BY IKECHI ODIGBO
When I think of a future-fit business, interestingly, the example that comes to mind to illustrate is an airplane, though we know that even before the COVID 19 pandemic, the aviation industry as a whole was battling for survival due to dwindling margins and logistic challenges.
As some of us know, big airline manufacturers like Boeing have to consider many factors and variables when building a new airplane model that would have a long life span that probably outlives the builders. They would have to consider an interior design for the airplane that would remain aesthetically appealing for the long fashionable future. while continuously endeavoring to make the new aircraft more fuel economical, more space efficient for lighter, faster and yet safer travel. You will agree these are all qualities we want our businesses to have, to be future proof for both good and uncertain times.
I am sure most of us miss our frequent flyer miles but what we don’t are those rocky turbulent moments up in the sky. As the plane plods through turbulent airspace, you will often find the pilot increasing altitude to escape the disturbance to locate a less rocky path to fly. However when preparing to land, no matter the weather condition, the pilot locks the plane on a fixed path as it makes its approach to navigate a descent.
These two principles are applicable to future fit companies. Future Fit organisations are flexible, and nimble enough to navigate around the present challenges of the economic environment and yet remain committed, and steadfast in their pursuit of their clearly defined strategic goals.
This reminds one of a telling story about the Chinese. After the Tsunami of 2004 wrecked havoc across Asian coastlines, a collaborative venture was initiated between countries like Australia, New Zealand and China to come together to build flood walls that would protect their coastlands. However after much back and forth the other parties accused China of foot dragging and frustrating the project. The response of the Chinese was profound and instructive. They said; when you plan, you plan for 10 to 20 years, when Europe and America plan, they plan for 20 to maybe 30 years, When China plans, we plan for 50 to 100 years because we are planning for billions of our people. The fact is our governments and businesses in the developing world also plan. Whether we execute and execute well is another thing entirely. Every year most of us roll up our sleeves, brainstorm and come up with lofty strategic plans but once a client comes calling, those strategic initiatives get relegated to the background as we tend to prioritise tactical assignments, because for us they are predictable and yield immediate results. However as most of us now realise, if we had paid more attention to our strategic initiatives we would be in much better shape to navigate through the uncertainties we presently find ourselves.
So the takeout here is that future fit organisations have a balanced strategic and tactical orientation that helps ensure a stable performance trajectory for their businesses.
Within the Casers group, I have been privileged to be part of a leadership team with a strategic but practical approach that has been willing to drive change even in very good times and that has prepared us to better manage the shocks and volatility of the times. Even though we have only probably executed just about 50% of our long term plans, the outcomes have been have made us more competitive and better positioned. I hope to draw some examples from this experience further down the line.
Now every plane has a cockpit with a dashboard of gauges, levers, and buttons, to direct, communicate and control, that helps the pilot measure important things like the condition of the aircraft and the environment. In the same way future fit organisations have robust dashboards that enable them engage all aspects of their operations in a very intentional and deliberate way. And so for instance a dashboard for a creative services business like ours would cover our People, Client partners, Creative Product, Business Processes, and of course Financial Performance. A future fit business does not just set financial goals but develops strategic and tactical initiatives to improve all aspects of its business in the short and long term.
So lets take a look at People, our greatest asset. As an industry, we pride ourselves in being in the ideas business and so we want to ask, how our people are being empowered to channel their creative energies. The fact is more often than not we unleash the creativity of our young teams on our clients briefs but tend to keep them at arms length when it comes to the business of our business. It is almost as though the business issues are the exclusive remit of senior management. Future fit companies realise that a democratic, open work culture is key for fresh perspectives and intuitive solutions to bubble from the lower ranks to give oxygen to operational issues. If we are to make the changes necessary to own the present and the future, our people need to be encouraged to take ownership of issues. The usual top-down approach from management stifles initiative and only reinforces more of the same tried, but often stale approaches to problems.
Given the uncertain business environment we have had to confront most of this year, I am sure by now, we have some idea about those in our team who are change friendly, and those who are not quite future compliant. I personally believe there are 2 types of workers. Hunters and Farmers. Hunters are adventurous, look to convert opportunities, like new challenges and are quite comfortable with change. Farmers are nurturing, good managers and like stability. We need a good balance of both to build a future fit business.
The COVID 19 experience is a blessing that compels us to look at all aspects of our business with new eyes. This should compel us to rethink our resourcing requirements, people development strategies and most importantly become more intentional about our organisational culture. The leadership defines the culture and we must start by asking ourselves some tough questions if we are to make the required changes to better position our businesses to thrive. We must give our people hope for the future through positive outlook and behaviours that inspire trust and confidence. A clearly defined purpose gives our teams an overarching reason for being, and when times get tough, it is a compelling motivator for them to stick around rather than jump ship to another company.
