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Leading from the Back: Why Pushing Beats Dragging, Every Time

11th October 2017

Last week, Grayling’s global head of strategic services, Jon Meakin made a presentation to the ICCO Summit, on the nature of innovation, and how clients and agencies working together can push the envelope. Below is a transcript of Jon’s presentation.

Good afternoon, everybody.

I’m going to talk to you about conflict, cooperation, client satisfaction... and coffee pots.

The theme of this conference is ‘leading in a transformational world’, and it certainly is a changing world…


For those who are unfamiliar with this piece of technology, it is called a “fax machine” and if you are of a similar vintage to me, you too will have spent a lot of time with one of these things in the early 1990s, faxing out press releases.

But some things don’t change….

… And what I am going to address in the next 20 minutes or so is one such thing – the enduring tension between client and agency. And specifically how that tension hampers innovation, and what can be done about that.


I’m not suggesting that the client-agency relationship is adversarial, and of course it shouldn’t be. But we do have different perspectives. We think differently. In fact, the working title for this presentation was "Clients are from Mars, Agencies are from Venus”.

Now, we are all – or mostly – agency people. So you know the score. The frustrations. We can only be as good as our clients allow us to be.

I’m sure you’re familiar with this meme that still does the rounds from time to time:

But it’s not just budgets, is it? Tell me if this sounds familiar:

Client: We want you to come up with some big ideas! Show us how creative you can be! Budgets are no option!

Agency: That’s great. Can you give us any more direction?

Client: Er, no. Look, this is the dream brief! Just, you know, be creative. Blow us away!

Agency: Well OK.

Client: Oh, and we’ll need you to come in to present on Tuesday, as that’s the only time we’ll all be together.

So you pull together your best creative resources, you call in favours, you work late nights, early mornings, all weekend… and you come up with some great ideas. Truly innovative. But also based on robust insights. Strategically sound. You make it to Tuesday, and you present them…

Client: We love it! Fantastic! Let us regroup internally and we’ll give you formal feedback in a day or so.

A week goes by…

Agency: Er, any feedback?  

Client: Sorry, we’ve been really busy, we’ll get back to you, I promise. We’re all really excited about your ideas!

Agency (grumbling): If it was going to take you this long we could have used the extra time…

Another week goes by…

Agency: Hi. Um, any feedback?

Client: Oh, er, yes. Look, we really like your ideas, but I think we’re just going to stick with what we’ve been doing. Thanks though.

Agency: (bang head against wall / on desk)

All that work, and at least one of your team has broken up with her boyfriend because she had to work all weekend… All those great ideas, that innovation! Wasted. Lost.

A familiar tale, right?  

But there are two sides to every story. And the other side of this one, we rarely get to see. But it goes something like this:

Client (to boss): Boss, I’m really frustrated with our agency. They just aren’t bold or innovative enough, they don’t push us.

Boss: Why don’t you give them an open brief? Challenge them to be as creative as possible. No parameters. Agencies love that!

Client: Great idea!

Client (to agency): We want you to come up with some big ideas! Show us how creative you can be! Budgets are no option!

Cut to: After the presentation.

Client (to boss): Well, what do you think?

Boss: Really creative ideas. Really innovative... Of course, we could never do any of them. Production couldn’t do the limited edition thing, the Sales team wouldn’t like that thing with the live penguins, and that other thing, well it’s just too… out there. Now, can you prepare my shareholder presentation for me?

Unless you have worked in-house yourself, it is hard to appreciate the pressures that your clients are under, pressures that for the most part we never see.

So how does innovation happen?

There is a commonly held belief that innovation happens in leaps forward, made by genius inventors. This is the ‘heroic theory of invention’.

Most of us will be familiar with the proverb, 'Necessity is the mother of invention'. But let’s be clear what we mean by innovation. A true innovation isn’t just an original idea. It’s a device, a process or a methodology that is not just novel, but is replicable, and is something for which customers will pay, because it solves a specific need and / or delivers commercial value.

I’m sure we can all think of examples of how this has been borne out in our work with clients.

A number of years ago, I had a brief spell working for one of the world’s largest PR agencies. My team had a single client, a global energy business. One day they came to us and said: “We need a new model for evaluating our results, for demonstrating value to the wider business. Can you come up with something?”

So: The client had a need, we got to work and engineered a solution. Necessity, invention.

Except here’s the thing: It’s is not true.

