This blog is part of the ongoing interview series where we talk with marketing professionals about their career, unique perspectives on the industry and some key advice they’ve learned along the way.
Allen Adamson got his start in advertising and marketing on Madison Avenue, the epicenter of the industry in the ’70s. He joined Ogilvy & Mather at the tail end of the Mad Men Era. He’s built a career in marketing, advertising and brand communications specializing in consumer goods with some of the world’s biggest brands.
While serving as the co-founder of Metaforce, a New York-based branding consultancy, and adjunct assistant professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business, Adamson wrote a new book titled “Shift Ahead: How the Best Companies Stay Relevant.” In the book, he shares countless stories of businesses that have zigged while their competitors zagged, and shares some commonalities between them.
He sat down with me and shared the story of when he got hired at Ogilvy and three challenges that plague businesses of all shapes and sizes.
Nels: What was it like working on Madison Avenue?
Allen: When I joined Ogilvy & Mather, it was right after the Mad Men Era. It was the high-water mark of Madison Avenue because if you were at an agency like Ogilvy, you were the most important partner to most clients, whether that was American Express or an airline or a food company.
And you got to help them across a wide spectrum of problems. It wasn’t just giving them an advertising recommendation. You were helping them figure out how their entire organization could be successful and how their products could grow. We were true partners back then.
Of course, many things have changed since then. But one story I always think about is when I first got hired at Ogilvy. I had to go through eight or nine interviews to get through the screening process. Since I didn’t botch the first seven or eight, the last interview was actually with the CEO at the time, Ken Roman. He had the stereotypical Mad Men office with his big desk on one side and the coffee table area on the other.
I was ready for him to ask me about marketing strategy or what makes a good ad or what makes a bad ad. Instead, he asked me about the last book I read, the last movie I saw and the last show I went to and asked me what I thought was interesting about each.
Several years later, I was able to ask him why those questions were important. He said that, at the time, it was important for all client-facing employees at Ogilvy to be the eyes and ears for the client. It was our job to be aware of what was going on in the world and what was happening in the marketplace. He wanted people who were in touch.
Today, you can go on the internet and quickly see what’s going on and you don’t have to work too hard to figure out what’s happening. But back then, you had to go out and talk to people and see things and travel.
N: You’ve worked with companies in several different industries. What are some common marketing challenges you see many of them dealing with?
A: There are three big challenges that have been (impacting) and continue to impact large and small companies.
One is the pace of change. Lots of companies suffer from analysis paralysis. There’s no obvious answer in front of them, they keep on studying and, by the time they’re ready to act, the market has moved. So, to some extent, success today lies in figuring out what to do and getting it done fast. As I was researching for my book, “Shift Ahead,” I got to talk with some people at Facebook. Written on the walls in their office is, “Move fast and break things.” I think a culture of success today is a culture of agility and action.
Another challenge facing many of these organizations is the misconception that if they do a little of everything — a little influencer marketing, a little social media, a little content marketing — that they’re doing a good job. But if you do 10 things averagely, you’re invisible. Success comes in doing fewer things brilliantly and that’s really hard to do. Doing less today and doing it in an interesting way is much more important than checking all the marketing boxes.
The third challenge involves chasing the “shiny new object.” If you watch 7-year-olds play soccer, you’ll notice how every one of them will always be around the ball. The goalie might even chase the ball around. That’s the same thing a lot of marketers struggle with. If influencer marketing is hot, everyone is saying they’ve got to do it and crowds around it, regardless of whether or not it’s right or whether or not they’ll be any good at it. A lot of marketers tend to think that if they can win the new thing, they’re doing the right thing.
N: Your new book is called “Shift Ahead.” Talk a little bit about what that means to you and what’s in this book that might be missing in some other business books.
A: To tell people they need to change to stay relevant is not a deep insight. But it goes back to pace of change.
Back in the old days, if you were a little off course, you would go off the road a bit, but you could get back on. Today, things are changing so rapidly that, when you realize you’ve gone off course, you’re way off the road and getting back on is much more difficult.
So we did a lot of research and talked to a lot of different organizations — some big, some small, some for-profit, some nonprofit — and found that a lot of the symptoms are the same. I think of Marty Crane’s beloved chair from “Frasier”: No one wants to leave the familiar, the comfortable. For a lot of organizations, there’s a strong gravitational pull toward what’s comfortable and what’s worked before and that ends up pulling them farther and farther off course.
Another big challenge is that a LOT of companies are on cruise control. If you drive a stick shift, you’re naturally more aware of what was happening to your engine and on the road and have to be much more in touch with everything around you. If you’re driving an automatic, you just have to sort of keep an eye on the road and keep the vehicle straight. Cars are becoming much smarter and doing much more of the work, including letting you know if you’re veering out of your lane or getting too close to someone else. A lot of companies function in the same way. They’re going through the motions and are not in touch with their environment.
There are a lot of significant barriers that get in the way of businesses changing and shifting. In the book, we tell a lot of stories that illustrate why it’s so hard. But we also talk a lot about companies that have successfully shifted ahead in their market and identify some common characteristics. Most of the time, they got out of their bubble and were able to put the right pieces together. Few people have the right idea. Even fewer have the right idea at the right time and even fewer have the right idea at the right time and can execute brilliantly.
N: How do you turn good ideas and creative people into an actual business plan? How do you make the rubber meet the road?
A: The most important aspect of making the rubber meet the road has to do with focus. Identify the two or three things that will move you ahead that you know your company can win at. That involves looking at yourself, your company and how you’re organized objectively, which is a difficult thing to do.
The most famous example is Kodak. Kodak wanted to be a digital company and knew quite a bit about digital. But in their DNA, they were a chemical company. So while they knew a lot about digital, their company culture didn’t have the right elements to succeed in digital in a meaningful way. It was sort of like my wanting to play basketball at 5 feet 8 inches. No matter how much I want it, it’s just not possible.
But you can go out and get new organizational DNA. People in the toy industry went crazy when Hasbro hired Brian Goldner (a Hollywood film producer) to serve as their CEO. They thought he didn’t know anything about toys and didn’t know the difference between Monopoly and Risk. But he was able to change Hasbro’s DNA, merging toys and the entertainment industry to reimagine both in a wildly successful way.
N: What’s one content marketing concept that you see underutilized?
A: Writing is important but editing is more important.
As you know, every day there’s another mountain of content in front of users. In turn, they’re getting better at screening out what they don’t like and becoming more fickle.
Jim Michaels was the editor of Forbes for a long time and was very successful because he could look at a pile of content and find the hook. And I think that’s the challenge of content marketing. Everyone wants relevant content and you can create an algorithm to try and find what will be relevant. But it still requires both art and science (and an attentive editor) to stand out in the tsunami.
A lot of companies think that, if they write it, the users will come. But we’ve found that to be far less than accurate.
N: What advice do you have for someone thinking about a career in marketing?
A: Pick something you love to do. Because it’s a marathon, not a sprint. If you love what you do, you’ll be able to run the marathon. If you do it just because you think it will get you your first job and you’re bored with it, you’ll do it averagely.
Follow your passion most of the time, because the people who excel in business are the ones who think about their business while they’re running in the park or out for a bike ride, not just when they set their coffee down in front of their computer at nine in the morning and start checking emails.