Emmy winner and author Steve Lance built his business around speed: His firm, New York City-based PS Insights, offers clients, mostly small businesses, an espresso-like shot of marketing and branding.
The idea is to lead people to think entirely different about marketing services and products — and to do it within a few days. Says Lance: “Someone once referred to us as consultants who actually work, then go away.”
The crux of Lance's philosophy is marketing is simple. Entrepreneurs get into trouble when they try to do much, or over-think it. “Anything could be branded,” Lance says. “You just have to believe in what you are doing and have the research and insight to do it right. Given the right amount if insight, research and budget, I can brand Swingline staples.”
Lance says he works with many clients, especially in the medical and health care field, who are lost when it comes to marketing basics. “You could be the greatest doctor in the world,” says Lance, “but no one in med school gave you five minutes to learn how to be a business person.”
Lance was the creative director at NBC TV in the 1990s. He established the first focus group at the network, and was part of the team that created slogans NBC Us and NBC Proud as a Peacock. He also created the format for the prominent “The More You Know” public service campaign.
Lance later worked in Los Angeles in television writing, and after that he worked for Della Femina, Travisano & Partners, a national advertising firm. Lance won an Emmy Award for Best Station News Campaign when he worked for WBZ-TV in Boston.
At PS Insights and other firms, Lance has worked with a diverse list of clients, from the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet to Citizen Watch and Crest toothpaste. Lance was recently a keynote speaker at an American Advertising Federation-Suncoast event held in Sarasota. He sat down with the Business Review to talk about marketing and branding before his presentation. Here's an edited transcript of the conversation:
Q.What are some factors that make up a successful marketing campaign? A. The first thing is to have a plan. One of the things we find time and time again is companies don't really know what they are doing. They say the do, but they don't really know. You (also) want to get everyone on the same page and everyone headed in the same direction.
Q.What mistakes do you see small businesses make most often in marketing and branding? A. It's just marketing. It's not that hard. The reason we can do this in 48 hours or less is because this isn't brain surgery. The first question you ask is where are we now? The second question you ask is where are we going? The third question is how are we going to get there?
Most companies have the answers to all of those questions within the company — but it's all in silos. The CEO has one idea. But the CEO is thinking 'gee, I can get the business built up and in another three years I could retire.' The CFO is thinking 'we can capitalize this company and take it public in six years.' So everybody is going in a different direction.
Q.What companies get it right on marketing and branding? A. Proctor and Gamble understands marketing and the larger picture. With the sale of Pringles, they are now completely out of the food business. They took a long horizon view of the question, where are we going? And most companies don't do that. P&G looked at where they were gong and said we want to take care of the aging baby boomers. People might outgrow Pringles, but they are going to grow into Aleve. (Bayer owns the Aleve brand, though P&G formerly owned it.) The other thing is they trust their customer insights.
Q.What books do you suggest small business owners read to improve on marketing and branding? A. There is an excellent book called “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” (by Chip and Dan Heath.) I picked up one of their tools. That is, you don't ever end a meeting without asking the question, how do you know if this works?
Q.How have companies like Starbucks and Apple been so successful in cultivating a popular brand? A. Why is HP heading to oblivion and Dell heading to a sale to the Chinese? And Apple is having an incredible resurgence. What is going on there? The bigger picture is that Apple understood what makes it unique and so valuable to a customer. Steve Jobs' brilliance wasn't for what he invented. His underlying brilliance is he understood that being a computer company was a road that was going to take them where Dell and HP are in the same way that being a film company took Kodak to where it is today. What he understood is that his customers wanted to take their digital lives with them wherever they went.
(Starbucks Chairman and CEO) Howard Schultz, in his book, says we are in the business of being the third place. They don't advertise that and they don't promote that. But in everything they do, their entire strategy revolves around the idea that they want you to think of Starbucks as the place you go to when you are not in place one, home, or two, work. Once you understand that, then everything they do makes sense, like free Wi-Fi, adding beer and wine to stores in California in a test run, and an invitation to sit.
Q. What are some of the challenges in the marketing and advertising industry? A. The marketing industry is a dinosaur driving its way toward the future. The ad agency model is dead and all we are doing now is waiting for the bodies to actually drop. You cannot build a business on the (old) agency model strategy. You have to be willing to partner with the companies you work with and understand how to move the customer to the center of the conversation.
Marketing has (also) become a white, pink-collar ghetto glass ceiling industry. My partners and I are really angry at how little advertising and marketing has evolved in terms of cultural diversity.
Q.What does your company, PS Insights, focus on? A. We do talks and lectures, but our niche is we will come into a company and refocus, rebrand, reposition and re-strategize, all within 48 hours. We will give companies the first marketing plan they have ever had. One of the things we like to say is we are never the cheapest, but we are almost always the least expensive.
Blog Bytes The team of marketing experts at PS Insights, a New York City-based firm, produces a blog about being better in marketing — which the company equates to being better in business. Here are some recent posts: • Hand candy: “When the meeting is special, treat it differently. We're fans of 'hand candy' for special creative meetings — pipe cleaners, clay, Play-Doh. Paul just finished facilitating a meeting where the clay provided a major outlet to all kinds of impressive creations and some excellent planning work product, too!” • The jury is asked to disregard: “Any good trial lawyer will tell you, 'Communication is irreversible.' Once it's out there — spoken, texted, tweeted, blogged, e-mailed — it's out there. No amount of backpedalling, apologizing or denying can undo the damage that a slip of the keys or the tongue can create. Carpenters say, 'Measure twice, cut once.' In business the rule should probably be, 'Think twice, speak once.'” • Think inside the box: “Over the years, a lot of people have spent a lot of time thinking about how to be innovative in managing different businesses. They have advanced lots of good ideas in books, articles, and essays — they are enamored of the concept 'think outside the box.' Too often, we see business people rushing to re-invent the wheel when there's a perfect solution available if they'd just look at the assets they already own. So sure, think outside the box — but only after you've searched thoroughly 'inside the box.' It's way less expensive, more risk-free and financially rewarding.”