We invite colleagues, competitors, clients and other skilled people from (or relevant for) our industry, for a coffee. Today’s guest is Rohn Jay Miller, a partner in Native Instinct, a San Francisco based agency that works with clients such as Dell, Visa and Wells Fargo. ‘Our biggest claim to fame is partnering in the launch and success of the The Flip camera. We worked with them from the garage days up to their sale to Cisco. I live in Minneapolis, where I run an office focused on content and social strategy. Our team delivers business strategy, Websites and social communities to attract and engage customers as directly as possible. I earned my MFA in directing from the USC School of Cinematic Arts in Los Angeles.’
What inspires you?
I’ve found a group of people in the communications business whose ideas and work I follow. I’m very interested in how people practice their ideas. This group of inspirational practitioners share a lot of qualities with each other—they’re smart, open, humble and unafraid to trust what they see and think. The people at MadeByMany in UK, as well as planners like Neil Perkin, Kip Voytek, Adrian Ho, Paul Isakson and Farrah Bostic are all wrestling with how we connect customers more deeply into the process of bring products and services to market. Agile and Lean principles and practices are what they share in common. This thinking is much closer to where 21st century communications needs to be than brand campaigns from the 20th century, and I find it very inspirational.
How do you keep exploring and learning?
I used to say 10% of my time was spent “sharpening the saw,” by reading and talking with others. I now realize that’s more like 30% of my time. That’s time spent getting new articles, posts and links to new work from a network of people on social networks. But I think it’s really important to look at the time you spend creating your work as learning time. We need to talk with our team mates as we create and be willing to invent new ways of working.
Another tactic for me this year was committing to reading a book a week. I got sick of buying great books and then just looking at them pile up on my desk. There’s more than 50 books (new and old) worth reading in a year.
When were you amazed last?
I went to three brilliant conferences this year—SXSW in Austin, the Confab content strategy conference in Minneapolis, and Un-Planning, which was also in Minneapolis this year. All three were great, and I’m returning to them next year.
But Un-Planning really rocked my world. I sat through a session on “Lean Strategy” by Farrah Bostic, and another on “Product As Strategy” by Adrian Ho and Dave Peterson from Zeus Jones which both focused on how Agile planning gets us engaged with customers directly building product and communications. It’s about making stuff, not talking about making stuff. Get engaged with customers in a direct process of building products and services. Stop planning. Start building and then revising.
What is your favorite resource library?
When I was with bigger agencies I had access to Forrester and some of the other $25,000 a seat research banks. Now all I can afford is $300 a year for eConsultancy, which I’ve always found to be a very valuable place for baseline research and templates. I’m also one of those people who thinks there isn’t a subject in the world I can’t get my head around if I just buy a few books from Amazon and lock myself up for a weekend. That’s wrong, but I still have that naïve confidence.
What’s the biggest challenge the digital communications industry is facing right now, and do this lead you to some predictions?
The biggest challenge is clearly that the communications channels of a generation ago are breaking up and morphing wildly as they are being overwhelmed by this new wave of digital communications channels and networks. The result is that we are communicating with each other in so many different models that it’s much more difficult for us communications professionals to do our jobs on behalf of clients: grab sales and mindshare.
• It’s not possible to change an advertising agency into some new kind of agency that can be successful in this new world. I came to that conclusion two years ago. Agency management was raised to run “command and control” campaigns and to manage hierarchies of authority. We have to “burn down the barn” and start over.
My apologies to WPP, IPG and other global networks, but I feel that the global ad agency networks add almost no value to client solutions. These networks exist as enormous containers of debt, raised to pay off agency owners when they were bought by the network. Now these executives are gone, and it’s left to an army of worker ants to service this debt. None of this has anything to do with helping our clients solve communications problems.
• The line between product development and marketing is blurring, which I think is a very good thing. First, we are coming to realize that “communications” is a part of every product and service. I believe that agile marketing will bring input from customers directly back to the product team to improve the product itself. This is a much better model than the old way of marketing, “putting lipstick on a pig.” Choosing another metaphor, we’re coming to realize that it’s less about the “wrapping paper” and more about the “gift” inside. The best ad for a Mini-Cooper is me watching one drive down the street in front of me, not me watching another TV ad.
• “Brand” is losing value in the marketplace. “Brand equity” to me has always meant “what is the premium you can charge in the marketplace over a commodity competitor?” I think if companies truly measured that difference they would be astonished at how little all the precious “branding” adds to customer decision-making these days. Times are hard and communications are being taken over by consumers. Not good for branding.
• We’re in the first few years of a very hard decade economically. This will lead to much more price-based decision making by us as consumers. The only brands will be able to charge will be those either be selling to the super-rich or when customers take ownership of a brand. I think this will be especially true in B2B businesses like technology, insurance and finance.
• Finally, we are also entering a long period of chaos in communications planning. It will be five or ten years before we understand the way this new world works. The models and the research behind them don’t exist. Reach and frequency now co-exist with engagement and social value. How do we plan for clients? What is the relationship between these channels? How can we automate and personalize at the same time? Who the hell knows?
“Who the hell knows?” might be a good title for this coffee break. Or I might use it as a book title, if I ever get around to writing a book. The answer to the question “who the hell knows?” is, of course, me and you. We just have to get out there and learn how.