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Team building leadership

Sorry, Simon (Sinek) - Start With The How Not The Why

We argue that starting with the How, and the key role of building capabilities within an organization is needed to deliver the promise that modern marketing demands. It's critical now more than ever to ensure  the human factor is front of mind in doing this.


Episode 007 TOPICS:


  • Prioritize and invest in building people capability and capacity

  • Breaking down the “how”: ways of working, people, skills, leadership, resources

  • Human factor is so vital in being successful

  • Creating a marketing toolkit, and common language for the team

Across the Pond- Marketing Transformed

7. Sorry, Simon (Sinek) – Start with The How Not the Why



We’re going to argue that starting with the ‘how’ and the key role of building capabilities within the organisation is so critical to deliver the promise that modern marketing demands. It’s critical now, more than ever, to ensure the human factor is front of mind when we are doing this. 

So, if you are in the digital marketing world, you’ve probably heard of a guy called Simon Sinek. He’s British and American, but perhaps better well known in the US. Around ten years ago he wrote a book called Start with Why. I’ve heard it quoted in board rooms, in meetings and conferences and ever since it came out he’s really focused on how great leaders inspire great action within their organisation. He tells this great story about his revelation about Apple, the revelation about how the Wright brothers invented flight and the Martin Luther King great presentation - ‘I have a dream’ presentation and speech. 

He has a really simple way of bringing it to life through these three circles. He calls them his golden circles; I’m giving him credit there. But in these golden circles he has ‘why’ in the centre of it, then you have the ‘how’ as the next layer of the circle and finally, you end with the ‘what’. The idea here is that people know ‘what’ they do. Most know the ‘how’ but very few know the ‘why’. i.e. the purpose, their core beliefs, the reason the company exists. And he makes a great argument. I don’t quite agree with him as I look back today. He sold millions of books, his TED talk has forty six million views, yet I feel like his views are a little bit limiting for today. In my experience there’s a huge gap and opportunity to actually flip the order. 

Let’s flip the order, let’s put the ‘how’ at the centre of the circle, because now more than ever, marketers need help with the ‘how’. They need more help with the how, they need help with doing their job, the means of doing their job, and the quality of the work that they do, because if they don’t -  their money, their budget, their resources are going to get cut. So, that’s’ my pitch there, Chris. What do you think?


Well, it’s unlike you to be contrarian, isn’t it? It’s a tricky one because I always focus on the ‘why’. Why are we doing something? Or, should we do something? And that’s really a guiding principle of mine. And I try to work that out before I get into the how we’re going to do it, so it doesn’t feel that comfortable for me as a starting point but, what I definitely agree with is that it’s about planning out those capabilities. 

Planning out the resources, the skills, the time, you have to make a difference and then cut your cloth accordingly. That’s very much a startup and scale up mentality where they don’t have the luxury of time or big budgets or the resources to do the ideal picture. So, it’s almost a case of “I’ve got a certain amount of capabilities, I’ve got a certain amount of processes set up, how do I achieve what I need to do based on that. It’s effectively about the whole agile mindset. How do we get something out there and then? How do we adapt as well?” So, I certainly get it from that perspective. 

I think you’re a brave man taking on forty million TED talks but, I do get where you’re coming from. It does remind me a bit of when I was at Inspired Entertainment, which was a multi-national gaming company. My old boss and a very good friend of mine, Gerhard Burda, a veteran of the gaming industry but, originally from an engineering background. He used to shout at anyone who would listen and quite often, those that didn’t want to listen as well, in his Austrian accent “you must sharpen the saw.” Not quite what you’d expect to hear in a gaming company, but in the context of what we were trying to achieve, it made sense. It’s the fact that too much time is spent by busy people using a blunt axe rather than taking the time to sharpen the saw and actually if we all stopped what we were doing and focused on how we were going to improve the processes or the implementation. So, there you go. Working out the how.  


