Scott Clark, Tonic Life Communications: Initiative is more than ideas

Even the most inspirational agency will falter if not supported by a constant 'can-do' attitude.

Scott Clark, Tonic Life Communications: Initiative is more than ideas

The ability to adapt rapidly and appropriately to a changing business environment is essential for the success of any agency.

But in turbulent times, such as the past year, change has not required minor adjustments but dramatic shifts to grapple with shrinking budgets and increasing demands on performance outcomes.

Growth is harder to come by. Being nimble is crucial. It is 'adapt or die'.

The healthcare sector in particular has seen a double-barrelled impact: the economic climate hitting in concert with a 'reputation recession' swirling around big pharma firms. Cost of and access to innovative medicines have come under the spotlight and comms strategies have had to expand to fully integrate value messages before, during and after product launches. Likewise, our consumer lifestyle clients are fighting off own-label competition and the commoditisation of many product categories. Regardless of the causes, all clients are feeling the pressure, and at the end of the day, the agency's job is to help them manage it.

But there are positive by-products of the new economic reality. The move away from the breakneck growth many agencies, including Tonic, have enjoyed has allowed time to stop and think about the business more purposefully. Our secret to success over the past 12 months has been to focus like never before on a single-minded proposition and to couple this with a powerful dose of initiative. We cannot wait for tomorrow to make things happen; it is about what we can do today. That is precisely the finding from last year's Future of the PR Agency report, which called for more use of initiative by consultancies to proactively support their clients. Clients want, and deserve, to know you are always thinking about their business and proactively offering solutions.

Initiative comes from within. That starts with hiring people at all levels who have a 'can-do' attitude. We have tried to create a culture where free thinking can flourish, and support our teams to offer new initiatives to clients on a daily basis. Practically speaking, showing initiative means picking up the phone - perhaps a bit more than usual - to gauge the pulse of our clients and to offer our help and counsel. Teams must ask on a daily basis,'What can I do to aid my client's business?' and translate this into pragmatic actions that can realistically be accomplished.

Unfortunately, many consultancies have responded to the change in business climate by lurching from one idea to the next in an effort to kick-start growth. But if necessity is the mother of invention, desperation is the father of disaster. Showing initiative is not just about being an open tap that constantly spews out new ideas; it is having an unparalleled insight into a client's business to know which concepts to put forward and, most importantly, having the courage to let clients know when something is not right - even if that means a short-term knock to revenues.

Making ideas come to life takes a great deal of initiative. The agency world is awash with creativity, but many lack the initiative to make things happen: it is what separates good agencies from great ones. Likewise, there is a balancing act when it comes to showing initiative. Clients must also live up to their end of the bargain by fighting for and rewarding new ideas with required resources.

As we look to emerge intact from the economic 'perfect storm', the agency world is slowly recognising growth will not occur by sitting back and waiting.

Generally speaking, there are two types of people in the world: those who fear change and those who embrace it.

Agencies must attract and retain people with an optimistic outlook who constantly seek out the opportunities - in good and bad times.

Views in brief

Which three words describe the perfect account manager of the future?

Nimble:  An ability to quickly respond to the client's needs and seize opportunities is a central asset of a successful AM.  While agency heads are busy focusing on movements in the macro environment, the AM must track and respond to the acute changes that occur everyday that can impact and campaign or project.  An ability to move fast and adapt will only become more important as new real time technologies move from fringe to frontline.   Being versatile goes hand in hand with this attribute.

Caring:  No I haven't lost the plot.  I am not talking about kumbaya and group hugs here.  On the face of it, you might not think of being caring as something which is incompatible with the cut and thrust of business.  To care about something takes emotion, passion and understanding.  If you care about something you are committed.  I look for people who care (give a sh*t, if you will) about their clients, their colleagues and about causes.  Too many people these days don't care and that is perhaps why some agencies find themselves in dire circumstances.  AMs need to care about their accounts.

Accountable: As executives move up the career ladder, one thing that increases at every stage is the pressure to be responsible for the successes and failures of a project.  Being able to stand up and make a case for the actions taken and deal with the ramifications make for a good AM.  Society is now holding client companies accountable for their actions and this will continue to cascade throughout the work we do. 

How comfortable do you feel pitching against agencies from different disciplines? Why/not?

By the time we decide whether or not to pitch for a piece of business, we will have given a great deal of consideration not only to the needs of the brief and the chemistry with the client, but also an honest assessment of how our experience and areas of expertise match up.  If we have determined that Tonic has the right skills and desire to work on the assignment, then in many respects it doesn't matter who the competition is going to be.  We don't spend a great deal of time obsessing about the other agencies involved, because that is when your own plans start to become derailed.  The only thing I would add is that if a brief has agencies from different disciplines involved, there is a risk that the client has not fully thought through their needs in the first place.  With convergence of marketing functions becoming more common, we'll likely see more pitches with unfamiliar faces in client reception areas - which will make for interesting times.

What were/are the essential elements of your most productive client relationship?

For anyone who has worked with me at any point during the past 20+ years, my answer to this has always been the same -- Confidence & Chemistry.  The client must have the trust and belief that you will deliver for them, know your stuff and are a solid partner.  But that confidence must also be matched by the equally important, but harder to quantify, chemistry element that shows that you have a connection with the person and organisation. 

Scott Clark is CEO of Tonic Life Communications

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