Industry specialization: Great! Until maybe it isn’t.

When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.
–Eric Hoffer 

Posted by:
Tate Linden

We’re frequently asked by prospective clients whether or not we’re specialists in particular industries such as healthcare or technology. The answer is that we’re not. And we don’t ever intend to be. While this sort of specialization was intriguing to us in the early days at Stokefire’s, we ultimately decided it would be better for our clients (and thus our long-term success) to go in a different direction.

I acknowledge that this decision seems to run counter to the traditional wisdom given to businesses of all types. And I’m good with that.

I can’t argue that industry specialization is universally bad. Far from it. It’s a critical ingredient in successful financially oriented businesses, such as auditing and investment banking. Even if the entire organization doesn’t specialize, employers retain industry experts that lend credence to an organization’s findings. Similarly, Stokefire employs or contracts with specialists to handle behind-the-scenes jobs that require specific training and experience, such as certain illustration styles, animation, or programming. Each of these is an industry of sorts. (No one, least of all me, wants to see what would happen if I tried to do this stuff by myself.)

I’ll also grant that, for the vast majority of organizations, industry specialization may actually be a good plan. But my reasons are something you probably won’t like.

As Jean Marie Caragher suggests in her article for AICPA, industry specialization includes benefits like high profitability, economical marketing, easily identified prospects and competition, fewer geographical barriers, prestige, increased knowledge of clients, and more. Studies (including this one by Craswell, Francis, and Taylor in 1995) find a link between industry specialization and the ability to charge more for the same services.

With a list like that, it’s hard to imagine why anyone wouldn’t jump on board.

Put yourself in a client’s shoes for a moment and reread the list from their perspective. How many of the benefits help them? One could argue that industry experience helps projects run more smoothly, allows for common tasks to be done very quickly, and increases confidence that the work will meet industry standards. For accounting or other services that aren’t traditionally visible to the client’s target market it makes a lot of sense.

But what happens when the industry specialist’s work is front-and-center rather than hidden under layers of organizational process? What happens when it’s a branding, marketing, or advertising organization that decides to focus on a single industry? What happens when it’s the essence of who you are and what makes you the best in your industry that is crafted by an industry specialist?

Put on the client’s shoes again, if you would (this time as a client of an agency.) All the stuff that was desirable in the back-office is now questionable at best. Sure, the agency knows your competition, and may have even worked for them. But what does it say about the quality and importance of that work (or the ethics of the organization’s leaders) that they’re willing to immediately sell the same services to you? How could they avoid contaminating the guidance they give you with information gained from private meetings with your competitors? And if they share this information with you (overtly or not,) what would stop them from sharing your secrets?

Regardless of how they may position themselves, industry specialists serving most audiences are limited in the concepts that they can bring to you, since if they were to propose a concept that actually pulled market share from another client they might be liable for damages. An agency that gets a reputation for selling out its clients is an agency that won’t have that problem for long.

So, to my way of thinking, a creative agency that farms a single industry either doesn’t believe their work has the ability to materially change the fortunes of its clients (and thus can sell to direct competitors without worrying about conflicts of interest), or they don’t care that each new contract they get in their industry is likely to devalue the work they’ve done for others.

That’s why Stokefire doesn’t go in for industry specialization. When given the freedom to do great work for our clients we’ve enabled new industries and reshuffled old ones. To then go back to all the competitors our work has marginalized or impeded and say, “See what we did for XYZ Co? If you want to stand a chance against them then you’d better hire us.” is lacking in scruples even if it might make short-term business sense. (It’s not all about morality, though. Another reason we don’t do it is that many of our larger or more strategically-minded clients pay a premium to ensure we won’t work in their field for a period of time following our project on their behalf.)

I’ll again grant you that industry specialists may work faster or more efficiently, and that these qualities have the potential to result in lower over-all costs since they’re not billing as many research and administrative hours. I’ll even grant you that it’s a helluva lot easier to run a profitable agency that specializes in one industry. But I can’t seem to connect either of these with the sorts of outcomes creative work is capable of achieving or that clients actually need.