Or at least, it is only partially true.

I don’t mean that the story isn’t true, it is. I mean that’s not how innovation happens.

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but in reality, the ‘Eureka moment’ is extremely rare.

True innovation, true innovators, are extremely rare.

In his book, Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond seeks to understand whether the broad pattern of world history would have been altered significantly if some genius inventor or other had not been born at a particular time and place. The answer is clear, he says: There has never been any such person. All recognized famous inventors had capable predecessors and successors.

Newton knew this. It was he who said "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants".  And his ‘discovery’ was pretty significant!

Fortunately for us, and our industry, humankind loves stories and storytellers. What that means is that we all readily subscribe to the heroic theory of invention. So we all know Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb, James Watt invented the steam engine, the Wright Brothers powered flight. Right?

Well, no. Edison’s incandescent lightbulb was an improvement on the incandescent bulbs invented by many others over the previous 30 -plus years; Watt’s steam engine was an improvement on Thomas Newcomen’s engine, which had actually been in commercial use for a number of years by the time Watt ‘invented’ it; and while the Wright Brothers certainly achieved powered manned flight, they followed breakthroughs in unpowered manned flight and powered unmanned flight, by inventors whose names are not nearly as well known. But without them, the Wright Brothers may never have got off the ground.

This is true in our industry, too. The best campaigns are almost never one person’s idea, or even wholly original. When Ogilvy won every PR award going for its Gnome Experiment campaign a few years ago, no-one even mentioned the French film, Amelie, which was the clear source of inspiration.

And that evaluation algorithm we came up with wasn’t plucked out of the ether. It was an evolution of important work done by colleagues elsewhere within that agency, by members of this organization, by AMEC, by many others.

The reason we all know the names of Edison, Watt, the Wright Brothers, Gutenberg and others is not because they had ‘Eureka moments’, but because they ‘stood on the shoulders of giants’, making their improvements – and here’s the crucial part – at a time when society was capable of using their product, and willing to accept it.

Merely having a bigger, faster, more powerful device for doing something is no guarantee of ready acceptance. Innumerable such technologies were either not adopted at all or adopted only after prolonged resistance.

Do you know the story of the Trojan Room coffee pot? In the early 1990s there was a group of computer scientists at Cambridge University. The Computer Science Faculty in those days was spread across many rooms and multiple floors in one building. But they all shared one coffee pot, which was in the Trojan Room. The problem was, these guys would often be working late at night, and would trudge down three flights of stairs only to find the coffee pot was empty. So they rigged up a camera, hooked it up to their internal network, so that at any moment they could check how much hot coffee was in the pot. In time, they put it online. This was the world’s first webcam. But it was years before that technology found a willing audience and became mainstream.

Now apply that to our world: Your innovation, whatever it is, has to have a willing and accepting audience. In other words, your client has to want whatever it is you’ve come up with.

The truth is, even if your innovation, whatever it is, is the right thing for the client, even if they need it, even if it will make their lives better, their jobs easier, even if it will improve their comms no end, they still might not want it. 


Because embracing the new is hard.

It takes effort, and requires your client to change something - the way they operate, or the way they think. More than that, even if your day to day client wants it, what about their boss? And their boss’ boss?

My energy client thought they wanted a great new way of evaluating results, and what we came up with was undoubtedly right at the time. But when it came down to it they didn’t want to make the internal changes necessary for it to be accepted and used within the wider organization. So we carried on as we were, and as far as I know that algorithm is still languishing somewhere. 

And here’s the other thing: That whole project was undertaken by an already busy account team, on top of everything else.

This is where I make the case for a small back room.


‘The Small Back Room’ is a 1949 film by Pressburger and Powell about a military scientist during the war, but it has come to mean any ‘back office’ function that supports front line efforts.

In the agency world, I am talking about a small team of people whose job it is to think about the stuff the account handlers don’t have time to. To consider and even anticipate the clients’ needs and, by standing on the shoulders of giants, develop solutions for the account teams to offer to their clients.

After 25 years in PR, this is the role in which I now find myself. As head of strategic services at Grayling, I sit at the centre, developing products, services, methodologies and resources for the agency teams to use, and to adapt as they see fit, wherever they may be in the world. My small team and I are Grayling’s ‘small back room’.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying every agency needs a Jon Meakin – no, one is quite enough.

I’m also not saying that innovation can’t come from account teams. It very often does, and in those instances it is the job of the central team, the ‘small back room’, to take those innovations and socialize them throughout the rest of the business.

