How to Get the Best Ideas From Your Agency

By , Posted April 24, 2016

While I’ve never had the honor of serving our country personally, I have been exposed to several powerful military leaders who made a big impact on how I think about business. And while it may not be intuitive to connect the rigidity of military planning to “Getting great work out of your ad agency,” I would beg to differ. At the end of the day, accomplishing a military objective or a marketing objective really comes down to trust. Here’s the first story:

In the early 1990s, I found myself on the third row in a large convention hall where Four Star General Norm Schwarzkopf was the keynote speaker. General Schwarzkopf had just led the operation known as Desert Storm – the U.S. military response to the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein in 1990. He was very popular at the time and was regarded as a strong, tough leader. At this convention he told a different story, but one that continued to stick with me. Greatly paraphrasing his speech, he commented:

“Everyone thinks I’m this great general. I’m not. I’m just a guy. But when you are leading hundreds of thousands of soldiers, that last thing you can do is be indecisive. There were many strategic options to consider in completing our mission, especially with human lives at stake. I certainly wasn’t the greatest general, but I was willing to make a decision and provide crystal clear direction. I had complete trust in everyone around me and in the chain of command. I knew as long as the mission objective was clear, smarter people down the line would create, improvise, ideate and make the battle plan even better. In fact, the execution would be much better than what I would have been able to do on my own. They would figure out the best solutions. I just had to get out of the way. And that’s what happened. We succeeded. I gave clear direction and the team then figured out how to achieve the mission objective.”

The second example is how I saw this same process work in more of a real-life situation. One of my sons is a First Lieutenant in the United States Army. His training was done through the ROTC program, and as part of that program, parents were allowed to observe a full day of battle training missions conducted in the field. I was incredibly impressed with the training and the key steps that were followed each and every time. I may not have the military terminology quite right here, but these are the core steps:

  1. Have a clear and concise mission objective, in writing and confirmed
  2. Develop a plan to attain the mission objective
  3. Prepare and rehearse the plan
  4. Execute plan
  5. Debrief

As I thought about the topic of “how to get great ideas from your ad agency,” these two stories, and this particular process immediately came to mind. I could list a million specific things that clients can do to encourage great work, but I think this process is a key framework to help get there.

Here is how I translate the military examples into the client/agency world:

Believe in and support training

Articulate a clear mission objective

Get out of the way

Trust – no man left behind

The debrief

In today’s digital world, optimization and results can be discussed and fine-tuned along the way, but take time to discuss the process and results. Both the client agency and agency should try to be as transparent as possible about what worked and what didn’t work. Just like the Army officers I witnessed, agencies have thick-skins and we only get better with solid feedback.

Since General Schwarzkopf’s had recently retired from military service, he was dressed in civilian clothing. He was very warm and very approachable. But as he got to the end of his speech, he reached below the podium, slowly adorned a full metal Army helmet, emblazoned with his four stars, paused, stared at the audience, and with a booming voice said, “Any questions!” No one dared raise a hand at that point. Until he said, “just kidding!”

The takeaway from all of that was: be direct, make a decision or provide direction, get out of the way and allow the troops to create, and maybe most importantly be human. You will achieve great results and you will get great work from your agency team.

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