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How Augur Works: Pitching vs Planning

We get it. Everyone in our business wants to be Don Draper.

Big pitch day. Stand up, leaf through the cards, standing ovation.

But then reality strikes. You do the kick off meetings and start trying to implement things, only to find that the “big idea” in your strategy isn’t possible for another year (if at all.) Or that the founders’ real passion isn’t “OPPORTUNALISING ENTERPRISE SOLUTION BEST EXCELLENCE”, but something rooted in the reality of their industry and experience.

For a couple of years now, we’ve been trying a different approach to the traditional pitch. And it’s based around a simple question:

How can a company who hasn’t spent any time with you write a realistic plan that reflects your true strength accurately?

So here’s what we do.

Phase 1: Discovery

After gathering a few top line details, we’ll talk on Zoom or Skype. Having written up interviews for places like tech.eu and Wired, we like to think we know how to ask the right questions.

The idea is to really listen carefully, pin down the specifics of the next challenge and determine what we think might conquer it. It often gives you an opportunity to learn more about us and our experience too.

If we don’t think it’s a match, we can help you find someone who is. Remember, Augur is designed for one thing: companies at Series A upwards, in “Unsexy” tech categories, looking for integrated comms against business challenges.

Alternatively, we might suggest we help out with Augur Unbound, our free service to share great stories from younger companies with key media.

Once we have what we need, we’ll start on the Strategic Spec document.

Phase 2: The Strategic Spec

This is a very simple one pager, designed to take the minimum time possible to create a first outline of what we might recommend, based on our previous experience.

It’s a starting point for you to provide feedback, to start the conversation going, instead of disappearing for weeks in Powerpoint with only the occasional question.

It includes:

  • Diagnosis — what is the problem, as we see it?
  • Guiding Strategy — what is our topline mechanism to tackle it?
  • Example Objectives and Key Results — what’s the goal and deliverables?
  • Estimated Timelines & Resourcing — how long will it take, and cost?
  • Next steps

Beat it up, tell us what you love or hate, tell us what you think of our measurement and evaluation suggestions, or how it may need to fit into other plans.

The result is designed to give you an estimate of how the plan might look, at the top level, if we start working together.

It establishes an agreed rough outline, so you know what to expect if you go ahead with the next step: The Planning Project.

Phase 3: The Planning Project

Now this is the big difference.

Augur will come to your office, spend time with you, interview key members of the team and really dig into what makes your company great. It’s about finding what you believe, holding a mirror up to your most talented people, helping identify the insights you may not even quite be aware of.

We try to find the signal in the noise.

Instead of going away and making up ideas by ourselves, we look to your strenths to build our plan. And we work with your team to identify what’s practical and possible for the first phase and further down the line.

We worth together, with just a little of your time, to flesh out the skeleton of assumptions from the Strategic Spec.

We deliver on questions like:

  • What is your pitch and key campaign ideas you will keep coming back to?
  • Who should you be introducing the company to?
  • Do we have a customer pipeline for case studies and other stories?

Once we’re done, the planning document usually looks about a dozen pages long, full of everything you need to hit the ground running.

It literally gets everyone on the same page with what to expect in the first episode of activity.

And it’s yours. In the past, we have actually recommended to one company that they take the Planning document and run with it themselves. Because it is a paid project, we are not incentivised to try and close you on a long programme, just to justify our costs on the pitch.

The resourcing costs for this project tend to be about half the anticipated monthly total we expect to end up at.

We think it makes sense, and our clients agree.

Don has earned a rest.

A review from my seat on the PRCA Digital Report launch panel

I was very pleased to recently be asked to sit on a panel at the launch of the PRCA Digital Report. But it quickly became clear that many of the problems keeping big agencies awake at night are simply not things we have to worry about.

I also couldn’t help but agree with a few familiar faces in the audience that there really is no “analogue” and “digital” PR. Often, Digital is just a word used to replace “new”.

It’s a bit like when people use the word “millennial” instead of just saying “young people”.

So, looking at the findings, what’s not new?

Online media. Once new, now ordinary (special mention to “online press release distribution.”)

Blogger outreach. Once new, now ordinary.

Is it really that hard to see things like making videos and continuing to integrate social into strategy seamlessly becoming normal?

