Bet On The Underdog

Great Britian’s Marketing Magazine is running a short piece on a rich topic. Diageo–the world’s largest spirits company–is doing away with the concept of a “lead agency.”

Diageo will switch to a system under which the agency with the ‘best idea’ will be responsible for leading the brief, regardless of the discipline.

Diageo’s procurement team has also been reviewing its roster so that it better reflects the modern marketing mix, including disciplines such as social media.

Bryony Stickells, head of digital at Diageo, had previously hinted at the fresh approach. Earlier this year, she told Marketing: “You have to start with the consumer – who they are, where they engage with a brand and what they want to engage with. Then consider what channels suit the brand.”

I used to work on Bailey’s, Captain Morgan, Smirnoff and other Diageo brands during my four-year run at BFG Communications. At one point, I flew to New York and pitched a room full of Diageo clients on the value of content and how the team at BFG would cultivate and deliver it for them. Sadly, our grand plans didn’t sell, but that’s not the point of my recounting. The point is Diageo brand managers were listening to the guys from Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, the promotions and events people with a new digital practice. Because smart clients are always open to new ideas, from any source that can provide one.

Yet, let’s not kid around. It’s human nature to be impressed with pedigree, stature and power. Therefore, the common sense approach where “the marketplace of ideas is open to all” is more of a platitude than a reality. Because we’re a risk averse lot, and going with the underdog with bright ideas is risky.

I am the underdog. Now more than ever. Bonehook is a new company started in a new city. We all know that’s not how it’s done. You launch your own company after a decade or more of service in one market, so you know people. After all, knowing people is how your business survives. Bonehook is not exempt from this fundamental law of business. Far from it. Our best client, a health care concern in Salt Lake City, is run by a close personal friend. And my two closest co-workers are both former colleagues from my time working in Omaha (2000-2002).

Now to the point of this ramble…there’s a lot to be gained by placing your bets on the underdog. Underdogs are scrappy and scrappy is a great thing to be in today’s marketplace. The rise of digital means a million things, but one thing it clearly means is no one–fat Madison Avenue cats included–is comfortable. It’s a time of unrest in marketing communications and the world, and that means opportunity for companies who successfully manage risk.

I know the big established shops are changing rapidly to better conform to digital culture. As it should be. Big established brands will continue to listen to their newly reconfigured advice. But here’s the thing, it’s not easy to change corporate culture and like it or not big agency culture isn’t the best thing for a client today.

When you come from a place of privilege, it shows. Privilege leaks into your thinking and it spreads. All of a sudden the client and agency are back at square one, thinking that prospective customers will be privileged to see their newly minted marketing messages.

Underdogs don’t play that game.

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