THINKING ON A BICYCLE: Are you emptying the till or filling it?

By Jonte Goldwater

So here I was in 2007, on a grey, coldish, Friday morning in London, counting out the last of the coins from the till to pay out what I had left to my 35 staff across our stores. Five years earlier, I had optimism, passion and unwavering certainty that our fast-food-sushi offer was going to be a run-away success. We were one of the first to market, ready to fulfil an increasing demand with an offer that today is so well established that it’s been the recipe for success for any number of large chains.

So, what went wrong? What have I learned and how has this been transferable to what I do today?

Back then, I was a marketeer working for the global alcohol giant Diageo. Through my travels I started to see a time-poor urban trend combined with an awakening in health and well-being.

I had no business getting into fast food, let alone the capability and experience to form and run a company. But I did it anyway.

When I shared my idea with people both inside and outside my work, I was faced with shocked, but typically polite English faces. I had a crazy idea based on the crumbs of a few clues and a gut feeling. I knew in my heart that a non-existent sushi-based offer could carve out demand in a market where the sandwich reigned supreme.

Others did not share my vision. Investors certainly didn’t, and most of the banks didn't either.

Connecting an idea to the unforgiving realities of business provided me with crucial learning that has shaped not only what I do today, but how I do it.

Ideas, even crazy ones, are valuable and essential for creating new sources of value. They are necessary to keep companies relevant and competitive, but ideas in themselves are not enough, especially when you are trying to move the weight of an established and successful organisation in a new, and unknown, direction. To think otherwise is just plain naïve.

I always hear the same old thing around the traps, 'our client is not brave', 'they say they want it, but they don't'… etc. So, are we saying it’s the fault of our clients... really? What a load of bollocks.

As important as the marketing team is, the reality is that when it comes to realising a crazy idea, they need to influence and bring the rest of the business along. This is a cold hard truth because without those other functions fully understanding and believing in this crazy idea, nothing of any real substance is ever going to happen. Those other functions have way too much stuff on their plate that is driving the business forward as it stands.

Many of our clients are brave, and they want to be bold. Our clients need us to help them be brave, but not in the way that traditional agencies have typically offered up.

A crazy idea from the agency on its own is like a beautifully gift-wrapped grenade.

A crazy idea from the agency on its own is like a beautifully gift-wrapped grenade.

What is needed is the context and the commercial maturity to help bridge the idea to the reality of what decision-makers deal with every day. Oh, and when you create this bridge, it needs to be turned it into an easily understood story, because anything else will have the mental curtains coming down.

So, how do we turn a grenade into something that will not blow our client up, but turn them into a hero?

There is a well-established approach that IDEO developed that can be universally applied – feasibility, viability and desirability. If we run through this with our listening ears on and in partnership with our client as they engage other essential parts of the business, amazing things can happen.

If I had understood this back then, if I myself had run through the ins and outs of feasibility, viability and desirability, I more than likely would not be doing what I do now. I would have understood how to raise capital, so my capitalisation ratios were healthy to support cashflow. I would have understood how to manage a profit story through supply chain and production to ensure my P&L stacked up for expansion and further investment. I would have understood how to motivate and manage a low-paid staffing pool, so that customer experience was positive and consistent. I would have understood store flows and efficiencies so that we could handle and convert that foot traffic into sales to maximise the store coverage and rent ratios.

I would have, I would have… the list is long. But what I’ve taken from my experience counting the last of the coins to pay staff, I’ve turned into knowledge of what to do, (and what not to do) that can help our clients be brave in a way that’s relevant, sustainable and, hopefully, game-changing.