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Surgery is no joke. I get that. But when I found myself confined to quarters for a couple of weeks last year while recovering from (completely scheduled and non-life-threatening) hip surgery, I couldn’t immediately work out why. After all, I’m just a copywriter. My day job really doesn’t require much action from the waist down. Still, I wasn’t about to look at a few weeks off work, say “No thanks” and hand it back, was I?

Losing interest in your work is the start of a slippery slope.

Losing interest in your work is the start of a slippery slope.

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And that was the problem. Work had become an optional extra for me. I struggled to recall the last time I just couldn’t be bothered going there and doing that. Sure, there are plenty of times when work is really inconvenient (like when the swell is running, or your kids want to go for a ride or the love of your life has plans to take you out to dinner), but that’s different. I had arrived at a place (and it was a new place for me) where work wasn’t holding my attention. Trouble was, I had spent so long giving all my attention to the job that, when it wasn’t reciprocating, I felt a bit lost. I’d forgotten to build something that was, creatively, just for me.

“If you really are a writer, you really should write”

That there was the voice of the love of my life. I was hoping she was going to invite me out for dinner, but she was telling me that while I was on my literal arse, recovering from surgery, it was the perfect time to get off my metaphorical arse and start writing that book. This is not the book that I was always threatening to write. This is the book that I had given up even bothering to threaten to write. It had been so long, I had forgotten it was the thing I really wanted to do all along. Crazy, huh? Truthfully, I hadn’t forgotten, I’d just constructed an elaborate excuse: I’m an advertising copywriter, when you boil it right down and so I had (mistakenly) assumed writing fiction was fundamentally the same as my day job. Why would I want to come home from a day of writing to do more writing? Now that I wasn’t writing all day at work, the excuse didn’t hold much water.

“Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.”

 

Rojak, Singapore, fiction

Looking for more words to read?

That’s one of Zadie Smith’s 10 tips for writing and there are times when it makes sense. For me, however, the internet helped me find The Singapore Writers Group and also online fiction writing courses offered by Gotham Writers Workshop and UCLA Extension writers’ program. All three of these gave me the structure that simply steamrollered any ennui or procrastination or fear that might have been lurking at the heart of my inability to write anything other than marketing copy or powerpoint decks. Once you sign up to come to a meetup or be part of a class, the commitment starts to drive you. It’s a task like any other and, provided laziness is not your issue, you find yourself automatically responding. You do the work.

It’s been about a year since I limped out of hospital and now my side project is starting to bear fruit. The first visible sign is my contribution to a book called Rojak: Short Stories from The Singapore Writers Group. Inspired by a gift given to the group by award-winning New Zealand author Andrew Fiu, we’ve written, edited, designed and now published the group’s first annual short story anthology. My story contribution is titled New Guinea Gold, in which a student lets his ambitious girlfriend talk him into smuggling guns and drugs. Rojak became available this week on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle editions.

Also coming out in a few weeks is another short story, this time in Cuttings, which bills itself as an interactive journal of new Australian writing. Available only on iPad, it takes a more inclusive approach to writing by pairing the words with photography, sound and animation. Issue One was as much fun to navigate as it was to read. My story submission included images and time-lapse film created by friend and amazing photographer Martin Ollman. His side project is now his vocation but, with images this good, you’d have to call it a calling.

 

Martin Ollman has a knack for finding otherwordly images literally beneath your feet.

Martin Ollman has a knack for finding otherworldly images literally beneath your feet.

 

I also dabbled with a startup, inspired by a collaboration that occurred in the UCLA writing class I was taking, that aimed to match genre fiction writers with specific experts from certain technical fields. Crime writers could get anecdotes and procedures from a street cop, for example. Historical fiction writers could find professors, erotic novelists could find BDSM mistresses and so on. The service was slated to be called The Fictional Bureau of Investigation and would begin as a simple matching service, progressing all the way to full-blown for-fee manuscript reviews. In between the difficulties of remote managing web development and the growing importance of my own actual writing, I put this project on hold. Besides, you can probably find what you need on Quora or LinkedIn, if you’re willing to put in the effort.

A novel idea.

