Barry Lustig
Jan 11, 2017

If you want your agency to evolve, ask the right questions

Assuming that the incoming Trump administration doesn’t do anything too crazy, the top theme for agencies in Japan in 2017 will be internal transformation.

Barry Lustig
Barry Lustig

If we continue to ask ourselves the same questions, we’ll arrive at the same kind of answers. Our collective challenge for 2017 is to think more fundamentally.

Tactical solutions are no more likely to lead to increased competitiveness than they were last year. It’s time to take a different approach and start our discussions with some new questions. Here are a few that come to mind.

What are the simplest things to implement that will make the biggest difference to our clients and people?

Quick wins are important and show seriousness of intent as well as the ability of management to listen to team members at all levels.

What would make the biggest difference to your people and clients that you can make happen right away?

Is it more flexible working hours? A designer dedicated to creating key pitches and presentations? Milk instead of Coffee Fresh?

How do we encourage risk-taking from within? 

Asking people to take new risks, without thinking through the internal agency resources necessary to do so, is recipe for failure.

How do we give our best people the space to pursue their own projects? How do we partner with outside companies? How do we sensibly invest our own resources in new ideas and reward success—and critically, failure? 

As an aside, I’m always surprised about why agencies haven’t explored licensing as a means to create alternative revenue. It’s a realistic avenue to create new revenue streams using the skills actually found in agencies. Be honest: are the people at your agency better suited to creating brands and consumer demand for existing products—or developing commercially viable IP like Google?

How do we integrate people from different work cultures?

Advertising is unwelcoming to talent from outside our industry. A lot of it has to do with working culture.

Why not give people from outside the industry a complete orientation to all parts of the agency so they can learn what people do, how work gets done and how people sell.

Also, many have found that experienced mentors can help ease transitions even for the most senior managers. This way, we can increase our talent pool and thus overall ability to remain competitive.

How do we get the most out of the people we already have on staff?

As an industry, we have invested far too little in our people while we lament our skills gap and lack of competitiveness as employers.  One advantage of the Japanese advertising industry is that has traditionally been a magnet for the smartest and most elite graduates. Chances are that even workers who are not especially productive have the ability to learn and be retrained.

We are always looking to outside talent to bring in new ideas and skills. But there are people who already work for us who would be thrilled to have their skills upgraded and find renewed purpose in their work.

Workshops and conferences are a start, but in most cases are neither rigorous nor deep enough for retraining. Note that most top schools (e.g. McGill, Waseda, INSEAD) create custom corporate training programs and degrees. In many cases, instructors will teach full length courses at your office. Retraining is not cheap but the alternatives are far more expensive.

Our business may be changing, but human nature is not.

Whatever your agency’s transformational goals may be, nothing much is going to happen unless your new goals are written into people’s job descriptions and linked directly to pay AND promotion. Otherwise, it’s all just talk.

Barry Lustig is managing partner of Cormorant Group, a Tokyo-based business and HR strategy consultancy

Campaign Japan

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