VP of Something

07.45, Friday 21 Feb 2020

Over the years I’ve met a lot of new agencies and consultancies, and got to chatting about their positioning and strategy – the words they use to talk about what they do, how they dress it up, and who they’re selling their services to.

Sometimes the new business is operating in a new market which typically isn’t the smart thing to do. It’s an uphill struggle to sell something where there isn’t an common job title for the buyer, or an established network for word of mouth (word of mouth is unreasonably effective) or an easy way to see how the services fit into business as usual. But when you can make it work, my goodness, things start flying. So it can be worth it.

Think… design, about 10 years ago. Even only a decade ago, it wasn’t clear that Apple’s design-first approach would prove so successful. Software development methods like agile were still relatively new and not that widespread: it was unclear that design methods like looking at actual behaviour, prototyping, testing, and learning could actually work, as opposed to diligent specification. The idea that design is a way to invent, understand, and to develop strategy… well, that’s still a tough sell, but at least people no longer think it’s just websites and album covers.

Or let’s take a newer example: circular economy products and services, whether they are about reducing waste, or actually shifting business models to have a circular supply chain, or changing the internal culture so businesses look for new ways, big and small, to go zero waste. Right now I know a bunch of startups operating in that space, but what’s the entry into corporate customers? It could be CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility), or marketing, or you find a progressive team in product, or there’s an innovation group. It’s muddled.

Although sustainability is changing, like design before it:

It’s pretty clear to me that in 10 years time, sustainability will have to be a VP role, if not a C-level role, and circular transformation (I just made that up, you can have it) will be a phrase for the 2020s just as “digital transformation” was the business mantra for the 2010s.

And that takes me back to positioning:

When I’m talking to these new agencies, and sometimes even new startups, who are operating in a space without a clear market, one of the provocations I like to use is this: imagine your ideal customer was the VP of something, or the Chief Something Officer. What would that something be? Design? Innovation? Chief Data Officer? (That’s one which is on the ramp.) VP of A.I.? Sustainability? And can you be the cheerleader for it?

What would need to change in their company for that role to make sense? How would you have to package your work for someone in that job? Someone that high up, you have to take way more responsibility for your work – you give them measurable outcomes, you don’t just make deliverables; you have ownership in a different way. How would you help that new VP make clear the importance of their role?

Ok, your client today, whoever they are, your job is to talk to them like they are going to become that VP of something new, and the purpose of your marketing is to give them the air cover to make the case for it as a critical and growing area, and the purpose of your work is to give them the tools to get them promoted. They’ll feel flattered, you’ll provide more value, and your work will start establishing its own market.

It’s a personal provocation I use on client projects too. In addition to the brief we’ve discussed, I ask myself: if there was a VP who had already created the culture and conditions such that this brief was already being answered, what role would that VP have? Can we see this project not just as delivering what it needs to deliver, but as a prototype of this VP’s wider function? And if we see it like that, what’s missing?

Perhaps this is one of a set of Oblique Strategies for consultancy…

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