My ‘real’ side project is a novel of contemporary literary fiction. The idea for it kind of snuck up on me and tapped me on my shoulder while I was exploring these side projects and looking for ways to bring the energy back to my profession. As of this writing, I am midway through the second draft, having spent a fair bit of time studying the art of story structure. I won’t give you the synopsis just yet, except to say the pitch is “Twighlight Zone for the sharing economy”. I am currently looking for serious beta readers for a round of feedback and constructive criticism. If you’d like to offer your time and energy to help me with this side project, I’d love to hear from you.

 What she said

I came to it late, but I revisited Tina Roth Eisenberg’s talk a couple of years back about “The importance of side projects”. Her advice boils down to: Love what you do. Don’t be a complainer. Trust your intuition. If an opportunity scares you, take it. Find like-minded people. Collaborate. Ignore haters. Inspire others with what you do. I feel reassured that I’m following most of this advice as I pursue writing in a setting outside of advertising.

And it’s working. These various project kept me creatively alive and engaged, driven and interested in the world around me while I walked through a fairly unsatisfying mid-career valley. I realised that I had outsourced ‘creative satisfaction’ to my career for (what is now very clear to me) far too long. I also realised that no one is managing your career except you, so if you aren’t doing it, no-one is. I’ve brought the craft of writing back into the office and am currently working on some new training and facilitation programs that help teams build genuinely engaging Branded Stories and to uncover the possibilities of Data Storytelling.

Which is a roundabout way of saying this post marks my last day with Ogilvy & Mather, my last day working on the IBM account and my last day working in Singapore. All three of these things have been important to me (and they’ve occupied 13, 6 and 2 years of my life respectively), but they are not important enough to allow you to forget what it is that you love doing.

I love writing, communicating and persuading. Now that I’m back in the groove, I’m looking forward to new challenges, in new locations, with new partners.

 

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About the Author: Barrie Seppings blogs about making things better – for clients, brands, agencies and humans. He was recently Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore and he likes boards surf, skate and snow. Follow him on the Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+

About the images: all photographs used with the permission of Martin Ollman Photography. Contact Martin directly for rights and commissions.

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Some people call them brainstorms. Some call them ‘Ideation sessions’. Still others call them “a complete waste of time”. Whatever you call it, the act of getting two or more people together in a room to think on the outside of their heads is almost certainly going to happen to you.

So you might as well set it up for success by following these 5 simple rules I was lucky enough to learn from the SXSW panel “Turning a blank page into a great idea”:

1. Get the numbers right.

You often can’t control how many people are going to be in a session, but if you can, keep it around the dozen mark – then plus or minus one. Odd numbers create a more natural sense of dynamism, which is crucial if you want progress. Dealing with large numbers? Break the room up into ‘cafe groups’. Y’know, a natural number of people you might see around one table in a cafe.

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brainstorm, creativity, ides

Brainstorms are often an exercise in random creativity. they shouldn’t be

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2. Get your timing right.

Below two hours is rarely enough time to establish group dynamics, wade through all the obvious ‘first idea’ responses and start generating fresh thinking – maybe even with some consensus. Beyond three hours, people get bored and, even worse, distracted by FOMO*.

3. Do your homework.

Group idea sessions don’t (generally) occur for  no reason. There should be research, background material, competitive analysis** and, if you’re really lucky, a brief. Read them all. Understand them. Then, summarise everything you’ve learned (plus some of your own research) to a series of sketches (not slides) and have them on the wall before you start.

4. Start as you mean to continue.

Don’t wander through introductions or meander through the brief, kick the session off with a short, impactful and creative intro. It could be as simple as a clip from YouTube or a quick game or quiz – but make sure it is at least tangentially related to the topic at hand. Put some thought and effort into your opener and you’ll communicate your expectations: thought and effort from your participants.

5. Pass the mic (or the marker).

Ask your participants to describe their idea, or problem or example (or whatever they are trying to express) as a sketch, without words. You’ll force them to think clearly about what they are trying to express, because they’ll want to boil it down to a simple a picture as possible. It’s also a good leveler: seniority and politics get replaced by drawing skill.

 

These 5 tips were distilled from the SXSW Panel: “Turning a blank page into a great idea”, presented by Edelman Strategist and Ideator JB Hopkins along with New Yorker cartoonist Matt Diffee, who also revealed his 5 simple ways to improve an idea.

