Marcel and AI – the future of agencies?

First up, a couple of disclaimers. I used to work at Publicis some years ago, and still have some extremely fond memories of the place and the people. And secondly, what I know about Marcel so far, the AI system Publicis has just announced it’ll be spending all its award entry and sponsorship money on for the next year, is what’s publicly available.

Still, from what I can see, the majority of the reaction to Marcel has centred on the likely impact that missing out on awards might have on the motivation of creatives across the business. If they aren’t going to be recognised by winning awards, how can they judge their success, so the argument goes. Marcel is described by Publicis as a ‘professional assistant system’, which will incorporate detailed profiles of every member of staff in order to pull together teams to address specific client needs, the idea being that staff can ‘bid’ to be involved in client briefs.

Hmm. Let’s just take another look at that, shall we? Whilst it’s heralded as a natural next step in delivering the “Power Of One” approach that has supposedly done away with individual P&Ls to facilitate cross-company working (tell that to the poor souls presenting quarterly numbers for which they are being held accountable by the way), in my opinion the real promise that Marcel makes is to remove the need for managing directors and business unit leaders altogether. Well, if you have the technology to match people to opportunities across geographies, time zones and markets, what’s the point of having managing directors to manage those people? If the promise of the work itself is strong enough, one presumes, there will be no need for traditional leadership of any kind.

It kind of fits, though, with what’s happening across the communications business as a whole. The exodus of mid-level and more experienced account handlers from the PR and medcomms business continues as people walk away from the always-on demands of agency roles to freelance. They don’t seem too bothered about any lack of personal development or growth opportunities, in fact some see not having to participate in company-led initiatives as an advantage. Loose collectives or groupings of freelancers happy to work together on projects directly with clients are springing up all over the place, as our work becomes increasingly commoditised.  It becomes about the ‘stuff’ we deliver rather than the value of the thought behind it.  To be fair though, talented creatives and planners have long been able to name their price in the freelance market, picking and choosing the work they want to do and the hours they want to work.

The days when clients relied on agencies as their institutional memories are rapidly disappearing, as the value of long-term relationships is continually degraded. In the race to cut costs, most agencies now have to repitch regularly even when the client is happy, because that’s what procurement requires. The influence of procurement on agency selection increasingly forces marketers to view all creative agencies as much the same, and the only way to differentiate between services becomes about chemistry and teams rather than the ability to do the work to a higher standard or think differently.

What Marcel offers, in my view, is the opportunity to remove even that differentiation. It promises to use predictive technology to match talent with client briefs, wherever it’s located. The problem for me is about seeing ‘talent’ (or as I like to call them, people) simply as a series of building blocks, albeit with varying characteristics, rather than in all their rich diversity. Amongst other things, this limited view provides procurement with the opportunity to more clearly specify which blocks it wants to buy, at what price. So, I foresee a future where procurement will specify the use of x hours of y shaped talent at z price (not that different from what happens now), and the beauty of individual creativity will be lost in translation. If you’re a freelancer, you’ll be forced to fit into that mould too, whether you’re under the radar or not.

And if you don’t fit those specifications, if your creativity isn’t quite the right ‘shape’, or if you need a different kind of opportunity to grow your skillset, well that’s tough because there won’t be a manager or a leader in place who gets you and is willing to fight your corner.  In the race for flexibility, we are at grave risk of losing our individuality, the ability to engage with and support real creativity that’s different and chafes at being put in boxes.  Winning awards is often the result of creating environments that nurture difference, that encourage creativity and enable people to be themselves.  You can’t wish winning teams into existence just by picking people from all over the world and shoving them together to answer a brief, they need leadership and support, and technology alone won’t deliver that.

Maybe I’m wrong, hopefully I am, but my worry is that Marcel heralds a future where the importance of the individual contributor within agencies becomes meaningless, certainly from an account handling and management perspective. And once this AI system has got enough data on board about what makes a successful campaign, how long will the individual creative be safe? Whatever happens we can’t get this particular genie back in the bottle, because where Publicis leads, others will almost certainly follow.  In ten years time, perhaps the hottest shops on the block will be agencies that offer a return to ‘old school’ working, with teams all together in one place rather than scattered to the winds.   What do you think?

Fake It Until You Make It

I’ve read quite a few articles recently about Imposter Syndrome, something that apparently many women in particular suffer from. The theory is that regardless of how successful you are, on the inside you regard yourself as something of a fraud – even though to the outside world you seem to be a high-flyer.  It is rooted in low self-esteem, and it can get worse the more successful you become, and the more you mix with other talented individuals.

