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January 22, 2019

Why We’re Here

“Who do we want our clients to be?” my question turned the room silent. Besides me, there were five people. The CEO, the managing director, the two unit leads and the strategy director. “What do you mean, the business size?” the CEO asked me.

I was talking about the type of clients that are right for us, as an agency. It was in the early days of “digital”, the term that made advertising agencies cringe and drool at the same time. I just had been hired as a “digital director”, a role, I was assured by the CEO, that would entail strategy and business decisions. Shortly after my entry, they added me to the management board of the company.

The clients we want, I explained my thinking, are the ones we are proud of. Not because they make us rich, but because they are growing with us. We want them, because they are thinking the same way we do and we don’t need to convince them for their own good. These clients know why they are hiring us, specialists – because they know their own business well, but they need people who understand the experience on the other side, the customers of our clients.

The clients we want, I continued, are the ones who understand that it’s about the experience people have, not forcing them to buy things they don’t need.

Had I won over half of the team with the first part of this explanation, I lost all ground with the last part. Experiences? What the hell was he talking about?

“Sure.” the CEO nodded and then looked away from me. “That’s a given. Of course we want the clients of our clients to like the products of our clients. But that’s not in our power.”

“Then why am I here?” – That’s not what I said, but what I thought. It felt futile to engage in further discussion.

They were ad people. All their lives they had learned to convince people that they were magicians. They could persuade everyone to buy just about anything. They did not want to rely on what people actually felt or thought of these products. They wanted glitter and glamour that stunned their clients, so they would pay more for the next fancy TV commercial.

“Digital” was seen as yet another channel to pump out messages over Flash banners and “engaging pop-ups”. Who doesn’t like those ads blocking the way to get what you came for? The ad business was successful. It made multi-billion dollar contracts based on latest edge CGI in TV commercials and colourful print ads. It wasn’t going to be in trouble any time soon.

Or was it?

The Paradigm Change

This happened almost 10 years ago. In Internet years, that’s about a hundred years. Yet the story has relevance. It has taken place hundreds of times, in hundreds of marketing businesses and ad agencies. Some of these companies are still around, some have learned to adapt, or they simply bought enough “digital marketers” to allow them to change shape, with the entire industry changing shape alongside with them.

But roughly 50% of the companies I knew at the time 10 years ago have been merged with other networks, sold off or they simply seized to exist. And the problem wasn’t that they were unsuccessful, or that they didn’t hire people “who get digital”. The actual problem was that they were blind for the big picture.

Digital – the Internet – is not just “another channel” you can use to pump out advertisement. And while a lot of businesses still rely on advertising as their main business model – quite successfully so – just about everyone in the “digital world”, startups, tech companies, even ad agencies – they are all aware now that they need to find different ways to make money. Enter the subscription model: Really good stuff that’s worth something.

Of course, promoting messages and marketing products and services is something that won’t go away for as long there is a capitalist economy and a society buying services and products. But the days of “creating magic” with funny, loud ads, and spending disproportional amounts of money to be seen and heard, those days are numbered.

The Company We Are Not

Core is not a marketing company. It’s not even a “digital marketing company”, or a “digital company” in the first place. We are also not a “design company”, or a “product strategy company”. We do all these things, especially design. Design is in our blood, it is the way we think. (You may call that “Design Thinking” if you like, because it is following the same process.)

The clients we want are striving for change and improvement. They are looking at the big picture. They understand that society is in a process of change and adaptation to new paradigms, and no business or industry is meant to stay the same forever. They also understand that exploitative models, or schemes an industry is based on, the idea of fooling people to believe that every business has sincere intentions and authentic products, are not really sustainable models.

See, a business, when you make money out of something, is sustainable when you are not cheating on people. If your business is built on making a quick buck but not caring about what people need, or who they are, what they are living for – what they want from life – your business is ultimately short-lived.

There are numerous examples, especially from the last thirty years. After the 1980s, the decade that cracked the secret of exploiting people through their hopes and dreams, everything sobered down. And after the last property business and stock exchange crisis, everyone knows that chasing happiness in a capitalist-driven society is basically running after unicorns. (Is it a wonder, the very few successful multi-billion dollar companies are called ‘unicorns’ among venture capitalists?)

So we are not that kind of company. We are also not overly romantic, or idealistic, and we don’t believe in fairy tales. That doesn’t mean data is the only source of truth for us, but it’s a pretty good indicator for where the wind is blowing.

Who Do We Want Our Clients To Be?

To answer whom we want as clients, we had to answer who we want to be. That’s not as easy as deciding what you don’t want to do. It means you need to confront your beliefs with realistic expectation sets, regarding feasibility, regarding business capacity and regarding growth. Especially in an economy where the market is still pretty much driven by outdated ideas about unicorns and magical growth.

I want to talk to you, if you are reading this and you’re not wondering what I’m talking about. I want to talk to you, if you are curious about what we can do with your product or service, or if you believe you guys haven’t reached the full potential for it yet. I want to talk to you, if you are looking for someone in this business who doesn’t look at things through a product engineer’s keyhole. Or that of a marketer, or a UX designer, or a branding company.

Like I said earlier: we do all that stuff. But we don’t do it thinking they are proven recipes to bring success. We also don’t buy into doing things like everyone else, just because, hey, everyone’s doing them, so they must be right.

We don’t do stuff – anything really – without reason. Without thinking about why and how we should do them. Without coming up with a strategy that fits, because it can expand, grow and change direction while we’re working with it. We don’t do stuff we don’t believe in, and we don’t want clients who don’t believe in that stuff either.

We want partners as clients, to think, to look and find out, to discuss, to search and find, and to come up with solutions they didn’t know they needed. Because unless we do all that, searching, discussing, learning and finding out what’s real, we aren’t doing a good job.

We avoid confirmation bias. Big time. We avoid wishful thinking and copying successful models, just because they were seemingly successful. We avoid falling for ideas we can’t believe in, because we did our homework and found out there is no market (also known as “zero need by people”) for them.

What we can do is working with you to build on the great ideas, products and services you have, taking them and using everything we know to design them better, to bring out their core and to design how they are experienced. But for that to work you need to drop the magical shit and start doing things right.

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