 

* Fear Of Missing Out. It’s why you check your mobile phone Every. Thirty. Goddamn. Seconds.

** I was once handed a folder marked “Competitive Anal”. It might have been an abbreviation, but I didn’t want to risk it, so I left it unopened.

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About the Author: Barrie Seppings blogs about making things better – for clients, brands, agencies and humans. He is currently Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore and he likes boards surf, skate and snow. Follow him on the Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+

About the images: all photographs used with the permission of Martin Ollman Photography. Contact Martin directly for rights and commissions.

 

“We’re not trying to be venture capitalists. We think of this simply as an extension of our educational mission.”

The New Museum in lower Manhattan applies the incubator approach to visual art.

How do you find out what your audience is thinking?

Start by thinking like a scientist.

Our recent post on the ongoing tension between global brands and local audiences prompted some requests for advice on finding and developing local insights – the sort of deep audience understanding that lets you tune a global strategy for more effective local activation.

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focus group

Focus groups: everyone acting like clowns and delivering completely random returns.

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At Ogilvy, we’ve developed a simple approach for ‘bootstrapping’ your way to local insights, one that doesn’t require the time and money of traditional audience research methods, such as the dreaded focus group. This approach was developed specifically for some of the global brands we work with here at Ogilvy, but can be easily adapted to most brands and situations.

customer insights

We call it The Relevance Engine, but that’s just a nifty title for a serve of common sense, spiced with a dash of curiosity and simmered over a little bit of actual work. Like most things in this business, it’s not rocket surgery.

The starting point is the audience – you really have to be able to at least name them before you start. It doesn’t have to be a full-blown persona (although that wouldn’t hurt), but at least some sort of pen-portrait of the audience your brand has, or the one it would like to have, in a particular market.

You can’t just shake an audience and expect an insight to fall into your lap. This is where I believe a lot of marketing-focussed ‘big data’ investments are going to go absolutely nowhere – massive systems will be constructed to collect terabytes of data without ever being asked a single pointed question.

The Relevance Engine asks you think like a scientist and requires you to be a little disciplined: you need to start with a hypothesis.

This hypothesis should relate to your audience and maybe even your brand (or at least your category) and be something that you think might be true. The hypothesis might be something likeEntrepreneurs in our market expect some form of government assistance” or “Parents in our market are very competitive about their children’s progress, but realise it is now socially unacceptable to display it.”

Once you have your hypothesis (you can call it a hunch, or an assumption, or an idea, if you like), you then use The Relevance Engine to test it, to prove it to be either true or false.

In the version we use, we place the hypothesis in the middle of a circle and then, around the edge of the circle, we have eight different categories of data that we could potentially test the hypothesis against:

1. Global Brand Guidance

This sounds contradictory, but you really should see if there’s anything in the existing or supplied materials that answers your question first. Your local market may not be as different as you first thought. The global guidance also might contain something relevant, hidden away in a support point, or an explanatory section or an appendix. First rule of research is make sure the research hasn’t already been done.

2. In-house research

This one is not always so easy to tap into, but the company behind the brand has almost certainly conducted some research around their product and the intended audience: a feasibility study, a competitive analysis, product history, category survey etc etc. If you have it, go back to it. If you don’t, ask the marketing department to share it. If they don’t have it, ask them to ask the sales people, or the product people, research people, lab, finance or whomever. A lot of global brands have dedicated research departments or teams. Find them, use them. Nothing is more compelling to a client than findings based on their own research.

3. Publishers

Do you remember back when magazines where printed on paper and when you read them, little subscription and survey cards would fall out? Publishers have always spent an enormous amount of time maintaining an intimate understanding of their readers. Digital publishers are getting even more intimate. Find a publication (print or online) that targets the same audience your brand does and then ask them about your hypothesis. If your brand has a marketing budget, I’ll bet the publication will tell you the answer over a nice lunch, which is what this industry needs more of. Seriously.

4. Channels & re-sellers

If your brand allows it’s products to be sold via other means (retail stores, affiliates, representatives, agents, re-sellers and so on), go and test your hypothesis with them. Drop in to their outlet, call them up, buy them a coffee or a beer or a steak sandwich or a bowl of noodles and have a chat. They’ll know a lot about your audience, because your audience are their customers.

