Nanjing Marketing Group - On Truth, Values & Entrepreneurial Management
So I watched this speech that Neil Gaiman gave. I loved this one part in particular:
“The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you're walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That's the moment you may be starting to get it right.”
He’s talking about writing, but I can’t help but apply the lesson to leadership.
The “naked” honesty he refers to definitely reminds me of the direction we’re trying to go with Nanjing Marketing Group.
We’ve put a tremendous amount of effort into building our company culture, as well as our people, skills, services, and processes. And we’ve made a lot of progress too.
The challenges we face require still better teamwork, and our leaders need to keep growing.
One thing that’s certain is that we seek to bring people closer. We want our future partners, clients and team members to feel like they know us. We want our current clients to know us even better.
So, how about I share some of our stories and challenges with you now, in as “naked” a way as possible? Then you can let us know what you think. Perhaps you can constructively grill us. Or maybe you can even help out.
A brief history
We’ve been working in Nanjing Marketing Group for over seven years now. Seven years is a long time in this fast-paced and constantly changing industry! Starting with Samantha and I doing freelance translation work, we’ve gone through quite a few different stages.
Now we are a well-developed marketing agency with about 30 full-time team members, efficient processes, clear departments, and a really great team.
There were years in the beginning where it felt like it would take forever for the newer people to catch up. They were smart and nice to work with, but just so green. Total newbs! It’s not like we could just hire veteran marketers. We didn’t have the money or reputation.
From the start, we’ve taken the route of hiring people who are rather new to marketing, either straight out of university, or with just a couple of years of work experience.
But now things are different. The people who were new are now on the leading edge of their marketing niches. And it’s often me who feels it’s hard to keep up.
Over the years we’ve focused on improving client projects, our services, and our training. But this came at the expense of our own marketing and sales. Ever heard the expression “The cobbler’s children have no shoes”? Well, our own marketing efforts have often had to take a back seat to client projects. Did you know our website is still the same basic site I set up eight years ago? It’s a free theme, with a logo provided to us by a friend, for what I now realize was a crazy-awesome deal.
And our sales team makes up about 5% of our total team. I don’t know what the norm is, but I’ve seen marketing companies where the sales team makes up half the workforce.
We started putting a lot more effort into expressing the value of our company and services. Training account managers on sales; creating better documents about service offerings, etc. And we’ll introduce a new visual identity soon. A new coat of paint.
Meanwhile, I’ll try my best to take our English-language writing quality up a notch or two. I can’t say it’ll be as good as our Chinese-language writing, which is done by departments of content specialists and social specialists… I can’t really hope to reach that level on my own, but I can use them as inspiration to push my own communication abilities forward.
Our company values
As a team grows, it’s essential that the people in it develop new skills, and that new ways of working together are devised.
There was an interesting panel at the Clickz conference in Shanghai last year. Most presenters at marketing conferences will display creative and intelligent solutions to marketing campaigns they’ve run. But one presenter did something else entirely.
He presented a case study that went something like this:
- We wanted customers to respect our brand.
- So we mass-posted spam on a bunch of forums.
- And we bribed some officials of a contest, so they gave us some awards.
- And we made great sales.
- Here, have some free samples.
I didn’t find it unusual for China, but it was funny that he shared that with a crowd!
That’s not an OK thing to do in marketing, right? And you probably wouldn’t want to pay us to just spam and bribe, am I right? This seems obvious to me. It’s as obvious to me as telling my three-year-old daughter, “You can’t just steal toys from the store. We have to pay for any toys we want to take home.”
So I shared that with our team in a meeting, as a joke. Like, “There was this one crazy guy; you should’ve heard what he said! And in public!” But I found some people thought it was OK.
So I did what I normally do when I’m going to explode – leave the office, breathe. Otherwise, shit would’ve hit the fan.
Patience is not one of my virtues. It takes a lot of work for me.
Then I calmed down (I think Sam helped) and started on our solution. It’s something that every management book recommends but that I hadn’t come to appreciate yet. We needed to create solid company values. Values that everybody knows, that guide our actions and are used in management. .
I’d guess we spent at least 200 person-hours developing company values, and since then we have been integrating them more deeply into the company. And here they are:
- Explore, create, discover
- Be truthful
- Work smart, not long
- Respect the market, clients, and team members
- Never stop cultural learning
- Create enduring value
We’ll probably tweak them a bit, but I feel they’re close to complete now.
You can read about them on the About Us page. I’ll only focus on two in this blog post. I’m glad to elaborate on the rest if anybody’s interested.
These are the two values that are most contentious:
To “be truthful” is of great importance to both China and marketing in general. It’s so often seen as unimportant or impossible in China, but we cannot operate without it.