All technology is really just a matter of evolution. It’s about enhancement and adaptation — all words that describe starting with something and gradually growing or changing that thing.

The thing about this is, we can expand into these new areas most successfully by using what we have been great at historically.

Look at two of the fastest-growing budget areas: Video and sponsored social.

Who is better suited than PRs to find stories, interviews, customers, great material that can be used for video?

Who is better suited than PRs to help produce short, focused stories and pitch-like snippets to amplify on social — especially then we have often been the genesis of the great owned or earner material being megaphoned?

If you already do case studies, think about how you can record and flip the output of those interviews in a constellation of different ways.

If you already pitch stories to journalists and influencers online, why not interview them back about the wider context for your own blog?

I’m a firm believer that what made us great at “old” PR will continue to make us great at the new.

Stop asking if you can do something digital. Start thinking about how you can do something new.

Observations from Level 39 office hours

One of the pleasures of what we do is being invited into accelerators like Level 39, Barclays Fintech and TravelTech to give time to the next generation of young startups.

Every time we wrap up one of these sessions, it strikes me how the themes progress between the different conversations and how I think it says something about the current state of the startup ecosystem.

I’m sharing some simple notes here, in the hope that they may be of interest and use to some of you.

Messaging is a new plateau, not winner takes all

Messaging is the new big trend. As a result many founders are turning their design principles toward this, just as the move to apps became very common in the last few years.

One reaction to this is to think: “won’t your messaging platform just get stomped by Apple, FB, Google and co?” But the interesting thing about messaging is that you don’t have to own the platform to design something valuable that speaks the language of that format.

Quartz new app shows how a messaging dynamic and design language can inform a useful new way of presenting things, whether you are literally running on a messaging platform or not. You get a head start working to this trend, you are immediately compatible with anyone that may think to acquire you and the language of successful messaging apps like Line and WeChat is to integrate a whole variety of third party services into the platform.

Messaging is an opportunity to join the new normal, not just a looming ecosystem war in the hands of a few giants.

Persuading institutions

Often, innovations must play into and function within the realm of more traditional markets or communities. As a result, it can be hard to get the buy in of established key figures and influencers.

One way to tackle this challenge is to think about how you create prestige and opportunity for a core few, that incentivises them to be part of the trend. How do you make disruption aspirational in the eyes of those wed to the old way of doing things?

You may start small — but gathering these first few advocates is like bringing together the first flakes of a snowball, a snowman, then an avalanche.

The entrepreneur is changing

If nothing else, the “Tech City” initiative has made one thing clear: if you want to found a business, London is ready for you.

The variety of founders I have me in the last year is far broader and more diverse than those present five or six years ago. For example, it feels like people who may have been more conservative in the past, who already have existing and growing businesses, are more eager to take the path less trod and disrupt themselves.

This previous experience can be an enormous asset. But, especially if disrupting an existing established biz, you don’t have to have watched every episode of Dragon’s Den to know that investors will quickly push for the old business to die and the focus to shift entirely to where their interests are.

I love indirect network builders

Some businesses produce a product, sell it to an audience and reap the rewards. Others provide a service, often nearly for free, that fulfils a need and disrupts an industry — but crucially, builds a valuable network of connections at the same time.

Tradeshift was such a business. Facebook did this with photos to establish social connections. Whenever I hear a similar mission, my eyes light up. It’s hard. But it’s valuable.

 

5 workflows that make Augur run

We work with plenty of companies who find (or invent) ways to do things faster and better – therefore, it’s quite natural that we do the same. Augur is an engineering operation as much as anything, constantly looking for better ways to work.

That means we’re nearly email free via Asana + Slack, we hack together improved intel and deliver it to ourselves and clients, the acronyms that matter to us are OKRs and KPIs, not AVE.

We work differently.

Here are five small examples of how we do that – all easy to set up and try out today.

1. IFTTT + Slack: The ‘travel’ button

IFTTT Do

IFTTT has long held promise to streamline the way you work. Set up a simple formula of IF x THEN y. So, IF I tweet a link, THEN save it to an Evernote note. Or, IF it’s going to rain today, THEN email me at 9am.

The catch is, until now it has been pretty hard to find many ways for it to make your day to day better. Until they released an iOS app: “Do Note”.