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insights, science

Disclaimer: The Relevance Engine won’t turn you into an *actual* scientist (like this guy).

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5. Salespeople

Every global brand has a sales department or team or function. Whether these people sell directly to end customers (in the case of big b2b and technology brands) or to a distribution network (financial products, retail, travel, entertainment etc), they’ll also know a lot about your audience, because your audience are their commission and, therefore, the car they drive, their kid’s education, family holiday destination (you get the picture).

In many large organisations, the disfunction between sales and marketing can actually work to your advantage here: coming in as a neutral 3rd party (agency or consultant) often allows sales people to share more than they would inside the company structure. At the very least, they are usually surprised and pleased that someone is asking their opinion about a topic in which they regard themselves an expert.

6. Digital newsfeeds

Ok, so Google reader is dead. And missed. But there are alternatives, and some of them are very, very good. (Flipboard, we’re looking at you, you saucy little neo-digital-magazine-minx you) Regardless of what you use, the basic premise here is simple: ask your computer to test your hypothesis for you. Using an RSS reader of some sort, tune your digital/mobile/computing apparatus to your desired audience and hypothesis (use a few logical keywords and phrases) and have the magic of the internet stream a constant feed of articles, opinions, stories, alerts and trends past your eyeballs as you go about your daily life. Before long, something utterly relevant to your experiment is going to show up – clip it, file it. Done. Great job, internet!

7. Social Media

An increasingly increasing portion of the web is now composed entirely of people opinionating. If you can’t find your audience (and, by extension, what they’re thinking about) on social media, it is quite possible ur doin’ it wrong. Go find the prominent voices and influencers for your audience on social networks, find the groups and chatrooms and discussions, find the blog posts and tweetchats and hangouts and slideshares, and LinkedIn groups, and pinterest boards and tumblrs and webinars and oh god, I’m getting fatigued just trying to keep up with all the fabulous new ways we’ve invented for people to bloviate online. My recommendation? Quora. Go post your hypothesis there, as a question, and see what happens. Failing that, try Reddit. Feeling brave? Ask 4chan.

8. Live events

We’ve written at length about how to make live events work for brands in the digital arena but what about flipping the equation for a second: how can you use an event to listen to an audience, rather than just talk at them? You could try just going to one and listening, for a start: Walk the floors, eavesdrop. If it’s an event you have presence or permission at, try interviewing people, running a survey or getting a presenter to ask the question and get a show of hands. I’ve seen video confession booths, incentivised surveys – all sorts of stuff. One thing that’s true of all events, everyone wants to offer an opinion. Use that opportunity.

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insights, customer

Leave no stone unturned in your search for insights.
Or, you could do it the easy way.

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Tired now

That seems like a metric shit-tonne of work, right? And it would be, if you were crazy enough to interrogate all 8 data sets listed here. (There are plenty of others available, but these are the most accessible).

No need. The Relevance Engine may require a bit of discipline, but it doesn’t demand complete masochism. Just pick 3. You can even pick the 3 easiest ones if you like – although we’ve designed the whole thing to be relatively easy to complete from your desk with just a couple of afternoon’s worth of work (even less if you delegate).

The results are in

What does a successful ‘scientific result’ look like? I’d say 2 confirmations from 3 different sources is a positive: take a few choice quotes & a handful of stats, put them into a nicely-laid-out ‘research deck’ and hey presto: local insights, backed by science. Any global team worth it’s salt will allow a local team to pursue a genuine insight if they’ve done their homework.

Now take your local insight, turn it into a value proposition (if you need help doing this part, you can get it here), put it in a brief and off you go: you’re got most of everything you need to create locally relevant work for your globally-powerful brand.

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About the Author: Barrie Seppings blogs about making things better – for clients, brands, agencies and humans. He is currently Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore and he likes boards surf, skate and snow. Follow him on the Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+

About the images: all photographs used with the permission of Martin Ollman Photography. Contact Martin directly for rights and commissions.

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If you’re in the market for some bad ideas, you could do a lot worse than get your colleagues together and announce a brainstorm. The very mention of the word seems to elicit one of two distinct responses: dread from those who have work they want to be doing and secret delight from those who are desperate for any reason to avoid doing whatever it is they were actually supposed to be doing.