It’s all about comparing yourself with others and finding yourself wanting – not a pleasant place to be.  Instead of being able to accept that you might, just possibly, be good at what you do, Imposter Syndrome means that you tell yourself that no matter what you achieve, those achievements are somehow fraudulent compared to those of others.

Well, I’d like to propose a different approach. How about, instead of deciding you’re successful despite your shortcomings, why not just decide to be successful and then worry about whether or not you deserve to be afterwards. In short, I’m recommending the “Fake it until you Make it” approach. Act as if you are already a winner, already on the path to success and soon enough you probably will be.

Last year I went to a masterclass on how to write a bestseller, run by The Guardian. One of the speakers was Clare Mackintosh, whose first novel “I Let You Go” hit the bestseller lists right off the bat. I’m over simplifying this, obviously, but she talked about how she’d essentially just “decided” that she was going to be a writer, quit her job and then got herself work as a freelance journalist by telling editors that she was already working as a freelance.  What Clare did was to become a writer through the power of living a writer’s life, rather than wait for someone else to tell her that she was one.  I found her really inspiring because of the clarity of her vision and the decisiveness of the actions she took. Also, her books are incredibly well written and definitely worth reading.

When my business partner and I set up our own communications agency, we didn’t agonise for months about whether or not we would be successful, we got stuck in and acted as though we were already there. That confidence meant that clients were able to trust that we’d deliver, right from the off and I am sure was a huge part of our ultimate success. We used to talk about it being our “field of dreams” strategy – you know, if you build it, they will come (and they did…).

I know this sounds obvious, but if you’re feeling like an imposter, try not to give in to the self-doubt. When you’re not feeling confident, try acting as though you are until you’ve developed the skills and tools you need for that confidence to be real.  You’d be surprised how quickly that can happen.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that we are all of us to one extent or another playing roles that we feel are expected of us, so spend your energy making sure you’re performing with confidence instead of agonising about what others might think.  It’s like wearing a dress that you secretly think is a bit too short. Style it out and nobody will know that you’re worried it’s too short, they’ll just be wowed by how fabulous you look.

Writing Awards Entries? A Few Pointers

It’s Monday March 6th, and I’m willing to guess that in many healthcare communications businesses, minds are being concentrated on final drafts of Communiqué Awards entries. Given that there are only a few days to go before the deadline (9 March, with a late entry deadline of 16 March in case you’re really struggling to get them written), that seems reasonable. As the Chair of the Judges for the 2017 Communiqué Awards, I thought I’d share a few pointers based on my experience both as an entrant and as a judge. Hopefully these will also apply for other awards schemes.

Probably the first and most important thing to do is to follow the entry guidelines – because they are designed to help the judges to make fair comparisons between work which can vary hugely in scope, budget and approach. We score against the criteria which are provided to you, so make sure you’re giving us something to judge you on against each one that’s listed.

Do remember that each judge is reviewing entries on top of their day job, often after a long day in the office or over a weekend, so make it easy for us to spot what’s great about the work you’re submitting. Think carefully about layout. Consider using tables to show how you met your objectives (which must be SMART) and make sure you are clear in your own mind about the difference between objectives, strategy and tactics. Yes, I know that sounds really obvious, but you’d be surprised…

Tell us a story – the best award entries aren’t just a collection of facts and figures, they bring the work to life, giving context, colour and texture to the work. If you encountered significant challenges along the way, tell us about them and how you overcame them. Likewise, if serendipity played a part then acknowledge it. For example, many years ago, a well-known author spotted an article off the back of a campaign we’d run about access to funding for a new cancer drug, got in touch and offered to pay for a course of treatment for a particular patient, which then resulted in another huge tranche of press coverage. Yes, we (and much more importantly, the patient) were lucky, but it was award-winning because we knew how to effectively maximise that unexpected opportunity.

Get a fresh pair of eyes on your entry, preferably someone who wasn’t involved in the campaign. They will invariably spot something you’ve missed – perhaps a question they ask will highlight something you’ve failed to include that might be the one thing which makes a judge realise how great the work is. Make sure that you’ve checked with the client that they’re happy with what you’re going to say – and that where their own internal process require it, your entry has been ABPI approved. Bear in mind that the executive summary will be in the public domain, and that all the judges sign strict confidentiality agreements before they see a single entry.