To those consultants who espouse industry specialization for creative agencies, and to those agencies that farm single industries for profit, I ask you this: How does your industry focus tangibly improve outcomes for your stable of competitive clients?

Anyone willing to venture in and share their contrasting views?

Tutorial: How to Win April Fool’s Day

Step 1. 

Determine your victim. 

Step 2.

Acquire large amounts of aluminum foil and surreptitiously pack it in your briefcase. Slink into the office early and unnoticed.  

Step 3.

Cover your victim’s workspace in aluminum foil. Be thorough. You will be sure to get a raise or even a promotion if you demonstrate extensive attention to detail by covering every paper clip, pencil, and individual post it note.  Extra credit if you cover the individual leaves on the potted plant or any dirty dishes left haphazardly lying around.

Step 4. 

Write an “official” note from the “management” that demonstrates that this is a company sanctioned procedure so that the victim will be appreciative of the time and expense exerted on their behalf. This is as method proven to elevate company morale and they will most certainly comply with a chuckle.

 Step 5. 

#Winning!

Step 6.  

Watch your back.

Problem Resolved

April Fools attention to detail

Design Alexandria Recap

This post was written by our lead designer, Lindsay Benson Garrett. 

Design Alexandria

We had a great time last night hosting the Design Alexandria meet up. It was wonderful to connect with local designers and developers who are passionate about creating, growing, and networking.

Some of the things that were discussed included Tate’s experience redesigning the DARPA brand. The project goal was to communicate DARPA’s dual mission of developing technology that defends America and scares enemies, modernizing the mark while also going unnoticed. Tate discussed how success was achieved on all accounts, which funneled into a wildly different project with a shared goal. We showed our work in progress on a preschool identity kit, which is a logo refresh that adds in an element of play.

Juancarlo shared a pro-bono project that he did for the Chilean-American Foundation and the things he learned while working with the non-profit. We examined the web designs before and after and discussed what he learned in the process.

Anna, a co-host, shared her process for building a website for a recently published e-book. Her process was very thorough from the start, where they mapped out every kind of site visitor with their motivations and goals, to how the site would develop a community and add new features systematically.

Joe, the author of the e-book, was actually in attendance. After celebrating his new acquired status of “published author” we had a group brainstorm on methods he can use to market his work.

Stokefire enjoyed hosting the meet up and we look forward to hosting more in the future. Stay tuned for the next one!

Steve Jobs and the Wrong Kind of Dent

 

Posted by:
Tate Linden (@Thingnamer)

Following on my previous post about Steve Jobs’s phantom “We’re here to put a dent in the universe” quote, I can’t help but wonder if the sentiment behind it is actually a good representation of what Jobs tried to do with his life.

There’s not much point in arguing that Jobs never said anything about denting the universe. I do, however, wonder why he said it.

First, putting a dent in something is typically associated with an act of brute strength.

He may have led with a sledgehammer in his back pocket, but hope for all our sakes that bending others forcibly to his will was not his end-game.If we consider Jobs’s leadership style there’s at least a little connection. He was seen as a “high maintenance co-worker” who was blunt with criticism. He dismissed people who didn’t impress him as “bozos”. If the universe he was trying to dent was made up of the psyches of the people who reported to him then this might apply. But it would also be a pretty shallow and callous goal.

Second, dents tend to make things harder to use and less efficient.

When I think of the products that came out of Jobs’s Apple I picture clean and easy-to-use designs, not duct-tape and Bondo. The work done under his watch seems to have done the opposite of denting the universe.

I know, I know. In theory we all love the character that stuff gets as it picks up the scratches and dings of our lives. But we still go out to buy the shiny new stuff that is easier to use than the perfectly working but slightly older equipment Jobs convinced us to buy a few months earlier.

Third, the only way that “denting the universe” actually fits didn’t apply until he was no longer a part of it.

There’s a difference between leaving a legacy and changing the way the universe works. Jobs helped us to understand that great design matters, and that capability and simplicity aren’t mutually exclusive. That’s his legacy.

Jobs was brilliant. He was able to conceive of or recognize concepts and guide the development and execution of them in ways that were virtually irresistible. That’s also his legacy.

