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How to survive in 2019? Be more tortoise.

By Fran Brosan, Chairman

I have been mulling on Charles Darwin recently – prompted by moving into a house in Cambridge which is owned by a descendant of his and also having read Period Piece, the autobiography of his daughter, the artist Gwen Raverat. What has struck me is how relevant his theory of natural selection is to business in the here and now.

Doing a bit of research it turns out that the ‘survival of the fittest’ is not actually Darwin’s phrase, but was coined by the philosopher Herbert Spencer. Darwin’s point of view seems to be more about success being based on the ability to respond to change.

The question is, how do those of us who run businesses in 2019 ensure we are responsive to change, particularly when pressures are immediate and we don’t have millennia to grow bigger flippers.

Two recent articles give some clue to this, although from different angles. First, a good article (as you’d expect) from Rory Sutherland in Campaign on how advertising is in crisis not because people don’t believe that creativity works but because we are in an ‘efficiency bubble’ where the only way we measure advertising effectiveness is by immediate impact and not long term effectiveness (my words).

Anyone familiar with the work of Les Binet, Peter Field and the IPA will thankfully have ammunition for the latter, but the challenge is that in order to measure the real outcomes you need to think long term. And it seems we have given up the ability to do that – along with our government apparently. Mr Sutherland’s argument is to look at the bigger picture when you are judging what works, not to consider success in the microcosm.

The importance of the bigger picture was also echoed in another useful article, this time from HBR, about the new black in business not being efficiency but resilience. Author Roger L Martin’s argument is that all efficiency does is create ‘monocultures’ (whether biological or business) which can grow to gargantuan proportions but are at risk of collapse through a single point of damage. His view is that to be successful long term you need resilience, where the definition of resilience is ‘the ability to recover from difficulties – to spring back into shape after a shock’. Sounds very Darwinian to me.

It wouldn’t be an understatement to say our industry is going through some major shocks at the moment. The trend for clients to take work in-house – either by contracting internally or by building their own teams both on and off-shore threatens many agencies for whom their campaign work would have been meat and drink. Many clients are investing heavily in talent to resource the delivery of the marketing strategy, not simply its conception. In addition, the pressure to churn out content 24/7 means clients turn to cheap resource bought ad hoc rather than take the time and budget to produce less but better brand building activities with trusted partners.

Then of course there are the consultancies, Accenture Interactive, IBM, ATOS and Cognizant form the top 4 digital agencies according to the econsultancy Top 100 in 2018. Not one of them is actually a traditional agency. Threatened you should be – as Yoda would have put it.

The industry hasn’t felt this challenged in terms of new models since media agencies split out from ad agencies in the early 1990s. Although the threat of the former adding their own creative departments and taking down the great advertising houses never materialised. It took digital to do that.

For those of us running independent agencies this all might be a cause for concern. But, I’m a great believer in the power of humankind to turn a problem into an opportunity. When push comes to shove, business is resilient. And it’s that attribute that characterises the businesses that are and will succeed through all this change. And, as Darwin said, it’s how we respond to that which will make the difference.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change”. – Charles Darwin – 1809.

For those of us running independent agencies this all might be a cause for concern. But, I’m a great believer in the power of humankind to turn a problem into an opportunity. When push comes to shove, business is resilient. And it’s that attribute that characterises the businesses that are and will succeed through all this change. And, as Darwin said, it’s how we respond to that which will make the difference.

Here are some tips on how we might respond. 

First, believe in long term brand building as a powerful force for business growth as per the IPA/Binet/Field study.

No. 2. Read Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow, which essentially reminds us that being seen is the best way to go forth and multiply. Niche brands on the whole remain just that, niche. “Sales growth won’t come from relentlessly targeting a particular segment of a brand’s buyers,”.

If you believe these two, you’ll continue to have faith in the value of good agency output aimed at building awareness of, and belief in, your brand’s strengths.

But there’s opportunity beyond the norm, as evolution shows us. So tip no. 3 is to do what Rocky Balbao would advise – roll with the punches. “It Ain’t How Hard You Hit…It’s How Hard You Can Get Hit and Keep Moving Forward”. That’s where resilience starts to play a part.  It’s about moving forward and changing with the times, not just being able to repel invaders. Even Rocky had to move out of the boxing ring eventually.

Turns out, successful evolution is not about every animal for itself. 

Interestingly there is another, hugely important factor in whether you survive or not. It’s not about doing it on your own. Brands need platforms (both digital and analogue) to be seen. Sportsmen need coaches. Tortoises need birds to de-lice them. Would we have been as successful as a species without our ability to harness the power of other things – whether dogs, horses or machinery?

As the New Scientist puts it “What we see in the wild is not every animal for itself. Cooperation is an  incredibly successful survival strategy.”

In short, it’s the combination which seems to be successful. Which is why at Omobono in 2019 we’ll be researching the concept of Unstoppable Brands. These are the brands, and indeed the people who know how to make things work, get things done and drive success. They’re the brands that have survived upheaval in their sectors, or have been the upheavers. We’ll be looking at their characteristics, the actions they’ve taken to circumvent the barriers and the personal qualities that the people in them need to succeed.

In particular we believe that being unstoppable in today’s climate is now about being Unstoppable Together – working with people, internally and externally to drive success. 

Arguably the internal agency is a visible manifestation of this. Or indeed the consultancies, who work much more closely with their clients than many agencies manage. In some of our best relationships we hand off to internal resources at the client end, embed our people in their teams or serve as an extension to the client team. It’s a collaborative ecosystem between internal and external resources. Similarly, we know from our long term study of B2B marketing that successful marketers of business brands are the ones that work in partnership with HR, IT and Sales. As our Halo model shows, driving growth comes from the three great pillars of modern business, brands, people and technology platforms. These days you can no longer rely on one of these on its own, you have to leverage all three.

With marketing, the drivers of brands, working with HR and IT (the people and technology drivers) the organisation is set up to be more resilient to ‘the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to’ as well as (hopefully) surviving whatever Brexit throws at us.

If you’d like to get involved in the Unstoppable Together research – to suggest a brand or a person you believe is truly unstoppable, or to share your views on the characteristics you believe differentiate unstoppable brands and people please get in touch on or

Tortoises welcome.

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