Using Do, we’ve set up a trigger so you can press a button and it sends an automated message to your team Comms platform (in our case, Slack) with your current location, saying “Max is on the move.”

It’s the benefits of presence without the invasiveness. It’s 2x taps away on mobile. It’s communication distilled into a status update so people know who they can contact and when.

2. Followup.cc

Having tried Boomerang, Signals, Yesware, I love the features of being able to see when people open your emails, click links and remind you to follow up messages that go unanswered. However, I don’t love the fact it’s pretty invasive, unreliable, and may affect your deliverability.

Followup.cc lets you receive a reminder on any email simply by CC-ing the time period you want. So you can CC “3hours@followup.cc” or “nextweek@followup.cc”. Because of how it’s built, you can use it on any platform, in any browser and with intuitive flexibility.

Never let an email become a dead end again.

3. Asana eats email

Expect this one to be controversial. If any client or important contact emails us, it immediately creates a new task in our management platform Asana, and archives the original message. If email ends up often being an informal to do list, created by someone else, this makes that formal.

So if a client emails, we’ll reply in the comments thread on the Asana task. For internal conversation, we simply don’t use email – or might, to literally delegate a task into someone’s to do list.

This requires discipline to kill any emails you are subscribed to that don’t come with clear tasks (which may be better simply aimed into a shared Slack channel anyway). But in another way, it turns them into tasks, so reading a newsletter becomes something you decide to do and schedule – or delete.

Communicate via calendar (or Calendly)

When they arrive at the pearly gates and St.Peter asks them if they have any regrets, there isn’t a single person that is likely to say they wish they spent more time scheduling meetings.

Calendar invites are simply a form of email. If you’re arranging a meeting, recommend a couple of specific times and send a placeholder calendar invite, which can then be juggled around. 80%+ of the time, that appointment will fit and they other person can simply accept it.

The rest of the time, you can simply alter the invite based on feedback and get the job done. Half of you will be shocked at how obvious this is and are already doing it — for the other half, you’re about to make everyone you arrange a schedule with a lot lot happier.

Alternatively, if you don’t feel weird about referring people to a kind of robot assistant, tools like Calendly let you ID potential meeting times and share a link for people to book their own time with you. It will only show times you don’t have a clashing appointment and is great for things like coffees.

Alfred for launching

How do you find a document, contact details or launch an app? For me, the answer is the same simple keyboard shortcut: CMD+ spacebar.

This launches Alfred, an app like OS X’s default Spotlight but on steroids. The vanilla functionality helps you find anything on your mac and can quicklaunch URLs. But it’s the extensions that make it simple.

  • The Google Drive extensions turns it into a real time instant search of your files
Alfred screen 1
  • Timezone immediately displays clocks from around the world
Alfred shot 2
  • Spotifious lets you find or control Spotify
Alfred screen 3

There are many many more for everything from currency conversion to creating Asana tasks to Fantastical calendar entries to adding reminders to writing emails. The sky’s the limit.

What’s next?

Even since I started drafting this piece, the number of little tools and finds we have moved onto is expanding. And we’re always looking for new toys.

If you find any of these useful or have tips of your own, let us know…

The Right to a Good Story

A small visit to the Economist’s Big Rethink event got me… thinking.

I never fail to be amazed by the way some marketers talk of the time before I arrived in this industry.

On one hand, there’s all this chat about data. As if marketers used to operate by a kind of soothsaying intuition, divining the thoughts of audiences like oracles to the Gods. Maybe it was this way. But I doubt it.

On the other hand, there’s discussion of some heady, halcyon days when audiences had no way to avoid marketing messages. When you could just pump cash into channels and guarantee your target had it rubbed in their face.

By contrast, they seem to bemoan the fact that, today, you have to actually create material people want to pay attention to. They speak with a mottled nostalgia for the power and influence over opinion that money once bequeathed them. Can that be for real?

But (and without using the increasingly over-employed term ‘democratisation’) I think there’s something even more important in all this. And it gets to the root of why the PR and communications function is so important today.

And maybe it’s something that was always true in the background somewhere.