The dent in the universe that he made, though? I really hope it isn’t something he wanted to leave. Two quotes from  Rob LeFebvre’s article from cultofmac highlight it pretty well:

“Steve Jobs, however, saw their potential and, with a characteristic mixture of blind faith, naiveté, and ruthlessness, refined them until they met his own exacting standards.”

and…

“Mr. Jobs’s own research and intuition, not focus groups, were his guide.”

The dent he was trying to make was something that only he seemed able to understand.

Is the dent Jobs made in the universe is the one left by the space he occupied so powerfully? While his legacy will live on, his exacting standards and the intuition that built the legacy are gone.

Now we’re left with a dent we have no idea how to buff out, and no knowledge of what it’s supposed to look like when it’s done. The decisions made by Apple since Jobs’s passing – at least as viewed from the outside – are looking more traditional than “insanely great”.

I miss the guy and I never even knew him.

And I’m more than a little pissed that he appears not to have taught anyone else how to use his gift. If he’d done it then wouldn’t we have something other than bigger iPhones and smaller iPads by now?

Anyone else out there hoping that Jony and the team are secretly working on some Jobsian creation and are just working out the kinks before they set the universe wobbling again? Color me hopeful, but not optimistic.

 

Event: Design Alexandria at Stokefire HQ

Hey locals!

Just a quick note to say that as of a couple days ago we’re hosting Design Alexandria‘s events at our Del Ray HQ. In addition to the usual great chats you’ve been having with other designers and technologists, attendees will get a glimpse inside the doors of our little shop and meet a member or two from our team.

As of this moment there are a handful of seats left at next week’s November Meetup, and you’ll need to reserve a spot, since space is pretty limited. Derrick Douglas will be giving a presentation on using InDesign to create an interactive wireframe document, and attendees will be discussing the various things we’ve been working on.

RSVP: http://www.meetup.com/
Date: Tuesday, November 26, 2013
Time: 7 PM to 9 PM
Location: 2016 Mt. Vernon Avenue, Alexandria, VA #300 (top floor)

The Stokefire crew will be there, but probably won’t be presenting anything at this event. Still, should anyone want our guidance, opinions, or some nifty drink coasters, we’re game.

Hope to see you there!

 

 

Awards and Offenses

I’ve just been notified that we won the 2013 Platinum MarCom Award for a poster I designed to promote our summer open house. If you missed the roof-top shindig, you missed a good time, but don’t worry we didn’t drink all the booze and we’ll be hosting more events in the future on our penthouse deck.

When I showed the first draft, Tate asked why I had chosen that stock image. I calmly took a sip from my extra large coffee, and then (maybe not so calmly) told him it was in fact not stock, and that I had spent eight long hours hand-gluing over 1,000 matches with rubber cement that had been allowed to air dry to just the right texture so that the matchsticks would stand upright perfectly and I still had cramps in my right hand from holding them while they dried and then I took pictures myself, thank you very much.

And then I took a breath.

Really, I just didn’t know whether to be flattered or insulted when my photography was accused of being stock. Tate says, “Probably both, just to be safe.”

Anyhow, I took offense because traditionally your brand is best represented by you, not an image you found online that may or may not pass for you. And you’re not (for instance) the wide grinning girl that represents the bank, the dentist, the printer, the lawyer, and everyone else in town. Stock photography has a time and a place where it can be used, but when given the choice, one should always opt for original images.

Images collected from http://overexposedmodel.tumblr.com/

If your customers see that same stock photo on a different website or poster, you are basically tying your own brand to a completely unrelated company, even if you’re an optometrist and they sell super detox smoothies, adult diapers, or are found guilty of collapsing the US economy.

Graphics are usually meant to get noticed. By using original imagery you have the opportunity to show what you’re really about and establish trust with your clients. People are good at sniffing out stock photography and if you use it exclusively it becomes evident very quickly that you’re hiding your true identity.

Why would you want to do that, unless you’re trying to pretend you’re something you’re not?

Don’t be a scammer. Be real. Use your own artwork.

