Steal These Ideas

Launching Our 2010 Agency Business Plan

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Phil Johnson Phil Johnson
I once worked for a creative director who told me that ideas were cheap. He didn't say that they weren't valuable. He meant that you didn't have to worry about people stealing your ideas because without a vision for implementation they were worthless to anyone else. In that spirit, I'm going to share PJA's early-stage agency strategy for 2010. It's going to be hard enough for us to pull it off, so I'm not worried about anyone else running off with our thinking.

We start working on our strategic plan in the summer and try to complete it by the beginning of October for the start of our fiscal year. Before we get to financial goals and tactics, we encourage people to let their imaginations wander. For the first meeting, we bring the management team together and ask everybody to think about the areas where we can be ahead of the curve. A couple of days before this year's meeting, agency President Mike O'Toole laid the groundwork by asking everyone to:

"Think expansively and creatively about the opportunities where our talents and aspirations intersect market demands."

I love these meetings. We hole ourselves up in one of the mezzanine conference rooms with plenty of Diet Dr Pepper and candy, and seltzer and fruit for the health conscious. It gets a little raucous, and half the time I don't know what people are talking about, including myself. Anything is fair game for conversation. Somehow, by the end, we wind up with a couple of significant ideas that capture everyone's imagination. We're still far from anything that looks like a plan. But at this stage, what I'm looking for is that spark that gets the whole room excited. If we can get to that, I know we're off and running.

Greg Straface, our VP-business development, got everyone in the mood by quoting from Forrester's U.S. Interactive Marketing Forecast:

"Agencies that can't transition from pushing out messages to nurturing customer connections aren't long for this world. Agency readers heed our warning. Service firms that lack data management, analytics, listening, social media execution, and strategy expertise will dry up."

That wisdom cheered us all up and got the blood flowing. Truth is, that quote from Forrester complements our own philosophy about the agency business. The days of distinguishing between traditional and digital agencies are over. The race is between agencies that can develop innovative marketing programs across the entire universe of consumer channels and those that can't. Of course digital will be at the core for all of us, but that's not the whole story.

Before the afternoon ended we had covered the white board several time over. Here's a sampling of notes I jotted down for myself:

Next phase of social media innovation (life beyond Twitter) -- Internet radio -- iPhone apps for CIOS -- increased presence in online communities -- social media ROI and performance -- technical marketing, i.e., content management and lead nurturing technologies -- creative pragmatism -- targeting 2.0 -- CRM investments -- branded content and channels -- social media infrastructure -- evolution of small-screen video -- global channel management -- new accountability tools and methodology -- intellectual property strategy.

I'm obviously leaving out some detail, but you can see the general direction. It took some wrangling and debating, but out of seeming randomness some focus started to emerge. By the end of the meeting, we had agreed on a handful of areas where we believe we can stay ahead of the competitive curve, at least in our own markets.

Three broad areas topped the bill. We need to answer the question: What will the next chapter of social media look like? We're likely placing our bet on social-media applications for lead nurturing, an area where we want to excel. Second, we want to build out our technical competency in search and content-management systems, two areas that will take us deeper into managing the customer experience for our clients. The broadest area will be to develop a strategy for branded content. In our case that means video, applications and entertainment that we'll develop for core markets that we serve. We recently got our feet wet developing a web-based application for Twitter called Hash It Out for one of our technology clients.

Who knows? Even if they are good ideas, will they propel us forward, separate us from the pack, and capture the imaginations of the people who matter, our clients? Some of you will be nipping at our heels. And you never know who's out there ready to rewrite all the rules and change the game. Whatever happens, I hope we all get to play.

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You can follow Phil Johnson on Twitter: @philjohnson.

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