Oh, there is a third reaction: mock outrage that someone would use the word ‘brainstorm’, as it is so obviously a term that offends people with epilepsy. These people then offer up a few alternative terms (Thought shower. Ideation. Ideating), all of which make me want to go and do a bit of vomitating. Not just because these are ridiculous, made-up words, but also because it is unnecessary. There’s actually nothing wrong with the word ‘brainstorm’ – and this is coming from epileptic sufferers themselves.

brainstorm, creativity

Brainstorms: plenty of heat and light, but no velocity.

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Brainstorming may not be a bad word to say, but it is generally a bad thing to do. Plenty of research has debunked its effectiveness, so why is it looked upon so favourably by those in business? And looked on so suspiciously by those (myself included) who are actually in the professional ‘coming up with ideas’ business?

I’m not morally opposed to collaborative thinking, it’s just that traditional brainstorms tend to cling to one of the the biggest fallacies ever perpetuated in the creativity game:

“there’s no such thing as a bad idea.”

I’m here to call bullshit on that one. There are actually plenty of things that are a bad idea: Zumba. Underwater weddings. Electing this guy. Just for starters. Speaking of politics (they don’t call me ‘Tenuous Link man’ for nothing), the main reasons bad ideas proliferate in brainstorm are politics & politeness. There’s no reliable mechanism for separating the ideas from the personalities and so you end up protecting the ideas that are associated with the most politically powerful people in the room (your boss, the client, the expensive consultant), or you spend all your time equally protecting all the equal ideas from all the equal people.

brainstorm, ideas, creativity

The point of the exercise is to find that one bright point of light.

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There are no judgements here.

And that’s the goddamn problem. Brainstorms place too much emphasis on generating ideas (and they are not even very good at that) and not enough on interrogating them, sorting the wheat from the chaff. There’s a reason it’s hard to get into advertising – you kind of have to know a little bit about what you are doing, you have to have a clue. And so it should be hard to get into a brainstorm (if you are still going to have one).  It should be populated by people who have smarts and skills and experience and a point of view. Most importantly, they should not be hesitant to express that point of view. Which is why the genuinely brilliant people I’ve worked with generally ‘choke’ in these artificial environments of ‘enforced idea equality’: asking them not to interpret and pass judgement on ideas is like asking them not to breathe.

There’s also no discipline here.

If you are still going ahead with this darned fool idea, then at least do your homework and then get everyone to do theirs. Assemble a team of thinkers and doers, with distinct specialities, plus a few generalists. Ensure the core team are familiar with each other and add in a few fresh faces, preferably with no stake in the outcome. Give them enough notice and brief them properly. Parcel out the research tasks (competitive landscape, audience insights, social listening report) and ask for succinct, 10 minute summaries to get everyone up to speed. Give people some time to think, and work, alone, then come back as a group to discuss and discard. Remember the aim is not to generate many so-so ideas, but to rally around a few great ones.

b2b, creativity, brainstorm, ideas

Without discipline and direction, brainstorms are a first class ticket to nowhere.

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Call in the Bomb Squad.

I’ve spent too many hours in too many bad brainstorms to want to keep doing this. I also believe, however, that once you cease to put in the effort to find a better alternative, you forfeit your right to complain. And I love complaining. So we’ve developed a template for tackling problems as a group and quickly arriving at new thinking that has been critically reviewed and supported.

brainstormWe call it the Bomb Squad,  because it puts the problem or opportunity in the middle of the room and surrounds it with smart people who work quickly to blow it up into a big idea. We also call it that, because it sounds like it will be politically incorrect, to someone, somewhere.

Sound a bit like regular brainstorming? Yes – if regular brainstorming involved preparation, structure and discipline. The preparation is in the pre‐work, ensuring that the room takes no longer than 30 minutes to get up to speed, and no one can derail the process with those tragic words: “we’ll have to go and find that out”. The structure is in the way the team is assembled: a carefully‐calibrated mix of youthful enthusiasm and learned wisdom, of technical insight and wide‐eyed wonder, of careful reconnaissance and daring risk taking. And the discipline comes from the squad leaders, who are charged with keeping to the schedule and building the follow‐through plan (another big failing of traditional ‘brainstorms’).

