Ad agencies are discovering products like Columbus discovered America

SPOILER ALERT: It might not end well for the natives.

Having spent more than a decade with job titles alternately containing the words “product strategy” and “customer experience,” I’m all for the sentiment behind John Willshire’s slogan: “Make Things People Want > Make People Want Things”. And when I hear this thought presented as some kind of revelation, I usually bite my tongue and smile at the zeal of the new converts to the cause.

But over the past year or two, I’ve sensed a growing momentum behind the trend for marketing agencies to engage deeply with the world of products and services, and I’ve come to the conclusion that they could actually get quite good at it.

Like the first Europeans arriving in America, agency people meet with natives, the product management community, who have a rich and complex culture but lack the fire-power or expansionary mindset to meet the challenge of the newcomers.

First the fire-power. Despite the lip-service paid to innovation and new product development, many consumer organisations routinely devote far bigger budgets to the Make People Want Things side of the equation than to Making Things People Want. There’s a reason for this – making things people want is hard, it takes time, and it depends on listening to the voice of customer, not just to the loudest voice in the boardroom.

Moreover, marketing budgets tend to be more liquid, to flow more rapidly, than budgets for product and service development. The marcomms team can blow millions on an above-the-line rocket launcher in the time it takes product development to make the business case to take a better pea-shooter to market.

So it’s little wonder that some of the most innovative things I saw in my time in telecoms came from advertising campaigns and sponsorship deals that succeeded and grew. Top of the bill would be Orange Wednesdays, a tie-up with the Cinema Exhibitors Association which brought real value to mobile customers, involving text messaging, point of sale integration and mobile app fulfilment mechanisms. By sticking at it through the tenures of multiple marketing directors, Orange UK bought itself unrivalled brand recognition in film.

Which brings us to those expansionary tendencies. The product tribe often gets tied up in knots over its “right to play” in a new or changing category. Think of all the people who sagely declared that Apple would fail if it tried to move from music players into mobile telephony. If you limit your core competences to the flat earth of your existing category, it becomes difficult to respond to customer needs just over the horizon. Not so the agencies, who tack happily from client to client and sector to sector. They can see opportunities where in-house teams may not dare to reach.

What’s more, advertising people understand, more than any other tribe, that needs do not have to be rational. In the pursuit of Making People Want Things, any fragment of culture, art or fashion is fair game. They understand that sometimes fast and different beats slow and better. While the product tribe labour methodically towards feature-based superiority, their counterparts in advertising throw so much mud at the wall that sooner or later some of it must stick.

Superior access to rapid funding, boldness in exploiting adjacencies, a willingness to try lots of stuff – all of these are supremely transferrable to the iterative, customer-centred practice of Making Things People Want.

But before they send in the smallpox-ridden blankets, the newcomers to the products world might find they need the natives to help them through the first few winters.

Making things is hard, especially things to last, things that people will find useful in their everyday lives. And often people used to marketing things underestimate this. Take the story of the Ford Key Free Login App. Ogilvy Paris thought it would be cool to accompany the launch of bluetooth vehicle unlocking with an app that stores your social networking passwords. Except that, instead of encrypting the passwords the way Lastpass or 1password do, the Ford app stored everything in an easily accessible plain text file. The app was hastily pulled.

And even when they do get the basics right, agencies soon learn that while a campaign may be just for Christmas, a product or service is for life. Only the best of them are set up to handle the on-going issues of release management, customer support and so on. If a product is created unexpectedly out of a campaign, sooner or later it needs to make the tricky transition into long-term in-life support, either in-house in the client organisation or staying within the agency but on a footing very different from the usual campaign-centric ways or working.

Product and service managers know this territory, and they know where the traps are hidden. If the newcomers from marketing-land are prepared to befriend the product natives in the new world of agile service development, they could, together, make a winning combination.

Caveat emptor

A football agent being interviewed about the negative impact of his profession on the game was asked, shouldn’t negotiating be left to the players’ union, the PFA? Well, he replied, the PFA are nice people, but they’re mostly former players, not businesspeople. If I was buying a house, I wouldn’t trust a bricklayer to do the conveyancing.

Neither would I trust and estate agent to do the wiring.

A friend of a friend bought a house which had been modernised as a speculative investment by an estate agent. All the rooms were generously supplied with power sockets, but after moving in she found that only about half of these seemed to work. When she called in an electrician to check the wiring, the truth was revealed: there was no wiring. The sockets were stuck on for show but not powered up for use.

The moral of this story? In every domain there are sellers and there are doers. Whether you’re buying a house, signing a new player or launching a high-tech product, make sure you know which of those you’re dealing with.

honest, tasty and real

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Originally uploaded by mattedgar.

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