I recall a friend saying that what impressed him about Madonna was that she kept reinventing herself. In fact if she were a product then she’d be at about version 6.2 by my reckoning. In other words she has evolved herself from her roots as a brash, attention seeking pop star to become someone grown ups can enjoy. In business you tend not see people reinventing themselves in such obvious ways but it’s clear when you study the careers of the really successful that they too will go through a series of upgrades. Take Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, two of the most successful tech leaders in history. Bill Gates was a hard-nosed, often rude but brilliant leader at Microsoft. He, however, had enough vision to realize that he needed to get out of the company and use his talents and wealth for bigger and better challenges facing the world. His persona has softened as he deals with achieving goals that are more humanitarian in nature but is energy and brilliance remain very evident. Jobs meanwhile, has been the ultimate comeback kid. He founded Apple and made enough enemies to get fired. But he learned from his mistakes and has produced the text book turnaround story, making Apple the second most valuable company in the world behind Exxon.
So how do we know if we are stuck at version 1.3 or that we’ve managed to evolve to version 4.2? For that matter, how do we know if version 4.2 is any good and that we should have stuck with version 3.7? Sadly we don’t keep track of human evolution in the same way computer software engineers do but there are some obvious signs and here’s my stab at what they may be:
1. Are you still trying to solve the same business challenges you were when you started your career?
2. Are you still offering the same solutions to business challenges you were a year ago?
3. Has your (work) network remained pretty much constant for the last three years?
4. Are you in complete control of your job or are there significant parts that scare you?
5. Do you still have (give or take some grey hairs) the same hairstyle you had five years ago?
If you answered ‘yes’ to most, if not all of the above then you are likely in need of an upgrade. Why the hairstyle question? I admit it’s a little silly and I don’t really care what people look like but have you noticed how people suddenly get stuck with a certain look? You often see old men with the same hairstyle and dress sense they had twenty years earlier. For some it works but many it doesn’t. The way we look is just packaging but we all know that good packaging sells. Now of course there are products that reach an optimal version and shouldn’t be messed with. Take musicians such as Elton John. If you went to one of his concerts and he played nothing but new material you’d likely be disappointed. However, if he plays all his (old) hits then assuming you’re a fan you’d love it. In other words don’t mess with a great product. Most of us are not likely to be the next Elton John, however, and could likely use at least a minor, if not major, upgrade. So, it’s a new year, why not plot out a product road map for… you.
PR agencies have been people businesses for as long as I can remember. Yet the emergence of digital has created the opportunity for these same agencies to start selling ‘technology based solutions’ (an overused phrase I know). These ‘solutions’ cover areas such as analytics, blogs, email marketing, micro site development… the list goes on. Most agencies outsource this development to… developers. This is largely because most agency heads can write a press release or a blog but wouldn’t have a clue about how to write code. Many agencies can see that if they want to get away from an hourly business model they need to sell technology IP and ideally IP that can be resold to many clients without much additional development effort. Again, though, most agencies simply don’t have the skills in house to develop the technology, or even the skills to effectively manage the development of technology. In other words, if agencies really do want to sell ‘technology solutions’ they are going to have to start hiring developers AND people capable of managing these people. If this happens the idea of a PR agency have a CTO (chief technology officer) that is client facing will become commonplace. Does your agency have a CTO? Should it?
In the last few years, PR people have rightly stopped talking about stories and started talking about conversations. The idea being that brands can start or join conversations that their customers are interested in, or are already having. They can do this by contributing news, perspective, insight and raw content. This shift is both important to the way PR is carried out and to the role it plays in the marketing process. It opens new doors and new budgets for an industry that has long believed it deserves a bigger slice of the marketing pie. But I’d like to remind PR people about something advertisers have known for a long time. Getting our attention doesn’t necessarily mean engaging in a conversation with us. My daughter’s laptop can often get her attention without any information being exchanged. She simply enjoys watching entertaining content, or playing some mindless game. She is no different from any of us in this respect. We all have parts to our day when we simply want someone to take over our brains and let us escape. Advertisers have figured this out to the extent that during some computer games, such as a car racing game, you will see billboards advertising products. They recognize that the brands that ‘sponsor’ escapism are as important as the brands that sponsor educating us about the important issues of the day or the decisions we have to make.
Now the idea of creating content that helps people escape isn’t something you hear a lot in PR meetings. PR meetings tend to be all about getting the message across in an increasingly noisy market. But what if you created content such as a game or a video that was just so darned entertaining that people WANTED to watch it AND they knew your brand had sponsored this little mental vacation? Wouldn’t that be just as powerful as that major news item you were hoping to get someone to blog about? I’m not for a minute suggesting that we all ditch conversation management and move to entertainment. I’m simply suggesting that digital channels open the doors for PR to much more than just conversations. Try this on for size in your next PR brainstorm. Oh and happy 2011.