Sam’s ‘How’ Approach


I have made a mission of building the ‘how’, I’m biased in that direction. For me, the ‘how’ is marketing transformation. The how is about the right leadership, the right organisational structure, the right resources, the people, the cash, the data, the best ways of working and the right skills to drive the quality of the work. So, marketing transformation if all of those few things.

I’ll give you three steps to doing it well. based on a global programme I put into place for a Fortune 500 company recently. 

  1. Firstly, I would argue is creating a simple, common language. Getting everyone on board that common approach. For example, in the case I’ve worked on, educating all marketers on insight. Everyone can understand the word in the same way. So, the way we would define insight would be, the beliefs and values that drive a consumer, that my brand could do something with to have a competitive advantage. So, that’s what we mean by insight, which means for a lot of people, they actually had to go back to the drawing board, because they didn’t have insight. They had facts, they had data points, but they truly didn’t have insights that powered their ideas, their initiatives, their programme. So, simple common language is a critical starting point. 

  2. Step two is so critical because equally important is to develop a common set of tools, a common set of techniques, frameworks and actions that a marketer can replicate and put into action every day, if needed. So, if I go back to the insight example, it would be how to uncover insights. The different types, different elements of an insight, how to glean insights from the signals in social and other search data, and not just rely on traditional methods of doing research or panel data that would have three month lags or fixed set of questions.  

  3. But you could actually use social to really infuse into your practices, and even how to craft meaningful and actionable insights that go to the brief or go to your creative agency. And you can measure a lot of this. I’m going on a little bit about insight, but I feel that it’s so powerful in driving business growth. So, there’s a difference between saying something weak like, it’s important to start your day with a good breakfast. That’s just a fact, versus a stronger statement that is more of an insight, when Mum or when Dad gets their day off to a great start, the whole family benefits. That’s much more propelling, much more likely to lead to you coming up with a creative or a communication break through. And then, 

  4. The third step I would put in place here is to make sure that we are connecting with consumers at every point of their journey. And that was a huge priority. So, demanding a consumer journey is a core part of the marketing plan was the unlock that helped us to plan the ‘how’ really well. 


That is a key summary of the three steps that led to the transformation of our marketing performance.



I like that, there’s a lot there. Interestingly, I think that fact, a lot of people confuse facts with insight. I think it’s one of those real challenges where you look at the data, you come off with something you think is black and white, but insight is so much more than that. It’s combining the empathy, the understanding, that triangulation of two or three different data points. Some of them might be qualitative, some of them might be quantitative and that’s what confuses the insight. So, I absolutely am with you on that. 

I’m also drawn to your idea about the tool set and setting up a tool kit as well. Working out what the best solution tool platforms are and then drawing down on that. I think that’s a crucial step. Now, you don’t want to be putting a strait jacket on creativity, I always think that process should be about guidelines rather than being seen as a strait jacket. However, I am also a believer of the rinse and repeat mentality as well. Especially if you’re applying yourself in non-competing products or non-competing markets. You can often create something that works well in a market and then rinse and repeat in another market. 


The Importance of Culture


Interestingly, at Inspired Gaming again, it operated in twenty plus countries across South America, Asia and Europe. We had a base in Colombia, China and Italy was a European hub as well. 

My marketing team was myself, three others including the intern, my head of marketing - a lady called Jeannette La, who continues to work with me on marketing projects now actually. She implemented a marketing tool kit that could be used across the world. Effectively, we put it on an intranet, ensuring that we had all of the assets, all of the guidelines, all of the style guides that could be applied across the whole globe and the whole operation. What we couldn’t do was the translation service and that is an important fact that I’m a really strong believer that you need to make sure that you bring the local knowledge in too. Especially the translation service at a minimum, but looking into those cultural norms as well. You can’t template everything one hundred percent, but you can certainly get at least eighty/ninety percent of it there. We did that at a cost of less than twenty thousand pounds and if you think carefully about the resources you have, you can certainly make it work. 