If you’d like to know more about how The Bomb Squad works (yes, we even have an instruction manual), get in touch and we’ll talk.

And if you’ve got more examples of bad ideas, tell me on twitter.

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About the Author: Barrie Seppings blogs about making things better – for clients, brands, agencies and humans. He is currently Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore and he likes boards surf, skate and snow. Follow him on the Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+

About the images: all photographs used with the permission of Martin Ollman Photography. Contact Martin directly for rights and commissions.

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Pure functionality: a studio that completely conforms to the artist

Here’s the thunderbolt from the Argentinian leg of our w2fm Sth American tour: you won’t be able to extract customer insights from your partners and channels, if their insights aren’t being listened to first.

Partners: hear them first, before you ask them to listen on your behalf.

That came through pretty clearly in a few sessions we ran in various countries recently, but it really crystalised for us as we tried to run a game of “What’s my motivation in this scene?” with a few partners who were cast in the role of customers. Sure, the language differences weren’t helping, but it became obvious the partners needed to discuss their own motivations first.

When you think about it, that’s logical. But marketing often just considers partners as just a link in the messaging chain. At best, they simply pass along the script, verbatim. At worst, they’ll let the marketing materials pile up in their inboxes like so much spam.

Because, without relevance, all massages are spam. And all humans are refining their mental spam filters every day, punting as much as they can to the junk folder in their cerebrum, trying to keep the cache clear for more important, interesting or entertaining messages. In fact, this “filtering” is getting so intense that some writers have pointed out that increased internet use is re-wiring our brains. And perhaps, not in a good way. Yes, we can process more messages faster, but at the expense of being able to concentrate on more complex, involved or even simply lengthy messages. Good news for tweets, bad news for books.

Net net: the message you are sending also has to be relevant for the messenger, or it will just get caught in the spam filter.

Another revelation from the Buenos Aires leg: I now know someone who has a patent for a robot. That does sound like rocket surgery.

We’ve been invited back to South America, to bring some w2fm thinking to a series of ‘insight and messaging’ training sessions, and it got us thinking about the importance of being relevant to your audience.

Insights are everywhere: if you know where to look.

It’s one thing to talk about relevance, but how do you work out exactly what relevance is? How will you know when you’ve found it? And what language will it be in?

As usual, we didn’t waste any time trying to come up with the answers ourselves – we just asked all of the really smart marketing, planning, creative and strategic people we knew how they go about discovering relevance.

There's a lot of good intel in the sales department - but how do marketers extract it?

Although the channels and techniques and methods varied (online listening posts; eavesdropping at conferences; buying a front-line sales guy a cup of coffee), all roads kept coming back to the audience, and a devastatingly simple process:

Step 1: Find them

Step 2: Listen

 

So we’ve collected the wisdom and put it in a framework that allows us to continue the ‘magpie approach’ of adding new twigs of information and ideas as we find them, continually building up a collection of tools and approaches to discovering relevance.

The result is The Relevance Engine and we unveiled the idea at a 2-day session in Sao Paulo, which revealed a whole bunch more “twigs” from the get-go. There was a feeling that our friends in Brasil already had access to a lot of customer insight and were ready to start combining their sources. We hit upon the idea of having a “hunch” and using the engine to collect the data to either support the hunch with facts, or find an entirely new customer insight.

I had a hunch this was lunch. I was wrong.

We’d also like it to be noted that the Paulistas are amongst the world’s most generous hosts – catering wise. It’s so much easier to facilitate a workshop wen everyone is fed and watered, so a huge thankyou goes out to the Brasil team on this score.

Already, we can see that rather than try to continually ‘develop’ and ‘refine’ The Relevance Engine as we go along, it seems more natural to allow local teams to ‘tune’ it to their local needs. Unsurprisingly, The Relevance Engine works best when it is allowed to become more relevant to the audience that is using it.

We have a couple more stops at Buenos Aires and Mexico City over the coming days, so we’ll write a little more about the engine plays out in these markets but, in the meantime, I’d like to ask you to help with some virtual performance tuning too:

“What’s your fail-safe method for discovering what is truly relevant to your audience?”

The best marketing is insight-driven marketing. But how do you generate real customer insights? Do you try and read some meaning into the data? Or, coming at it from the other direction, do you try and quantify and qualify your experiences, assumptions and “gut feel”?