Taking a swing at a different kind of event – January 8th, 2014

Commercial design is broken, and (for the most part) we practitioners are doing a pretty crappy job of fixing it.

Years ago I wrote, “Design is an opportunity to continue telling the story, not just sum everything up.” And while I’ve heard from many designers who have embraced the sentiment, the industry as a whole remains focused on aesthetics and summation. While these qualities may make clients happy, they don’t do much to help clients make better decisions, move the design industry forward, or do much of anything other than ensure that clients are willing to write checks. On January 8, 2014 I’m looking to begin changing all but the last bit by hosting our first “Designers on Deck” event.

What is Designers on Deck?

Well, I’m working on that, but here’s what I have so far:

We’ll be turning the traditional “let someone brag while everyone else takes notes” networking event on its head. From my experience those events typically result in learning someone else’s singular solution to a problem you don’t have, rather than learning how to develop your own solution for issues you’re likely to encounter. The best way to do create value here, I figure, is to learn from someone who hasn’t been able to overcome their challenge. And lest you think no one will step up and where the “I’m with stupid” shirt with the arrow pointing up, I’m perfectly willing to be the test case. More than once, if necessary.

A few more potential details:

  1. We’ll be on a deck, or (as will likely be the case in early January) be deck-adjacent.
  2. We’ll have a limited number of guests from across creative (and related) professions with varied levels of experience. Probably enough to cover all the positions on a baseball field.
  3. We’ll start with around-the-group greetings, and anyone facing their specific un-solved problem can share it. Anyone interested in helping to resolve can connect after the main event.
  4. We’ll have a featured speaker or case study that quickly illuminates an unresolved issue with the commercial application of creativity or creative strategy; showing the impact of the issue and covering any attempts that have already been made to resolve it. Possible topics include consensus building challenges, inability to speak with decision-makers, failed brand launches, or something related to stories in the news or suggested by a guest previously.
  5. Following the presentation we’ll have an active discussion amongst guests and presenters, and will work to clarify the issue and propose methods of resolution. The presenter will commit to an update by a specific date if applicable.
  6. To close out the structured part of the event, we’ll have smaller chats around the issues guests identified at the start.

We’ll kick this off at our own HQ in Alexandria on January 8th and see how it goes. I’m guessing it’ll take a few tries to get it humming, but initial feedback from those I’ve spoken to is promising.

Interested in participating? I’d love to get a sense of the potential participant pool. Send me a note or drop a comment and we’ll try to keep you informed as this thing firms up. (And before you ask, the time is still TBD.)

__Tate

Chart junk, Sparklines & Edward Tufte

3D graphs possess the power to make any and all data more credible because it looks complicated. Hooray!
Is the infographic craze over yet? Can we move on now? We progressed from vague intrigue to rapidly hitting the “x” button to get the marketing gibberish shouting meaningless numbers off the screen as quickly as humanly possible.

“Chart junk” is a term coined by Edward Tufte, the leading expert in data visualization and information design. I had the pleasure of participating in his one day course, which was a sold out seminar packed to the brim with about 500 people.

The class started with an hour of assigned reading from his four books, which together comprise one of the most successful self publishing stints in history. He shared with us how people can read two to three times faster than you can talk. Even if you’re a trained auctioneer, its best to start your meetings with 5-10 minutes of reading a white paper or report. That way everyone starts fully briefed and the rest of the time can be used to elaborate, discuss or brainstorm. Don’t be tempted to send the paper to your coworkers prior, they are busy just like you and have already dedicated meeting time to your issue – take advantage of this undivided attention. This is the best way to cut the length of any meeting by at least 20%.

Mr. Tufte has great respect for people, definitely more than any Powerpoint presenter has ever displayed. Audiences are smart and capable of absorbing huge amounts of information at once. With this in mind, it is best to make your designs as streamlined and flat as possible. Not flat as in the latest design trend, but vigilant in avoiding breaking out or hiding information. Nobody wants to search for figure 1.7 on page 3.

