think about them that are under threat next? Can you give us a clue as to what you're seeing?

 

ALLEN:

You know, to some extent I go with the Andy Grove who was a former chair of Intel said, " only the paranoid survive." One of the things we found when we did the research for Shift Ahead is that companies, the more arrogant and the more confident, they were and successful,  the less likely they could shift. And they're more likely to already get run over. So I think, you know, rather than pick one, I just think you need to always realize that just because you were successful yesterday and just because things are looking good this morning, you need to be always worried about tomorrow and a little bit of paranoia and a little bit of what happens if somebody doesn't like the taste of my food, I think is key. 

 

CHRIS:

It's going to be fascinating, thinking how long does that paranoia generally last at the moment as well? There's a whole element, isn't there,  where you look at some industries such as the events industry, and you think it's very unlikely, but we'll go back to how it is. So you hope there's some bright minds thinking through that and thinking about what the next version of that looks like. 

 

ALLEN:

I do think the travel industry, while people are dying to get out of their den. I think that's on a personal level, but I don't think that as you just said Chris, I don't think they're going to be dying to go back for a 20 minute meeting in Cleveland on a plane. All industries that touch business travel need to realize that people aren't going to fly back to boring conferences or just come out to do an elbow tap or a handshake, you know, they're going to have to re-imagine what do we need to do to make business travel worthwhile again? Just getting you there and having wifi in the hotel is not going to be enough.  


 

Branding - fan or critic?

SAM:

As you're a branding guy, we were both huge, huge fans of brands and the roles they play. And we talked on episode 42 about purposeful branding and how to do that well, and we'd just like to hear your take on the role of brand purpose and the social cause, which in our eyes is growing ever more important. Where are you on this whole purpose, scale or continuum? What are you? A fan, an advocate or a critic. 

 

ALLEN:

I'm a fan with caution because many companies try to do it as a marketing tactic, but to be effective at purpose-driven it has to be well beyond the marketing department. It has to embrace the entire company and everything they do. And that's why I think  many are challenged because of the lack of authenticity when it's only a marketing-led initiative versus the CEO, all employees volunteer their time. You can smell the difference between ad led, media led marketing led purpose, and a business led purpose. And you have to think longer term because if it's really going to be meaningful, it can't just be writing one big check to one great purposeful idea. It's more than just money. 


 

Quick Fire Round

CHRIS:

So, Alan, we wanted to ask you a couple of quick fire questions. Just to get your gut reaction to. So don't think about these too long, but I think that they're quite fascinating as we look at the year ahead. 

 

So the first one, what is the most powerful media and comms channel in 2021, do you think? 

 

ALLEN:

Yeah, I think it will continue to be social media. What people are watching on either Instagram or Snapchat or facebook. I think social media, because its draw, is word of mouth it is still going to be number one and gaining in importance.

 

SAM:

The next question is: who has been your favorite interview? When researching your books? 

 

ALLEN:

People who've made really big changes and didn't do it in a reaction to something that was going on right in front of them. I really enjoyed speaking to the former president of NYU and talked about how he transformed NYU 50 years ago when he took over. He had a simple vision, about in and of the city, in making NYU less of a walled community and really integrating it into New York and of the world. It took 15 years to realize that, and he got lucky. New York city at that time got better. There was that, having an idea, well before it's time and just making it happen, I love stories like that.

 

SAM:

NYU is the university in New York, right? Just for the global audience here. 

 

ALLEN:

Yeah.

 

CHRIS:

When you're thinking about learning, who's your go-to thought leaders that you read or follow and why? 

 

ALLEN:

I'm a news junkie. I think part of success in marketing is reading the marketing reports and to see what's happening in the world and to see what's happening in art and science and science fiction. I was at CES virtually last week and heard the president of Microsoft talk about how back in the day Ronald Reagan was watching the movie war games. It was about this kid who hacks the defense system way back when and tries to almost start a nuclear war. And that spurred him to ask the generals could this really happen? And yes, it could. And so there was a big push for cybersecurity back then. And so the notion that you can learn something from watching a movie, going to a theater, reading the newspaper to me is really critical for success in marketing. Because if you don't see what's happening around you can't help your client figure out where to go.

 

 When I look for inspiration, I look at reading something I haven't read before, seeing a movie I haven't seen before, but oftentimes in the news, you can learn a lot if you read beyond the headlines as to what might be coming.

 

SAM:

Putting you on the spot now, what's your biggest marketing regret?

 

ALLEN:

It was not being an entrepreneur earlier. I was at big companies and I really enjoyed it if I had been entrepreneurial. I think I was entrepreneurial in business like everyone else does, but if I had jumped off the big battleship earlier in my career, it might've been more interesting. 

 

SAM:

There's some data which says actually most successful entrepreneurs start at 50 and older. So there's some proof behind and some facts behind that. 

 

CHRIS:

Final question, final quick fire one. What's the biggest false assumption about branding and marketing that you come across and roll your eyes and groan, and think not that one again?

 

ALLEN:

The thing is if people mix up those two terms, brand and branding. They think, ‘I need to do better at brand. And so I'm going to do some advertising.’ And I like to just remind people, 

 

the brand is what you want people to remember; your story, what you stand for, who you are, if you're different. 

 

And branding is how you get that story on people's head, it could be advertising. It could be local, could be a product of your customer service. It could be your instruction book and how to install the thermostat. 


 

Just keep in mind that there are many ways you can execute branding, get it across, but you have to make sure the story and what it is before you run to do a new ad or a new logo or a new package design, make sure you're really sharp on who you are and why it's different and why people should care.

 

CHRIS:

That's a great answer to end on there, Allen. Thank you for your time today. It's been really stimulating having you on. Like I say, I think it's worth dipping back into your back catalog as well in terms of your book. Thank you for your time. 

 

ALLEN:

It was a pleasure being here, thanks for having me. 

 

SAM:

Thanks everyone, it  was a great show. As I always sign off, have a great week across the pond...