Interestingly, this is also where I probably had the most success, putting the customer experience part as centre of the journey as well. Using data analysis and insight to track behaviour and build better games or more profitable games even, as a result of it. And again, it was an important fact to buy the welfare data that we were getting from game playing and databases, in terms of what was coming off that with what people were telling us in the real world as to how they were playing the games. That’s what gave you the insight. So, a lot of parallels there, it sounds good. 


I love the way you walked through that example there, it’s an art and a science. There’s an element where it can be standardised, templated and then areas where it has to be locally driven, customised and more relevant which the language translation is a classic one. There’s nothing worse than having a central translation and then realising that there isn’t one version of Spanish! Different countries have their own different vernacular and verbiage that they use and you could completely offend people. You talked a bit about some of the cultural stuff and you’ve shared examples of what worked really well. Do you have any examples of barriers that you have faced while doing this?


Certainly, the one you just mentioned, cultural barrier language. Columbian Spanish is definitely not the same as Spain Spanish and that’s a mistake that I learnt very early on, still bearing the scars of that one. 

Understanding the culture, the different ways of working in different countries as well. It’s not just even the customer insight, it’s about how you get the best out of the teams there. I’ll give you a good example of that; if we talk about Italy, for example the lunchtime culture is an absolutely essential part of business there. Sadly, in the UK too many lunches are still taken at the desk. You get your twenty minutes, you do your life admin, you munch on your sandwich, you watch a bit of the BBC or read a bit of The Guardian, you talk to no one and you get back to work. It’s a bit of a sad life to be fair. A lot of more progressive organisations are actually banning eating at your desk and creating a bit more of a canteen culture or encouraging people to go out, but that’s broadly the norm. Yet, in Italy it’s seen as disrespectful if you’re not taking lunch.


To be fair, I felt quite bad for our Italian colleagues who would treat us so well when we went out there for lunch and we’d come back and we’d return the favour. They’d come in from Heathrow and they’d say “what are we doing for lunch?” And we’d go, “well, there’s a Pret down the road, go and help yourself.”

Putting that to one side, those cultural norms and those cultural barriers are quite an important factor. But, the one that has the most dramatic impact is that perception that marketing is a cost and not an investment. So, investing in the how, investing in that support network, the infrastructure, the training, the development, is not necessarily the highest on any CFOs list or even any CMO who has to make the call between sales driving initiative, versus the stuff that you’re talking about the sharpening the saw stuff. I think these phrases become really true. Can you survive it a little bit longer? But it seems to be working fine. When am I going to see the return on investment? Is this considered sales driving activity? I’m going to prioritise acquisition spend, not engagement. Do those phrases ring true to you Sam?


Yeah, I’m kind of sad-faced right now, it sort of sounds like a justification to not do any of this stuff.

The Responsibility of the CMO


Yeah, but at the same time, I think that the other blockages are that: unless you’re a CMO or a marketing manager that’s prepared to roll their sleeves up and understand what isn’t working or understand what the upgraded version is of HubSpot or Google Analytics will do for you, it’s difficult to answer. So, one of the biggest blockages, I think, is CMOs who get too far away from the operations. And that of course is difficult if you’re in charge of the multi-billion-pound enterprise, but it’s important to not get that far removed. Would you agree?


Absolutely agree with that, Chris. The picture that you paint sounds opinion driven or perception driven but, I was shocked to see this year. The Gartner CMO spend study showed that CMOs intend to spend twenty nine percent of their budget on marketing technology and only twenty four percent on the labour, i.e. the people. So, they are spending more on the stuff than the people for the first time. And that gap is a five-percentage point gap, and it’s probably going to grow even further. So, for me the rocket fuel for success is the CMOs who intuitively value the how. And they invest in marketing capability and capacity building and they get it and they do it. 