Control

There was a time when control — of the media, of audiences’ attention etc was a matter of buying space in the right place at the right time. PR relationships were ultimately just another way to buy media attention to complement your adverts. They’d force stories into the media simply because a journalist owed them a favour.

All of this created a warped and broken feedback loop. A great, effective story needs an engaged, interested audience. That’s how you know you’re onto something. One of a brand’s key missions, especially up front should be finding a sort of message/market fit, as one facet of their product/market fit.

If you cut out a key feedback signal i.e. “your story is boring/ this isn’t news/ I don’t want to watch this advert and stupid patronising message”, then you eliminate a key, valuable signal that tells you your story isn’t good enough. That you don’t have the right fit yet. And so, you never get better.

The right to better

If it sounds like I’m talking about some form of reputational justice here — where those doing something good and finding a story that matters are rewarded — that’s no coincidence.

In a time where this is so important, I believe there’s something to be said for the idea every company deserves the best possible shot at declaring and communicating what makes them great. Today’s brutal brand transparency should be empowering those organisations who are genuinely doing a good job. But that is only true if they can communicate what makes them great with clarity and power.

Just as lawyers must represent their client in court, agencies should look at their responsibility as identifying companies’ singular, core strengths and help them express that to thrive. Of course, noise alone won’t get them far, so the measurement, the strategy tied tightly to real business objectives — all these pragmatic elements are essential too.

But at its heart, the right to a good story is something I think even the worst and most incompetent companies should be able to enjoy. Because then, once you have given them every chance, if you still find them wanting, it’s because they are genuinely inferior or flawed.

The Media Relations Paradox

Imagine if the most valuable thing you could offer was close relationships with journalists. Not to say there isn’t power and potential in those — but imagine if that was what your whole proposition hinged upon in 2014.

I can’t work out which way the chicken and egg of this value in the PR industry started — but it’s still one of those things people talk about when they talk about PR. Even some great companies approach Augur expecting us to talk about the strong links we have with major editors.

I think this perception is one layer too superficial vs PR’s real potential today. It’s one of the things  I talked about with Danny Whatmough on Digital Wake, our new semi-regular podcast about PR and technology (blame him prioritising his wedding over sitting with me in a soundproof room.) It also links up with Stephen Waddington’s recent #PRforPR campaign (more on that here.)

Why PR?

So what’s going on? And what about the voices out there in the PR industry who may be shouting “we’re good at the media relations thing, what’s so bad about that”?

Well, here’s the issue: we’re operating in a world where more or less all the marketing disciplines are converging on the same zone. Within that nexus, there’s one persistent priority. One point around which so much else revolves.

It’s the thing that comes before all the glitz and glamour of advertising, the chummy chatter of social or the obsessive optimisation of search.

PR can lead the charge in helping companies understand and articulate their Meaning.

PR fit for purpose

This is the opportunity. Because our industry has grown up sparring with the media, it has had a century’s head start in grappling with the scrutiny and cynicism of the journalistic mindset.

You couldn’t hope for a better training regime. Because PR has had to learn to harmonise with influential audiences for so long, it has become part of our way of operating. In the marketing multiplex, it defines the direction of our industry’s potential.

This is what I think we can focus on. Yes, journalists develop relationships with good PRs and yes there’s some value there. But they are the result of our real skill and specialisation: Identifying and amplifying a company’s meaning to tell its story, for whichever audience matters.

When it comes to propositions you can be proud of, I think that’s worth shouting about.

Photo Credit: Esparta via Compfight cc

Augur talks PR, stories and pitching

(For the record, if you want to understand why it’s so important to say as little as possible, this video is a pretty good demo in itself too. At such moments, I sympathise for every client that I’ve advised to control their passion for the subject in favour of clarity.)

Making Content Matter

I’ve written before about the difficulties of the word “content”. It’s too often bandied around in discussions that lose sight of its meaning to viewers versus its importance in their strategy. And that blindness is costly.

But you quickly find yourself drawing on it because it’s the common reference. Much of the time, that will remain true.

Sometimes, however, it’s worth thinking again to see if there’s another descriptor more suitable. Perhaps another descriptor that can focus on a different detail and a different priority and help you concentrate on what matters.