Clearly, we shouldn’t be lying to our clients’ customers as the presenter at Clickz did! This seems overwhelmingly obvious to me. But maybe not to everybody. So we had to encode it in our core values and integrate it into management processes in a more robust way.
People make real-life decisions that are based on the information we share online. They make choices in dining, travel, education, business purchases, and even life-or-death health decisions.
But besides the more obvious aspects of being truthful, there’s also the grey area of honesty. White lies and niceties and the value of “maintaining face.” I can see the plus side to these “good lies” in some cases. But our culture in Nanjing Marketing Group still does not accept it. Why?
- We need to be immensely creative; we need productive meetings. We can’t have people not willing to debate with their managers in meetings for fear of disrupting the social hierarchy.
- We need to evaluate campaign results very quickly and accurately. So we can’t have people avoiding thorny issues.
All our clients will think this is great, but to any potential clients, I advise that you think this through more carefully. Can your organization really handle this much honesty? We’ve seen this conflict with client corporate cultures all over the world. Some people LOVE truthful, creative discussion and data-based analysis. I do. Some hate it. It sucks to show your own boss a report and say, “Here are the three places we messed up.”
And how will your marketing managers react when we explain the corrupt practices of China media buying to them? They might think: “Great, now I know how to improve our organization to resist corruption.” Or they might think: “Great, now I know how to get piles of cash for myself!”
Despite the problems truthfulness brings up, it has still helped us to be more profitable. Creativity and data-based analysis just don’t work right without it.
Create enduring value
Our sixth value is an interesting case because it’s the only value I have not yet been able to use towards our own profitability. I’m determined to figure it out, though.
We think that creating enduring value is better than simply providing temporary solutions. This value should be real and should provide a net benefit to society, rather than merely displacing competitors in a zero-sum game.
This, above all, is what makes our work important. Behind the Excel reports, social media dashboards, and analytics platforms are real people making real decisions on the basis of the marketing we do. While our company is small, we’ve affected the decisions of millions of people.
For some practical marketing examples, this is what I mean:
- Create Chinese websites that are informative, beautiful, and useful. The translation industry can be brutally price focused, with clients always pushing for cheap, cheap, cheap. It can be hard to say, “Let’s take a step back, think about what your Chinese readers really want, then create it.”
- Build social communities in which the members help each other learn. We have online educational groups that not only help us to bring students to universities, but also allow students to connect with each other and share information that they find important.
Going back to the general philosophy of creating enduring value, I’d say it’s not specific to marketing at all. It seems that obsessive short-term focus is an endemic problem for modern human society. I think this is obvious to most people. But as organizations grow, it gets more and more challenging to achieve.
For us, the problem has been that we haven’t been able to profit from this company value yet. There are major barriers in our way:
- The huge agencies tend to own relationships with famous clients. Their model of business is to outsource special work to small agencies like us but white-label it and require agreements that legally block the smaller agencies from claiming any credit.
- In my opinion, there’s a dearth of vision in modern digital marketing and an obsessive focus on analysis. The management within client agencies is almost always short-term focused and risk-averse. They want to use the surefire way to grow revenue by 10%, not the way to improve the valuation of the business they work in by $500 million.
- Great success for a project usually means we keep our modest fees. It’s very tough to capture upside.
The forces of the marketing industry push all players towards mediocrity.
It takes focus to break out of that.
We haven’t figured it out yet, but we’ve tried quite a few things. We’ve tried the regular pricing models and operational tweaks. I don’t think I’ll elaborate on those.
There are two major new elements to our long-term growth plans:
The first is to provide equity ownership options to team members (employees). This is in progress. The point is to include everybody and shift the focus of the team to the longer term.
The second new major element in our long-term growth plans is to grow our own projects. We want to grow brands that we own, or at least partially own.
We have two of our own projects in preparation now.
To sum it up, we’re working on launching lean projects of our own that complement client projects of ours. These are the rules:
- We call them Units.
- They have high growth potential and the potential to become independent businesses.
- They must adhere to Nanjing Marketing Group’s core values.
- They must be in a niche related to two or more client projects. We seek a symbiotic relationship, which I know may be challenging to achieve.
- Units are provided small but stable funding from Nanjing Marketing Group.
- Unit value is held by Nanjing Marketing Group and the Unit founder, offering the founder high upside potential.
So, in this post I shared a small piece of what’s going on within Nanjing Marketing Group, and what we intend to do. I know it’s quite a bit different than our usual practical blog posts. Are you interested in this kind of post?
Do you face any similar challenges within your organization?