They make sure that there’s money for it. They role model the language and the behaviours and the techniques, so, it’s not just, “hey go do that training”. They’re actually in there, rolling up their sleeves like you described, and they’re actually by your side doing it. They use the tools like you described, they can actually go into Google Analytics, they understand how it works, they can log into it, they can pull the data and they can explain it to you. And that needs to happen at the CMO level. Their priority has to be the roll out and the implementation and the integration of the customer data platform. So, it’s not just an IT thing over there - they actually treat it as an initiative so, it’s actually part of the marketing plan, it’s just as important as the product launch, the cost saving or cost reduction plan. 

One of the toughest tests I had doing this work was a GM and a president I’d met on my very first introductory call. They were running a business and I called them,  and within the first  minute or so, the president said “Sam, I’m not interested in bureaucratic headquarter training” with a sneer. So, I’m not sure there’s much for us to talk about. Absolutely no interest in anything that we’ve been talking about for the past ten minutes and any of the stories we’ve shared. He didn’t care, it didn’t matter, just wasn’t interested. And you can imagine, that’s not the warm welcome that I’m used to - I’m a sensitive guy. I have a soft soul and I had to take a step back. 

We talked a couple of shows ago about growth mindset, I had to switch that on and work on my pitch. For me, it was focusing on the data to support the impact of the learning, getting real stories of marketers applying the tools, the frameworks and the techniques, proving how, investing time and mapping out the tools they needed. In the next three months, it helped a group of marketers actually hit their numbers because it changed what went into the brief. It changed what went to the industry, it changed what went to the Research and Development team, and it changed what the supply chain was working on. 

When I ran the session about twelve to eighteen months after that wonderful first call in the market with the GM who said he wasn’t interested, I had to kind of remind him of what he’d said and reference that the net promoter score for the program was a ninety from that team, which was awesome. That’s like twenty points higher than the average benchmark we were getting. And I got a great response from him to be honest. And when I pointed out the success he said “yeah, I checked around town, you’re correct, they loved it”. So, that pushback up front really forced me to invest, sharpen the saw, so I’m not actually complaining about what happened, it made the proposition better and could then become a showcase of why this matters, but more importantly, investing in the how leads to better impact. 


Very good. And isn’t that a great example of focusing your pitch, as well. I like that, I think there’s another episode in that in its entirety, thinking about that pitch preparation, making sure you’re getting your story telling right, so, we should definitely add that one to the list. 


That’s a really good point, that’s critical for this work, especially for those non-believers. Focusing on that and delivering that, but also having the data to support it. I fully agree, pitch and storytelling should certainly be something that we could dedicate a whole show to.


I’m drawn by the fact that it varies, interlinking themes throughout this podcast series, so we need to put together that need for resilience, that need for adaptability, that growth mindset, that continual learning and also just that fact that we were talking about progressive marketeers versus an old school approach as well as making sure that you’re searching out the culture where it is like-minded souls. But understanding that part of our job is to bring together the whole organisation with us as well. Great anecdote there. I like that one, Sam.

Three Top Tips



  1. Capability and capacity building is a thing. It’s a legitimate endeavour, it’s a growth driver. That needs to be something that everyone in the organisation believes, everyone in the C-suite, especially the CMOs, CFOs, the CEOs. Capability building is a thing that demands attention and priority. 

  2. The how tool kit. It’s super important to codify that common language and the common approach. That tool kit has to codify the tools, the framework, the platforms, that’s needed to ensure you are fit for today and the future. 

  3. Crafting the pitch, crafting that story to ensure there’s buy in and support from the organisation. 



We’ve got a good line up for the next one where we’re actually starting to think about that team. Starting to think about who you need as your wing person, assessing potential, how do you  assess potential? How do you take risks on those that you are recruiting? When you see a spark but not necessarily that finished product and also, how do you promote diversity in order to improve that diversity of ideas? So, we’re going to be very much focused on that building of a team and who should be that first hire that you make. And that will again apply if you’re a digital marketing manager with a budget for a new exec, or a new assistant or a new entrepreneur thinking about right, who’s going to be my new partner in crime?






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