Less ego, more influence.

Published 16th April 2018 by Caroline Brown

A few years ago, in Whitehall, I had the good fortune to work with one of the very best planners in advertising. John Poorta led Leo Burnett London’s strategy work with panache. Clients like me would go to him with a hotchpotch of aims, contradictions and complications, and he would transform them into an on-the-money, top-notch strategy.

‘Planner’ conjures up a vision of a council official in Slough declaring you may extend your kitchen. In spite of his uninspiring job title, John was an inventor of solutions and a master of persuasion. In the way of adland people, he had a bit of a ‘wardrobe’. His signature item was a dark brown leather jacket. Always the ‘Life on Mars’ jacket, never a tie. Every meeting.

Until, one fateful day, he appeared at our weekly status meeting in a suit and tie. Proper, sober, fit-for-the-City tailoring. Navy for goodness sake.

What misfortune had befallen the treasured leather, we asked? It turned out John had come to our meeting fresh from presenting proposals to the secretary of state of another government department. “I’ll wear a suit for your minister too, Caroline”, he said.

And he did. When the time came for the crucial meeting at which our secretary of state was to sign-off the strategic thinking that would shape our multi-million pound campaign – a make or break moment – out came the sharp suit. Before John even opened his mouth to speak, the suit said ‘serious’, ‘credible’ and ‘respectful’. The minister was all ears.

If you’re thinking “What idiot wouldn’t wear a smart suit to an important meeting?”, think again. Mark Zuckerberg wears a grey t-shirt every day. The big decisions in Silicon Valley are made in jeans.

There are three variables involved in persuasion: the communicator, the message and the audience. Each has an impact on the outcome, but we are apt to focus too much on the first two at the expense of the third. Not John –  he had done his homework on the decision maker, and everything from the suit he wore to how he put his points across was selected with that person in mind. He set aside his own ego and preferences. He sought to impress, not impose.

Your brand – whether nascent or longstanding, growing or consolidating – is also in the business of persuasion. It too has an ‘outfit’. The way it looks: its colours and symbols. The way it sounds: its language and tone of voice. Through channel selection you decide how, when and where it appears to your customer. And through partnerships, supply chains and PR you select the businesses with whom it will be associated. This is how your business dresses to meet its clients.

All too often a business starts off with some well-intentioned navel gazing. It spends many pleasurable hours pondering ‘who we are’, then translates that into logos and mission statements. It gets hung up on its features, and how those differ from what other businesses offer.

It forgets it is, in fact, in the business of securing permission to solve a customer’s problem. On it bangs about itself with no attempt to show that it understands its customer and is on that person’s side. It lets ego take the lead, and fails to do its homework. And so it turns up to see the secretary of state in the leather jacket, and Mark Zuckerberg in the suit and tie. 

Back in 1960 Theodore Levitt coined the term ‘marketing myopia’ to describe the view of marketing as selling products to fulfil the needs of the company, rather than identifying customer needs and then creating products to fulfil them. This lack of foresight is evident in the way many businesses present themselves today.

More benevolent customers will forgive our gaffs and look past our miscalculations, but don't rely on it. So, start by asking not, ‘what does our stuff do, and how do we tell customers that?’ but ‘who are the people we are asking to choose us, what are they looking for and how will they react to us, emotionally as well rationally?”

There are times to meet those expectations and times to confound them. Mostly we play by the rules, sometimes we shake things up. But the first step towards a great marketing strategy is to understand the hopes, fears and frustrations of your target audience, and to use that insight to shape your approach.

That is the art of persuasion, an art John employed to good effect in all aspects of his business.

The secretary of state signed off the strategy. Next status meeting, the jacket was back.