Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the president of McKee Wallwork + Co., an advertising agency that specializes in working with stalled, stuck and stale brands. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”
“The world doesn’t need another ad agency.”
That’s a quote from Seema Miller, marketing strategist and co-founder of a new firm she describes as a “creative consultancy” in an effort to avoid being lumped in with the sameness of the world she just left.
I took note of Ms. Miller’s words because they’re identical to those my business partner and I struggled with nearly two decades ago when we launched McKee Wallwork + Co. And they’re eerily similar to the discouraging thoughts that ran through my mind when I set out to write "When Growth Stalls": Did the world really need another business book?
The numbers are pretty discouraging. It would be difficult to throw a stone in any direction and not hit one of the 13,000-plus ad agencies there are in America. And books? It would be impossible to even scan the titles of the several hundred thousand that are published each year, let alone read them. We have more restaurants, cars, clothiers and -- name the category -- than we could ever take advantage of (at least in the developed world). It’s not an exaggeration to say that in most cases, we really don’t need another.
On what then is Miller pinning her hopes for her new venture? Why has my firm thrived for the better part of 20 years? How did "When Growth Stalls" come to be published in four languages? In all three cases, we recognized, at least subconsciously, that the world didn’t need another, it needed "an other."
It’s amazing how a single tap on the space bar can make such a difference. “Another” is one of those odd English words that have multiple and contradictory meanings. One definition is “being one more in addition to one or more of the same kind,” like having another car payment or eating another piece of pie (two more things none of us likely need).
But “another” also means “different or distinct from the one first considered.” That puts an entirely different spin on things, and putting a space between the letters underscores the point.
The world rarely needs “another,” but it will always welcome “an other” -- particularly in the most mature, crowded and commoditized industries, where sameness leads to staleness. Time after time, another product or service gets superseded by an other product or service, making our lives more pleasant, more efficient, more productive, or better in a host of additional ways.
In 1967, the world didn’t need another airline; Herb Kelleher’s insight was that it needed an other airline, and Southwest was born.
In 2007, the world didn’t need another cell phone; Steve Jobs saw what could be and introduced an other way not only of making calls but also of interacting with the world. And, in 2009, the world didn’t need another book; but when our research turned up four hidden and destructive internal dynamics that, sooner or later, trip up every company, an other book was born.
Seeking "an other" is a good strategy to keep pace with the inexorable march of creative destruction. In the marketplace, what is will not always be, and what is to come has not always been. The task of strategists is to be agents of creation rather than victims of destruction. Our challenge is to pursue the new and unproven even as we preserve the existing and profitable.
That’s not a simple task. As Machiavelli wrote, "there is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than to set up as a leader in the introduction of changes. For he who innovates will have for his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new."
No one ever said this stuff is easy. But whenever you’re on to something, there will always come competitors who mimic your methods, commoditize your model and crunch your margins. You have no option but to continually look for ways to innovate, even at the risk of attacking yourself.
If you don’t do it, somebody else will.
So yes, the world does need an other ad agency, an other book, and an other whatever it is you make or do. And it’s your job to pioneer what is to come even as you preserve what already is. Unless you can ensure your company, product or service is continually and legitimately "an other," it’ll end up becoming just "another."