Say you have a table of universities with their associated math test scores – it is worthless to arrange them in alphabetical order. With every chart you create an opportunity is present to display the information meaningfully, e.g: ranking the schools from best to worst. People will quickly scan to find the school they’re interested in but they have also learned something new in the process.

The thing that struck me most was how much information Mr. Tufte could fit in the space of one line of words. He is the inventor of sparklines, which are tiny charts conveying huge amounts of data displayed inline with text. They display general trends of (usually time based) information quickly and efficiently without breaking the flow of a sentence. The benefit this snapshot provides is that the general trend of the previously collected information gives context to the current measurement. Mr. Tufte describes sparklines as “data words: data-intense, design-simple, word-sized graphics.” They have already been adopted by financial, sports, and technology institutions, and I hope that I start seeing my medical charts looking like this sooner than later.

“It is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.”
- John Mayhand

No chart junk here!

Cows! And Also the Secret to RFP Success.

I’ve been hearing from my peers in the branding and advertising industries that they’re getting invited to participate in many more RFPs, and that this is a sign that the economy is recovering. But I’m also hearing from them weeks later that they aren’t winning when they submit responses. Some firms are pushing three to five proposals per week out the door and only getting a nibble once or twice a month. Many respected and competent firms complain that the RFP process is flawed, and quite a few refuse to respond to requests for proposals entirely since most decisions seem to be made purely on price or back room handshakes.

I spent about a decade working for other people before opening up my own shop, and remember the constant pressure to get responses out the door. The bosses played the numbers, knowing that we’d land 8 to 12 percent of the opportunities, focusing our efforts on increasing the number of fish in the pond rather than becoming better fishermen. We used databases of canned responses and lightly customized them for fit. I recall numerous times where the final proof-reader, so tired from reading the same damn material on every single proposal, glossed over an instance where the wrong client name or industry example ended up being sent along. It upset leadership, but they still invariably valued increased RFP response volume over increased customization, believing that if we could just get into the final group we’d take the time to get it right. And when we did get into the pitch group most of my bosses did a good job closing the deal. We may have only landed about 10 percent of the RFPs overall, but when invited to pitch our success rate went up to about 40% – and that’s where the leaders focused.

As Stokefire approaches our ninth year in business I look back at a client list that includes Google, Motorola, Heinz, Charles Schwab, The US Department of Defense and hundreds of other worthy organizations, and realize that if I’d followed the tactics I’d been exposed to earlier I’d probably have landed about 10 percent of what we’ve gotten. And that’s where I was headed until something momentous happened.

About five years ago (prior to landing our first globally recognized client) a huge prospective client took me aside and said something like, “Look, man. You’re good. Very, very good. The fact that your four person firm has made it to the final four out of 128 agencies we considered should indicate that you’ve got something special. You brought up all sorts of insights and issues about the deliverables we asked for that proved you understood what we needed more deeply than anyone else. And then you lost your courage, and checked off every box on your RFP response and committed to delivering exactly what we asked for anyhow. And that’s the problem here. You have to admit, no matter how insightful you are, you can’t possibly deliver exactly what we’re asking for better than a nationally known firm a thousand times your size. And even if you could, the board members of a public company aren’t going to take a risk on an unknown like you . The only way I would ever get their approval to hire you is if you’d stuck by your guns and refused to give us what we asked for, and instead insisted on giving us what we need.”

There’s some serious paraphrasing going on there, but I believe I’m being faithful to his theme. It was a two hour conversation with a leader of a multi-billion dollar organization. And he so wanted to hire us that he not only took the time to tell us why he couldn’t, but to teach me how I could earn his business the next time he was in need as well. The last thing he said was that he was looking forward to working with us down the road.

No, he still hasn’t called us back (which would make this a much better story, I know) but we took his lesson to heart.

Today we respond to only a small fraction of the RFPs we receive. It’s not that we don’t believe in the process. In fact, it’s the opposite. We use the RFP process as a screening process to ensure that we’re actually a good fit for the client and opportunity. Our job as a branding and advertising consultancy isn’t to answer the questions and accede to the demands made in RFPs, it’s to figure out what’s behind the questions and demands, and ensure that the stuff in the RFP actually has the potential to get the results the client really wants, if they want anything at all. The RFPs we tend to respond to are the ones where we can prove there’s disconnect between what’s being asked for and the results they’re likely to get from the investment.