Write, edit, rewrite, repeat.  The process of writing should always be an iterative one, and award entries in particular really benefit from this approach. Your first draft will always be too long, the sentences too wordy and the narrative somewhat jumbled (in my experience anyway) – but at least you’ve got the salient facts down on paper. As you refine it, you’ll add information you’ve forgotten, take out what’s superfluous and hopefully, hone your language so that it’s crisp and clear. Remember, your goal is to make it easy for the judges to love your work.

Finally, be honest with yourself about why you think your work should win an award. Sometimes it’s because it’s an exemplar of its kind – a well put-together, well-executed programme that achieves solid results, and there are campaigns like that which (deservedly) win every year. Don’t rule something out just because it’s not earth-shatteringly innovative – but do think hard about how the work justifies its place in an awards programme.  And if you have got something that you think’s really new, tell us why it’s different and why that should matter to the judges.

Last but not least, focus your efforts on that two-page entry, because if it doesn’t tell the judges why the work is a winner, all of the supporting materials in the world won’t make a blind bit of difference. Don’t hold anything back on the basis we’ll be wowed when we see it on judging day – it helps to have a great backup package, but it’s your two-pager that has to do the heavy lifting.

Good luck!

How blue was your Monday?

Apparently, according to an equation dreamt up by Dr Cliff Arnall in 2005, the third Monday in January  is the gloomiest day of the year, based on factors such as the weather, time since Christmas, credit card bills and – well – the fact that it’s the third Monday in January. Well, I hate to buck the trend but I’m feeling quite perky as it happens.

On Saturday I spent my morning at a Guardian Masterclass on “How to Get Your Novel Published.” The course leaders were publisher Suzie Dooré and literary agent Ed Wilson. Amongst the many pearls of wisdom they shared were two that stood out for me because they were a) blindingly obviously and b) often forgotten. First of all – if you’re looking for an agent, treat it like a business (which means do your research and be professional in your approach to the search and how you engage with potential agents.) So OK, when I’ve finished the book, I’ll get right on it. And secondly – persevere. Many novelists don’t get their first book published, but writing is like any skill, it needs practice, so keep at it.

Right now, the pace of our lives, fuelled by social media and the instant gratification it provides is so fast that it’s easy to forget the importance of learning through practice, and how repetition in and of itself brings greater understanding and skill.  The shock of the new is always attractive, but don’t forget that experience brings its own benefits.  When it comes to writing a novel, nothing beats practice – those hours spent working on the words, writing, editing and honing sentences until they say what you really need them to say.  Of course, the same is true about anything worthwhile, whether you’re an athlete, a musician, a creative director, a designer or a medical writer.

Ed and Suzie’s words resonated with me so strongly because during my career so far in healthcare communications I must have written hundreds of press releases and developed similar numbers of presentations. I’ve read and analysed spreadsheets and profit & loss accounts until my eyes have crossed. I’ve attended more international medical and scientific conferences than I care to remember, along with running press events, advisory board meetings and strategic brainstorms. Over the years I’ve come up with ideas and programmes to address countless challenges for clients, and there are still new things to learn and think through.  I’ve been successful so far, I think, because I’ve kept learning and kept practising my craft, building and honing my skills.

So, today may be the third Monday in January, and I may indeed have spent my day doing more of the things that I have been doing, work-wise, for many years, but I’m not bored and I’m not gloomy.   There will always be something new that challenges you – whether it’s teaching a more junior colleague the ropes onsite at a symposium, or the client who suddenly opts to go a different route creatively than the one you’d originally envisaged. Use those moments to re-inspire and re-motivate yourself by taking the learning from them to power you through. Persevere. Stay perky. Say No to Blue Monday (or Tuesday or Wednesday…you get the picture).

Where’s your plan for you?

Last week’s post on looking after yourself in the workplace got quite a number of responses, and it got me thinking about what else we should be doing as leaders for ourselves, not just for the people who work with us.

How many of us, for example, have ever really made an investment in our own careers, outside of what’s provided for us by the organisations we work for? Not many I suspect. How many of us have looked at courses and seminars and thought how useful they would be for a member of our team, instead of considering whether it would be good learning for us to attend instead? Sometimes we become so blinkered that our focus ends up being all about supporting our teams in their professional development rather than looking inwards to see how we can develop. And if you think about it, investing in our own development can only ultimately benefit those who look to us to lead, mentor and help them build their careers.

