Why ‘how’ is as important as ‘what’


thanks to net_efekt/flickr

As part of the google firestarters event, brilliantly hosted by Neil Perkin, I debated the failure of research companies in helping clients and agencies with the ‘how’: the act of making and perfecting ideas in market, with communities and within organisations.

Since that event Cog and Face Group have discussed their services, as well as Brainjuicer.

This is great. Well done those pioneering companies. Every one should hire them!

But the problem with the ‘how’ remains a big one for us on a number of fronts, not just insight and testing. And it’s getting bigger by the day.

Once agencies relied on the power of the idea and communal faith (with a bit of testing) it would work now we must become engineers of its success.

What do I mean? Well, here’s the logic flow:

Because business never stops, neither should our marketing. PR, e-commerce and CRM have always known this. The ad world are catching up.

Advertising in the future will be much more like PR, observed former Publicis COO Richard Pindner for the ever thought-provoking Ignition group

“We’ll be run more like a daily TV show or an interactive newspaper than an advertising factory.”  As in political campaigns, agencies today need to operate as a nerve center.  Most PR firms are already built on this model; ad agencies must learn to do the same”

So if our marketing is to be always on, and if ‘doing’ then becomes as important as saying, then it figures that HOW you do what you do becomes as important as WHAT you’re trying to do.

Surely you need to get ‘what’ right first don’t you?

Well not necessarily.


First, we all know that we improve and learn through ‘doing’. And in this way we get better at helping customers. So ‘doing’ is critical to business improvement. So through doing we can improve what we’re doing. The ‘what’ is iteratively improved all the time across all business functions. Why should the marketing function be any different?

Some of the biggest recent improvements in business service (the thing people talk about most and that most affects Net Promoter scores) has been seen via iterative innovation. See how Instagram founder Kevin Systrom references simplicity and focus when developing the right solution for customers.

Second, we’ve witnessed that all of our stresses, every one of our failures (I won’t go into details!) and every single frustration that we have with clients and that clients have internally (and of course with us) is born out of a failure to ‘do’ effectively.

Pretty much every intelligent person in a marketing or sales function can get their heads around the ‘what’; the plan or the ad or the app or the service we’re proposing. Only a handful of naturally entrepreneurial sorts as swiftly compute ‘how’ to make the idea happen.

These people, wherever they sit in an agency or client business, instinctively think about inventing new ways of working so that we can make these awkwardly non-traditional ideas happen. The approaches that get debated are most often approaches working around a client’s organisational structure.

To put it simply, the client’s company is in the way.

These agents of progress are critical to making anything vaguely imaginative or (as everyone is realising) effective happen. Without people willing to stick their necks out and thinking in new ways, nothing new would get out the door. So more of our day to day efforts are going into making the ‘how’ possible.

If we focus on better ideas and they sell themselves don’t they?

Well, not really. Great ideas in new forms force us to focus on the ‘how’ and failure to make the ‘how’ work kills ideas. No matter how seemingly great they are. ‘Great’ to us usually looks like ‘risky’ to a client.

So we’ve lots of unsold ideas because we lost the fight or the race to make them happen. And here’s the rub: look around you – everyone, eventually, comes up with the same ideas. The original, ground breaking new ‘what’ is an NPD fantasy. In our networked age, most of an agency’s ideas to help a client solve customer problems in a category have been thought of in some form or other, and probably already prototyped or launched. Just check Google and Springwise.

Customers recommend companies that get the basics right (the service and the products). So as marketers we don’t need to bust a category open with a startling new innovation. We simply need to reduce the risk of failure in our attempts at making good ideas great.

This might be an odd admission from someone in a creative company selling irresistible new creative solutions. But it’s a reality. Most ideas are already out there in some form or other. Just because this is the case it doesn’t mean a client’s business can’t benefit from them if they were to be built upon, delivered well, consistently improved and integrated into a clients offerings. That’s how businesses grow profitably. Our job is in reducing the risk in innovating. No human likes change or risk. A little bit is fun, but not if it threatens your job. With profits on the line, Marketing Directors and CEOs seek progress with minimised risk.

So our creative skills are being used more and more in marshalling new and existing ideas and techniques together for a brand’s benefit and then, crucially, making them happen. With scale, impact and to customers’ satisfaction.

So this is why the ‘how’ has become the crucial issue.

Getting the ‘how’ right means the difference between a good idea and a truly great one. The testing, the customer (or member) feedback loop and the iterations are the ‘how’. The client business buying into the idea and making it work is the ‘how’. The client themselves being structured to make the idea work internally and across customer touchpoints is the ‘how’. It’s our agility we should be tested on when we sell in ideas and promise they’ll work.

Tim Williams at Ignition sums it up rather nicely when he talks about the internal processes growing to define the way agencies think:

“If you want to make your firm more agile, assign a small team to observe how work really gets done in the agency.  Then build your systems around that.”

Rebuilding systems is a crucial piece of the jigsaw. Without this nothing will be bought and nothing will work in market. So it’s this ‘plumbing’ that will be increasingly relied upon in getting great ideas into people’s hands.

The ideas themselves can be half right at launch. But it’s the ‘how’ that will make them work and deliver the effects for businesses.

Let’s never underestimate the importance of ‘how’ something will happen, not just ‘what’ it is we want to happen.


7 Responses to “Why ‘how’ is as important as ‘what’”

  1. 1 Faris

    excellent excellent stuff mate thanks.

    I’d append a cheeky ‘why’ to your how, but really the why leads you to the what, which necessitates the how.


    • 2 martin bailie

      Thanks Faris. Good build!
      Indeed, the business ‘why’ needs to really clear, which if approached from a 100% punter’s need perspective does suggest the ‘what’ should be very different to the ‘whats’ that have come before!

  2. 3 Simon

    @TimHarford seem to be in agreement with you Martin – especially in terms of the role of the research industry http://bit.ly/jO9xRA

  3. fits very well into the media proposition. Or is that the whole point of the piece?

  4. Hey Martin:

    Thanks for the mention in this piece. I also really like your recent work exploring the new agency OS question. Inspiring stuff!

    Tim Williams

  1. 1 Creative Traction | a digital strategy firm » The “How” of Strategy
  2. 2 The “How” of Strategy « Eat Strategy

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