When a client knows exactly what they need and how best to get it, then my firm is like just another lowing cow lost among the herd, hoping that today it’ll be our milk in the pail the farmer brings to his own family. All the respondents are checking all the boxes provided. It’s like cows jostling and mooing – “You want milk? Well, I make milk. Let’s do this!” and “Me toooooo! Look how milky my milk is. It’s the very definition of what you’ve asked for! Why go anywhere else?”

How the Hell is the farmer supposed to choose when every cow can provide the requested services at the required levels?

When a prospective client requests a proposal they provide a structure for response so that each can be evaluated in parallel. The farmer says he wants milk, so he ensures that he only considers solutions that get him what he says he wants. Cows, goats, sheep, are the likely candidates. If he gets really creative he might consider almond, soy or rice milk – and feel all the more insightful for it. But what isn’t up for discussion – and is rarely even mentioned in an RFP process – is why the desired product or service is needed, and why the solutions outlined in the RFP are the best way to meet the need.

Stokefire doesn’t make milk. Real nor imagined. We figure out why the farmer says he needs it for his family, then determine if milk is the best product for the job. If it is? We go on our way – there are plenty of lowing cows ready to compete for his attention and give him what he asks for. If we find that the farmer’s real need is better served by something other than the proverbial milk? That’s when we invest the considerable time and effort crafting a response to an RFP – one that cannot be compared to anything else under consideration because it addresses the needed results rather than the ‘required’ methods and steps that have little chance of getting the farmer what he wants, and an even lesser chance of landing us the job.

The key to successful RFP responses isn’t getting the answers right. It’s having the courage and insight to modify the assumptions, questions, and rules so that the original request becomes irrelevant. Sure, the farmer said he wanted to bring milk back to his family, and there are millions of cows able to give him that milk. But what if you learned that the entire family was lactose intolerant, or that he was using it to fill his swimming pool at the rate of one bucket per day, or to clean the mirrors in his house? In each case, the best response wouldn’t be to fill the stated request and follow the process, it’d be to find a product better suited to the requirements.

Those uses may seem obviously wrong, but put in the context of what we see on branding RFPs are actually pretty reasonable. We’ve seen RFPs requesting logos that increase customer loyalty, demanding reuse of previously used campaigns for increased results without creative expense, and asking for a rebrand intended make a highly visible company scandal go away. These and many other RFPs got dozens of responses that checked every box. We didn’t check a single box for any of them. We couldn’t deliver what they asked for so we responded to the RFP we believed they should’ve written.

And we won.

Does it work every time? Absolutely not. About 10% of the time it doesn’t work and we fail to change the prospect’s perspective. About 5% of the time it doesn’t just fail, it fails spectacularly. If it was that farmer’s RFP, he’d grab his shotgun and unload both barrels into our chest. Then he’d tell us we didn’t get the job.

As bad as it sounds, I know from experience that being screamed at by prospective clients for having the nerve to challenge their assumptions is survivable. And it’s led to some wonderful client relationships months or years later, when the prospect has tried it their way and we have the, “You know, funny thing about that pitch you made…” conversation. It helps to keep that result in mind when resisting the urge to wipe their spittle from your eyebrows during the pitch.

If you’re not willing to take the risks needed to achieve results, but still blame the system itself rather than your ability to use it to your advantage? I’ve got no problem with that. In fact, I’ll even help. There’s a word you can repeat in your mind as a mantra that will ensure you always deliver fully compliant responses to RFPs. It’s easy to remember, and oddly comforting, too.

Say it with me…

“MoooOOOooooo.”

A Quick Peek Through The Lens

In recent years we’ve been taking on more photography-heavy projects, including ads for the concrete industry, editorial photographs, and now… dance.

 

This was snapped by our own Lindsay Garrett a few weeks back. She knows a thing or two about photography. And dance… and it shows.

Next blog will have something to do with brands or ads… I promise. Unless she takes more kickass photos. Which she might.



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