Our processes also come up for scrutiny at this time. I recall about 12 years ago, after an agency retreat, one of the goals we set was to automate our job processes in order to improve the turnaround time on briefs. Given the practice in our market at the time, this was a big bold step. Only three years ago, a key global client made the automation of our work processes a mandatory requirement to work on the business and it felt good to know we had been proactive enough to put in place a system that made us look professional and world class even though it took 9 years for our investment to bring that sort of dividend.
Towards the end of last year we started migrating to an even more sophisticated work process platform that would incorporate every facet of our operation locally and across the West African region. Then COVID 19 struck and like most organisations we had to adopt the remote work arrangement. Our new virtual work platform has been a critical success factor in enabling us sustain productivity, effectiveness and accountability. With the platform we are able to accurately track the manhours spent by our team members on assigned tasks and clients can work remotely with our project teams from the comfort of their homes.
Regarding our product, or the range of services we offer, we are well aware of the threats we face with the slashed marketing budgets on one hand and specialized boutiques, content developers, celebrity influencers and global consulting firms weighing in on our business on the other. I believe much has been said or will be said in this regard. However the problem should not be whether we need to raise entry barriers, diversify our offerings, open a digital arm or start dabbling in activations. No the question is are we rightly positioning our firms to the client? If we are positioned as thought leaders, strategic partners and problem solvers, then it is easier for us to sell our ideas and offerings not minding what label we place on them.
If we are to be seen as indispensable then we must make it our basic duty to truly understand our clients’ business and the challenges they face, especially in these trying times. Future fit agencies build enduring relationships by being proactive with the strategic support and solutions they offer – not by being brief peddlers. Yes, more often than not the client will not give the green light or have the budget for our proactive ideas but the rare occasion when they fly with a brilliant proposal and the sustained demonstration of our passion to go the extra mile, are goodwill currency invested into the future of the relationship.
It is obvious that most of our accounts have come through personal relationships and networks. Which is why when the marketing manager we are friendly with leaves the clients business, we are often confronted with a Pharaoh that does not know Joseph. That is part of the uncertainty that comes with our business. As a result, we must keep refreshing our CRM program with each client to be contextual and in line with the changing dynamics of the relationship. An intuitive client relationship management program is not just directed at the key client contacts but also at the not quite obviously important stakeholders within the client hierarchy with longevity on the account in mind.
With regards to Client partners we realise that the composition or diversity of our account portfolio is going to define the resilience of the agency in the medium to long term. It is also very difficult for agencies to choose the type of client they can work for – so long as they are willing to pay. At times our desperation to win a client weakens our leverage and puts us in a very unhealthy position. We once had a client, that made it a habit to negotiate a discount on every brief. At the end of the day we found out we were actually spending more manhours on this client’s briefs than on our more profitable retainer accounts. Of course we had to resign the business and it helped improve the morale of our team who had become frustrated with the exploitative relationship.
We simpl need to be strategic and deliberate in seeking the right mix of client partners that would secure the future of the business. I believe the strength of our business is the exposure to best marketing practices from clients from different sectors which helps broaden our business perspective and acumen.
Yes in most cases we don’t have a choice but if you work largely for financial services clients, what happens when there is a change in regulation as in the early 2000s when as a result of the Central Bank of Nigeria policy change on bank capitalization the number of banks reduced from over 200 mortgage, merchant and commercial banks to just around 23 big banks? If you are working for a lucrative Telco client what is your new business strategy to reduce your revenue dependence on one big account that is bringing in lots of money now but may not be there in future. Let’s face it, it is more future smart to build a diversified portfolio of medium sized accounts than to have one big client. Then again with a big prestigious account, you are able to attract better talent that can help you diversify and drive organic or disruptive growth into the future. It all depends on our strategic response to our context with the future in mind.
In conclusion, future fit companies are businesses that have soul for their people and their clients; that are able to make the most of present opportunities as a result of a proactive, strategic embrace of the future.
Having a soul allows businesses to respond instinctively to the trends and shifts around them. Over time and at different moments in history, we have seen companies shape shifts into new disciplines and industries thus expanding their remit, worth and longevity. All this is possible because at their core is a vivid purpose, philosophy, ideology that dictates their economic interests, investments and organizational efforts.
The big question, and hopefully one that should linger in our minds is: What is the soul of our business? Why are we keeping our lights on? And of course, this is not just about economic returns.
I’ll submit this point with a simple analogy. Consider some of the world’s major football clubs, they have a unique playing pattern, and ideology and orientation that shapes their recruitment of managers and footballers and then the fans get to see the magic on the pitch with remarkable success leading to trophies, revenue and prestige.
The soul of our business would and should shape our recruitment and talent development efforts, organizational culture and client relationships. The task for us as leaders is to ensure that the soul of the business is truly nurtured and amplified not obscured by every passing trend but bolstered. This is key to significant long-term success.
Good thing is, no matter the present fortunes of our businesses, it is never too late to engage the future with adaptability, agility and innovation as our sign posts.
All the best.