Personally, I prefer the latter (creative types generally shy away from rigid formulas).

Trouble is, we generally spend our working lives far removed from the customer experience and so our impressions are generally second-hand, or based on assumptions. It’s even more problematic for agency people (yet another step removed from the sales floor) and it becomes really difficult when you’re trying to solve for a product category that bears little resemblance to your own life. What would I know about negotiating a deal on a fleet of company cars, for example?

But there are people in every marketer’s organisation that know quite a lot about what goes on in the customers’ mind: the sales guys. These guys (and I’m using the non-gender-specific version of the word ‘guys’ here) might actually be in the sales department, or they could be from a retailer, or Business Partner, reseller or some other part of the channel network – it really doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that these guys live or die (metaphorically, of course) on their ability to understand what’s motivating the customer. And that’s why we were very excitied to finally get the opportunity to put a sales guy in the hot seat of one of our most popular w2fm games here in Sydney a few days ago. “What’s My Motivation In This Scene?” is a role-playing scenario which models the influencer and decision-maker ecosystem that surrounds any significant purchase, and although we’ve trialled it a couple of times before, we’d never really been able to get the customer viewpoint properly represented.

 

Having someone from sales play the role of the customer changes the whole dynamic.

 

We knew this game had potential to unearth some fascinating insights, but we didn’t realise just how effective it is when you put a sales guy in centre stage and give them the role of playing the customer. Talk about a revelation – suddenly we get to see how they view the marketing and the messages; when they want to hear from us and when they really, really don’t; and most importantly, who they have to answer to.

The other discovery of the day was how effective a really switched-on social media expert can be, playing the role of the ‘bloggosphere’ and the ‘twitterverse’. With the help of a laptop, they can call up and analyse social media sentiment on the fly, throwing the peer-to-peer dynamic into the mix and revealing the parts of the decision-making that these channels seem to exert the most influence over.

 

Here's a twist: colleagues from Melbourne Skyped in to the role-play via video

 

Although its not the aim of a session like this, one interesting side effect was a newfound appreciation from both sides of the sales/marketing divide (and, let’s be honest, it is a divide in almost every organisation of size). It may seem so obvious that it’s hardly worth stating, but unless marketing builds programs that actually help the salesforce, and unless sales actually pick up the marketing ball and run with it, we may as well simply rely on a spreadsheet to tell us what to do.

And, as a creative type, I can confirm that’s not what I get out of bed to do every morning.

Last week was a busy one for the w2fm team: racking up both the miles and the smiles with quick visits to the Ogilvy teams in Hong Kong and Beijing.

It was the first run for the workshop outside of native English-speaking markets and so we were concerned, at first, that some of the references to advertising & culture, not to mention some of the metaphors, might not translate easily or have as much relevance. We modified a few of the obvious references (swapping Baidu for Google, for example, in Beijing) and tuned the material slightly away from the “theoretical” examples, giving more room for the local teams to identify the practical issues and goals in their markets.

And that’s where the workshops really started to hum, as we discovered that there is indeed an important job to be done translating what are often global product features into relevant local benefits.

This can really only be done by people with real local knowledge and insights into the motivation and behaviour of the immediate, front-line audience. It’s an easy thing to say – and we generally accept it to be true in marketing circles – but it was fascinating to watch these teams tease out the insights, match them to the product’s abilities and then position that as a relevant and original benefit.

We had a larger group and a little more time in Beijing, so we got to play “What’s My Motivation In This Scene?” which is quickly becoming one of my favourites – particularly for products that have a long & complex sales cycle and a relatively large group of purchase influencers. It really is proving to be a very quick way to model and understand the internal dynamics of a local market.

The other opportunity we took hold of was in running a quick training session with Ogilvy Beijing to get them up to speed on The Bomb Squad, our new strategy and ideation product.

We actually learned a lot, as well, during the delivery of this training, particularly about the role of creativity in developing strategic thinking for local markets. We’re looking forward to hearing how these sessions roll out in China.

It wasn’t all work and no play: Hong Kong and Beijing are both brilliant eating towns and we want to say thanks for the generous hospitality we were shown at some truly fabulous restaurants. As soon as we hear of some updates and results from these sessions, we’ll share them right here.