No, what I am saying is this: The economics of the PR industry are tough. In every part of the world, there is downward pressure on fees. We are all having to do more for less. So your account teams are busy. Really busy! They don’t have the time to develop new methodologies or services. And yet that is exactly what you need if you are to differentiate yourself.

The counter-argument, of course, is that having a small back room adds cost, a central overhead that puts even more pressure on the account teams. But that is an accountant’s view of the world. (Do we have any FDs in the room?) I love Excel as much as the next person, but one of the things I have learned in the last two decades is that there are always unseen costs. The extra burden placed on already overstretched account teams who are asked to come up with innovative new ways to evaluate, when they could – should – be adding value to their clients in other ways.

And consider this: What is the cost of not having that ‘small back room’? You run the risk of losing valuable clients to rival agencies who are able to tempt them away with a shiny new thing.

At Grayling, at least, this is a formula that is working. We spent a lot of time, effort and money developing a product called GCore.

GCore is a tool that was borne out an acknowledgement of the changing landscape in terms of reputation management. Specifically, the role that Google search plays, and the fact that as Google continues to update its algorithm, the SEO principles of old are much less important than the storytelling skills inherent in our industry. So GCore is a tool built by PR people, for people, to help clients understand the risks posed to their brand’s resilience online, and inform strategies for addressing them. We believe it’s unique in the marketplace, but I would be the first to admit that it was an evolution of many forebears.

No account team could have built GCore. But it is they that are benefiting from this innovation, as their clients buy into its benefits, and we use it to inform strategic solutions for organizations large and small that either have reputational challenges, or want to be a thought leader in a particular area. (Don’t all clients?)

Was necessity the mother of this invention? Not exactly. Our clients were not clamouring for a tool like GCore. A bit like the Model T, most did not even know they needed it. Neither, by the way, did many of our account teams. It took a while before the benefits of GCore started to become accepted by both clients and account teams. And we are not all the way there yet. But then, Nikolaus Otto built the first gas engine in 1866, and no-one saw the need to replace the horse for another 50 years.

So what is the formula for acceptance?

In his classic book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini sets out the six ‘weapons of influence’.

Even if you’re not familiar with the book and the details of the actual ‘weapons’, I have little doubt that you use some or all of them every day. I know I do. In fact I’ve already done so during this short presentation.

Let’s take them one at how each of these might be applied with regard to, say, the adoption by a reluctant or sceptical client of GCore:

Reciprocation concerns the overwhelming need people feel to repay debts. The most common application of this technique? The free sample. So we developed a GCore-Lite product that we could provide to clients at no cost to them. Not only do they get to see the tool in action, they then feel obligated when we go back and sell the full analysis.

I’m sure we can think of other examples where this has worked.

Commitment and Consistency is about the notion that people are extremely reluctant to change their minds once they have committed to something. In this case, we had to get the client to commit to the idea that they needed to do something about their Google search profile. Once a client has committed to that, they are unlikely to go back on it.

Social Proof: Lots of companies like yours are doing this. 

Liking: No, this isn’t about Facebook. Quite simply, your client is more likely to buy your service, your innovation, if they like you. Now you can’t make people like you, but there are things you can do to stack the odds. Using the word ‘we’, for example. And there’s a reason the business lunch persists. Studies have shown that people are more likely to like you – and tour ideas – if they are enjoying a good meal. That and reciprocation.

Authority: An age-old PR technique – the citing of third party experts. I’m doing it right now. And with GCore we leverage the expertise of Google itself.

Scarcity: We are only able to conduct three GCore analyses this quarter.

This may all sound pretty insidious but, like I say, these are techniques that we all use, all the time. This is the ‘push’ that I refer to in the presentation title.

To finish where I started: Yes, any agency can only be as good as its clients allow it to be. And no, we can’t make clients do things they don’t want to do.

But as an industry, as agencies, as individuals, we can’t stand still. We can innovate. Indeed, we have a responsibility to do so. And we do so by standing back from the day to day, through the smart use of resources to think about and develop new ideas and methodologies, and by standing on the shoulders of giants, building on the work of our peers and colleagues.

And we can persuade our clients to adopt those innovations. By pushing, not dragging.

And if we succeed?

When it was released in the United States, Small Back Room was given a different title: Hour of Glory!

Thank you.

Grayling Team

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