Just in time

 Starting the day, the agile way

I’ve been thinking about this topic – how the principles of lean manufacturing could teach us something interesting about marketing – for ages, but getting nowhere with writing about it.

Little things keep reminding me I need to get on with it. Like Amelia’s discussion about getting the most passionate customers involved in the marketing of the O2 Cocoon, George Parker’s scathing rant about Ford’s decision to allow its customers to pick more colours for their cars. And the latest today (buried amongst a huge volume of excellent posts all arriving at once) from  Russell Davies’ very interesting campaign piece on taking influences from outside the advertising echo chamber – and in particular from Agile, lean’s equivalent in software engineering – to actually find new ways to think about things.

In The Machine that Changed the World – the book which originally brought some of the secrets of the Toyota Production System (TPS) to the wider world, the authors discuss sales and marketing in the US and Japanese markets from a very academic stand point, as well as starting to extrapolate out what a ‘lean’ marketing system might look like in detail. That vision, written in the late 80s, is unbelievably similar to many of the ideas that are only now being adopted in response to the dwindling effect of purchased attention – or as Seth Godin has it, the death of the TV-industrial complex.

Of course, a lot of this comes back, actually, to product development, and building the right thing in the first place.

The number one manta of the lean movement is well known: ‘reduce waste’, the number two mantra is to fix problems immediately and relentlessly. What do we actually do – let’s be honest -in marketing in the UK and America? Does this description sound totally unreasonable?: we try and take the parity product our client has given us and create a layer of desire – either from a genuine product feature or benefit, or from somewhere else if necessary, to make people want to buy it. We then interrupt what they’re doing and shout that message at them. How often do ad agencies really go back to a client and say, ‘we can’t help I’m afraid, you’re product’s just too shit’?

How would it work if we actually tried to bring the user into the deep design process of the product and it’s marketing? Of course we’re not asking them to actually design the product themselves but we must understand what they want and need; what turns them on; what seems average, run of the mill, unexciting; what they would trade for something else?

We’re already seeing that happening, through blogs, good research and straight-forward customer intimacy from a number of companies, especially those who are changing their production methodologies so that new products can be released all the time.

Here’s another thought experiment. How about we try to rebuild the methods of making advertising in a lean vein. Here’s five things I think we can all agree would have to happen immediately:

  1. There’s three people we’d include fully in the actual creative process who are currently excluded – the client, the customer (and/or research company), and the production company (or internal production staff). And we’d include them in planning too, and briefing, and production. And no, the planner can’t stand in for the customer, the account man can’t stand in for the client, and the creative director cannot ‘stand in’ for the team who will actually do the work.
  2. Have you ever worked in an ad agency and watched a campaign go wrong? What do people really do when they see that happening? Do they try and fix the problem? Or do they just remove their arse from the firing line.  The closest I’ve seen to the TPS “five whys” of tracking down and elminiating the causes of defects was a marvelous phrase Charles Vallance coined (and lived up to) at VCCP: ‘tough on whingeing and tough on the causes of whingeing’. Having said that…How many times have you worked on an advertising campaign that was a crock of shit, you knew it wouldn’t work and customers would hate it, so did everyone else, but you just kept ploughing on anyhow. I’m going to raise my hand. Be honest!One of the tenants of TPS is the that everyone on the line can stop the process and raise a concern about quality. In fact it’s encouraged. This comes through to Agile and we add to it by ensuring the code must compile every day. Imagine the agency where every member of staff – from Creative Director to courier has a big red button on their desk to hit whenever they see a horrible campaign – there would be sirens going off all day.
  3. When a campaign sails through research, is that good or bad for the research company, is it good or bad for the ad agency, is it good or bad for the client? So often we have secret communities of interest – or more importantly disinterest – within the groups working on an ad. That’s how we end up with the compromise agreements that fill our screens. In order for us to do the best work, we need joint responsibility for the overall output. This is what Womack et all (MTCTW) refer to as setting targets “one stage up”, and would essentially tie all agencies fortunes to the success of the ad itself.
  4. There should be flexibility, within agencies for staff to move between roles. We’ve all met creatives who are ex-planners or planners who are ex -creatives and we know how well this can work. In terms of team responsibility, does the most experienced member of the team lead, facilitate or get to make all the decisions. There is a role for management in lean to simply enable staff, rather than have to constantly review and overpower their input.
  5. Finally and I suspect the only thing that ad agencies will like out of what I’ve just said, is the question of how should the client pay. On results? On time and materials?, as a fixed price?, On the value of the ideas?This is the hardest bit. And that’s because it’s the bit where ad agencies have spent the longest trying to re-invent the relationship in their favor. The truth, I suspect, is that if we could remove the fairy-dust approach most agencies strive for in the creative departments, and work really hard to help the clients understand what happens to get their campaigns done, and to get them right, clients would be happier to cough up for what that should really cost.It’s a real cost of their business after all. But the situation we’ve got ourselves in is exactly the same as the adversarial situation mass-production car companies have found with their downstream suppliers (like the gearbox makers).Procurement departments won’t pay for any product investment or insight, so suppliers (the agencies) spend their entire time concealing their real costs in production, or the creative development.

    Just because some agencies will say they’re giving away the creative for free doesn’t mean procurement departments should buy it, and a low theoretical margin within a suppler is not always the best business choice.

    Part of the point about payment is the question of what the relationship between clients and advertising agencies should look like. For so long as clients or agencies prioritize things that don’t matter to the customer (I mean awards, but there are all sorts of things that can creep into the relationship), that relationship will fail. And it mustn’t be carefree either. It should be consistently transparent how things are going and if mistakes are made. But that won’t happen when there’s always the threat of the client switching agency over an immediate short-term issue. And, if the client does find a problem in their relationship with the agency, they should be able to help get it fixed by working together on the detail, not just switching to a new supplier. In TPS, senior supplier team members are regularly co-opted into product development teams of the assembler. Couldn’t something similar usefully happen in the marketing world. Similarly, senior assembler team members are sent to increase understanding and efficiencies in the supplier. Would that really be any bad thing?

There’s a lot in those five points, and I’m sure there are hundreds more ideas that could be borrowed from the lean movement in the marketing and creative service sectors, as well of course in the actual marketing departments of client firms. But it will be incredibly difficult for  an agency to really embrace these ideas in these most traditional of worlds? It’s a shame, because it’s about time.