I wouldn’t normally begin with a quote from Norman Tebbit but, as we all know, the past 12 months have been strange. So here goes.
Reflecting on the Tories’ descent from populist landslide-winners in the 1980s to infighting losers in the 1990s, the "Chingford Skinhead" once said something along the lines of: "When you first move into Downing Street, the windows look huge but, after a few years, they begin to feel smaller and smaller."
What I think he meant was that, in the early days of a parliament, governments are necessarily focused on the outside world: the politicians have just spent months tramping the streets and courting the media; they are still forming their views, so they draw their inspiration from an eclectic array of sources; on day one, they look out at the cheering crowds and are daunted by the size of the task but also genuinely optimistic about their ability to change society. However, after a few years, the focus typically becomes more inward-looking: ministers get drawn into the day-to-day grind of Whitehall; they get stuck in endless policy quagmires and increasingly end up debating among themselves; before too long, the world outside the window is forgotten.
Now, don’t worry – I’m not going to go off on some Faragian rant about how we’re all living in a Westminster bubble and are ignoring a disenfranchised underclass oop north. Instead, I want to voice a bigger concern that many organisations seem to be forgetting the customer full stop (whether they live in Bolton or Hoxton). Worse still, we might be encouraging their neglect.
There are several reasons why I say this. First, the growing importance of technology means that many organisations are now being driven by coders, engineers and white coats. In addition, the rise of the service economy means that companies often put the feelings of frontline staff first. Likewise, the increased complexity of modern business means that key stakeholders or supply-chain partners are sometimes prioritised. All of these developments are understandable and, of course, these internal audiences are very important. But when customers are routinely put at the back of the queue, organisations start to go downhill.
What’s worrying is that several developments within our industry may be inadvertently exacerbating this. For instance, in-house creative departments may bring added agility but can easily rob companies of their objectivity. Similarly, bespoke one-client agencies can flatter corporate egos but also reduce the opportunity for lateral thinking. Equally, placing agency staffers "on site" might improve their understanding of the client culture – but can also distort their take on the outside world.
Again, I’m not saying any of these approaches are wrong in themselves – but if your only source of creative inspiration comes from people who are immersed in your business, 24/7, without any other cultural reference points to stimulate them (or attract them in the first place), you should be concerned about the possibility of groupthink.
In my experience, the best marketing comes from a balance of internal brilliance, driven by external vision. That means organisations that do indeed have amazing technical skills, frontline staff and supply chains – but are always directed by a desire to serve their customers. It also means creativity that is infused by an understanding of the business, tailored to the brand and created in partnership – but always with the outside world in mind.
The truth is that ordinary people never care as much about our products or brands as we do. So as we sit in our brainstorms, review our NPD plans or discuss our communications, we need to eat hearty helpings of humble pie, not just drink the Kool-Aid.
Put another way, as well as making sure our products are great, our people are motivated and our stakeholders are happy, we need to make sure our windows are big – and that we’re looking out of them, not in.
Andy Nairn is the founding partner of Lucky Generals