Attention Strategies for Challengers

I have a strong feeling that things in the ad world are about to get ridiculous-er. And as much as I hate when it is right, my gut just knows things.

We are finding out what happens when the enormous budgets earmarked for changing “hearts and minds” are fearfully invested in “fewer, bigger, better” (plus programmatic). After all, “no one gets fired for putting Google (or Facebook) on a plan,” right? Well, we’ll see.

As digital exits adolescence, with all its gangly business models and growing pains, we see for ourselves who is still leaning on trust funds and who may have some loans to repay.

While not as obvious a truth as one would hope, growth has limitations. People cannot squish more hours in the day or more eyeballs in their head. So to grow attention or revenue (hopefully both), companies have to steal from others. With the suspicion and boycott of the industry Bigs, it is a very good time for the Littles to make a move.

What can you do to improve your chance of thriving?

Lead with Insights

I’ve grown to hate the word data. Amassing data is like collecting rocks in a jar and putting it on your shelf. As Darryl Kerrigan says, “It’s what you DO with it, darl.” Someone has to be tasked with pulling out the gold from the pyrite, packaging it for self-promotion (what good is being smart if no one actually knows it?) and/or applying it for development of product, engagement, and revenue growth.

Any marketing primer will tell you that you should be publishing (even if you aren’t a publisher). Opinion pieces, case studies, historical trends, self-promotion — all of these can raise your profile. Find ways to weave in INSIGHTS (not just data) from your work and the work of others. Create shareable graphics of your insights. Republish one piece of insight-driven content in a variety of ways across a variety of formats. Share it in a formal way with your customers and especially their insights teams. Who knows? You may strike up a reciprocal partnership to exchange and co-publish insights?

If your business doesn’t have the means to conduct insight studies on your own, find a partner. Find someone in a complementary role who can pick up half the mantle and help you sprint ahead. Don’t be afraid of reaching out to agencies, competitors, or ad tech challengers. We are all putting on our panic pants one leg at a time. You can bet that most of the field is facing similar challenges getting attention.

Put the Pedal Down

Having worked for my share of startups, I can tell you that there is real danger in trying to be all things to all people. The art of differentiation is self-awareness. What problem do you solve better than anyone else? Originally, I titled this section “Swim in Your Lane” but changed it to avoid being misinterpreted as promoting a lack of ambition. Rather, identify the thing you do best so that you can put all your energies, pro-dev, marketing, sales, and executive power behind it. Build a base of success, then take on what’s next.

What if you don’t know what your strength is?

It is shocking how many companies don’t. So first, know you’re in a secret club of SO MANY. You needn’t feel ashamed (unless you do nothing to get out of it.) First, ask your team. You hired them; trust them enough to share their ideas about how you go forward together. You can build good-will AND get good ideas. *You will not use all of them, so be prepared to ALSO explain how and why you came to your decision once you do. People are willing to (keep) share(ing) ideas and opinions if they know that they are a) safe to do so b) appreciated.

Then turn your focus outside of your bubble. Your clients and non-clients will have invaluable insights for you. Think about creating an agency or brand advisory board. This relationship is important and should be managed by the person on your team with the most diplomacy and seniority combo. Align behind the questions you want answered and the hypotheses you want tested. Be stingy with how often you engage this team or rotate the players so you have diversity of thought. Provide them with obvious value for participating in your business growth.

Start there and then, crucially, get your whole team aligned behind your purpose.

Focus allows you to be a master (eventually). Aligning resources behind a single (or narrower) goals, will help you push across the finish line faster so that you can lather, rinse, repeat that behavior to create muscle memory on your team. After a string of successes, you may even generate some buzz among your target. Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd. It will also allow you to define and refine a better UVP to tell your story simply and effectively. There are, in fact, many problems in the industry. Your job is to prioritize which ones you can and will fix. And then promote the solution in creative ways with the whole team.

Make Bold Statements

Sometimes you just have to leap. Playing small ball might keep you “busy” but it won’t get you growth. There’s a reason why fortune favors the bold. (Bankruptcy does too but that’s the game. Don’t hate the players.)

When eMarketer published this “brand safety” alert, I advised it was a great time for press release/ interview/ statement/ promotion to stake claim to some solution. This requires agility and decisiveness, of course, but leadership teams who establish safe spaces for ideas to flourish will also be able to embrace opportunistic moments. The brands who paused their YouTube spending need a safe space to play, but they have to know it exists. I was thrilled to see Kargo had the same idea. They even built their bold statement into their LinkedIn header. Clever move.

Involve your whole team. Challenger brands often don’t have the resources to fill every role that could help them punch above their weight. The most effective small companies identify and leverage the strengths on their team and train/empower everyone to amplify the company message. Simple solutions like following and engaging with your company’s social accounts add exponential views to your messaging. Encourage multiple voices from within and without — interview your best customer for some B2B love (people love to be special), or create challenges or awards for your team, your clients, the industry (people love to compete and to win).

One Final Idea? Press Pause. Most of us have champagne problems. Look up from that spreadsheet. Cancel that meeting. Get your team together and go volunteer for a half-day. Do something that shows who you are and gives back to your community. (Yes, yes, snap some pics for posterity and publishing.) If you embed volunteerism/ community engagement into your culture as a habit, invite clients to join you for a day building relationships while building the community. Do this to disrupt the vibe of your office, recommit to your (or a) cause, and regain perspective. Everyone can spare a couple of hours from the grind.

Good luck out there.