I think it’s partly bred into us, this view of ourselves as supporting others rather than looking at what we personally need to help us achieve our potential, but also perhaps a little learned helplessness where we rely solely on the companies we work for to spot what we need and supply it, rather than ourselves. Does it feel a little like rejection or disloyalty to say “no, what I would really like is…x”, I wonder?  Last but not least, for some people there’s a reluctance or an inability (we all have mouths to feed) to invest in ourselves, feeling that it truly is the responsibility of the organisations we are employed by to help us to develop.

Like most things in life, we probably need a little bit of everything when it comes to professional development. Many agencies and agency networks, large and small, have excellent professional development programmes available to people at all stages of their careers and it would be wrong not to take up what is so readily offered.  As an entrepreneur building my business (before acquisition) I didn’t realise how much I had missed out on that kind of professional development, so I commend it – just not as the only tool to help you grow your skills.

A number of forward-looking companies provide leadership and business coaches, also incredibly worthwhile, although some people feel uncomfortable that the coach is retained by their employer. To be fair, it would be highly unprofessional for a coach to share anything that they hadn’t discussed and agreed with you first, but if you’re worried about that, see if you can find your own coach outside of the business. You might be surprised that it isn’t as expensive as you think, and we all benefit from a sounding board whether company provided or not.

Reading widely helps. I don’t just mean subscribing to your industry journal, I mean going beyond it to things like the Harvard Business Review as well as keeping an eye out for books about business that might challenge your thinking.  Setting aside a small budget for business subscriptions and books each year isn’t going to be a huge investment and you can share them with your senior teams too, to help broaden everybody’s thinking.

And when you’re looking at conference attendances, don’t neglect your own learning – you might be surprised what you pick up if you go beyond conferences closely linked to your own business sector. As an example, some years ago I went to a one-day course run by John Seddon based around the manufacturing industry and focused on the benefits of moving away from the traditional “command and control” way of managing businesses and towards a systems-thinking model. It had a profound effect on how I operated as a leader and yet it had absolutely nothing to do with healthcare communications, running agencies or the pharmaceutical industry.

The jobs we do are not easy, they can be all-encompassing so we owe it to ourselves to make sure we’re developing our own skills to the max in order to operate at the highest level we’re capable of. You know what I’m going to say, don’t you (said the quizzical chicken in this week’s photo)? Take a clear look at your plans for the next year – now’s the time for budget-setting after all – and make sure there’s enough room in there for some professional development for you alongside whatever you’ve got planned for your people. Let me know how it goes.


The race is never done

As I write, Britain’s team of athletes sit second in the Olympics league table, and their achievements speak for themselves. Simply competing in the Olympics marks them out as the sporting elite and to win is the pinnacle of many years of hard work, physical and mental, so it’s not surprising that stepping onto the podium to finally clutch that hard earned medal is an emotional moment.

When we were opening our office in New York, one of the candidates in the running to head up our US business was an Olympic gold medal winner. He had great experience, but the fact that he’d won in an elite sporting competition – really ‘the’ elite sporting competition gave him real cachet. You see, it’s not so much the physical achievement as the mental toughness that’s so attractive. In order to compete and win at that level, people need to have an intense focus and incredible drive – you have to really believe you can do it. Look at Mo Farah – he fell over in his 10,000 metres race, but he got up, got going and won the race – and, as he said to reporters afterwards “I was asking myself: Is the race done? Is the race done? I thought: ‘No, I’ve worked too hard for this’.”

In business, there are always times when you fall over, always times when you don’t win the pitch you really wanted to win, when revenue isn’t where it needs to be, or you don’t manage to hire the candidate you thought would be the absolute key to turning the company around.  When the chips are down, it’s all too easy to feel sorry for yourself, especially when it feels as though everything’s out of control. It wasn’t Mo Farah’s fault that he tripped, but instead of focusing on where he went wrong, what he did was to dig deep and focus on where he wanted to be, not where he’d come from.

Analysing your mistakes is important so you can learn from them and, hopefully, you won’t make the same mistake again. Getting stuck in a loop berating yourself about them is different, so after a proper analysis, move on and take the learnings with you and leave the self-blame behind.  The thing that makes truly successful businesspeople (and entrepreneurs) is an ability to bounce back, learn from failure and move forward without compromising their appetite for risk, or indeed their self-belief.

If you don’t believe in yourself and your ability to win, nobody else will do it for you. By all means find a good coach and/or mentor to help you cross the minefield, but you’re the one who has to keep putting one foot after the other. When Mo Farah was out on the track picking himself up there was only one person who could help him get to the finishing line, so he told himself the race wasn’t done.  Be inspired by his example when times are tough. The race is never done.