Made of more

I recently had the following conversation on Twitter. (Incidentally, it’s also one of those incredibly moments that hits home to me how social accounts and interactions can become such an enjoyable scratchpad for new ideas.)

Content’s not included

Material is like the fabric of something actually useful. It’s a bit more tangible. It’s something you iterate on and bang around in different directions — certainly when it’s commonly used in stand-up comedy.

It’s craft-like and something you develop and improve over time. You gather techniques to become competent then workmanlike then artisan. You invent or invest in technology to gain an advantage producing better material than your competition.

Material has customers rather than consumers. Your material must be top notch, it’s not just a snack between courses — it is a product in its own sense.

I’d love to hear suggestions of other words. Even if they aren’t used in conversation, I think clearer definition helps you think about things more strategically and accurately. The power of language is only beaten by the power of the meaning and association that underlies it.

What would you call content to make you appreciate it more?

Photo Credit: ch.weidinger via Compfight cc

Making Content Matter

I’ve written before about the difficulties of the word “content”. It’s too often bandied around in discussions that lose sight of its meaning to viewers versus its importance in their strategy. And that blindness is costly.

But you quickly find yourself drawing on it because it’s the common reference. Much of the time, that will remain true.

Sometimes, however, it’s worth thinking again to see if there’s another descriptor more suitable. Perhaps another descriptor that can focus on a different detail and a different priority and help you concentrate on what matters.

Made of more

I recently had the following conversation on Twitter. (Incidentally, it’s also one of those incredibly moments that hits home to me how social accounts and interactions can become such an enjoyable scratchpad for new ideas.)

Content’s not included

Material is like the fabric of something actually useful. It’s a bit more tangible. It’s something you iterate on and bang around in different directions — certainly when it’s commonly used in stand-up comedy.

It’s craft-like and something you develop and improve over time. You gather techniques to become competent then workmanlike then artisan. You invent or invest in technology to gain an advantage producing better material than your competition.

Material has customers rather than consumers. Your material must be top notch, it’s not just a snack between courses — it is a product in its own sense.

I’d love to hear suggestions of other words. Even if they aren’t used in conversation, I think clearer definition helps you think about things more strategically and accurately. The power of language is only beaten by the power of the meaning and association that underlies it.

What would you call content to make you appreciate it more?

Photo Credit: ch.weidinger via Compfight cc

Breaking the PR rules: 128 units

I was invited to a recent PRCA event, hosting 3x PR industry godfathers who founded and exited agencies.

Like so much with running Augur, I found it had to be analysed at two levels simultaneously. On one hand, there’s nothing like real experience. It’s a hard-won asset that money can’t buy.

But in dispensing the value of that experience, there’s a risk of being blinkered toward only what worked in the past. When it comes to agencies, that means a model that I don’t necessarily believe is the future or is the core of what Augur should be. 

It’s always risky to disagree with experience and the threat is you’re assuming you know better. I think the effective middle ground is based around this: Before you can intelligently break the rules, you have to understand what you’re breaking.

What’s the time?

I asked a question early on about timesheets. And it’s one I’ll caveat with the fact I once wrote an article entitled “Why I’ll always have time for timesheets”. 

My question was based on the idea that timesheets are really just an abstraction. They’re representative of time but ultimately, if we’re saying 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, roughly 4 weeks a month, that’s 128 units of abstract value that you sell to clients.

Why not simplify?

Why try to sell such granular batches? What’s the virtue of breaking it down into 8 units per day. I think there’s an illusion of efficiency and security that comes from the feeling you can now account for every hour of every employee’s time.

But does anyone who has worked in an agency really believe timesheets have that kind of precision? And is our greatest aspiration really to squeeze every last drop out of every team member?

If we say these systems are maybe 80% accurate, and that it’s probably only the last 20% of peoples’ time that you’re trying to increase the efficiency on, how can that realistically work?

I agree it’s unwise to try and manage an organisation without something in the model like this. But I wonder if you can get most of the value from a system that takes a fraction of the time to manage.

Why can’t we simply by reducing the number of those abstract units.

Time for attention

Instead of hundreds of made up hours, how about 4x units of attention per week.

Because more strategic work tends to require more focused, dedicated and, arguably, valuable attention, this currency has greater flexibility.

Lots of great writing may take up one unit of attention. Developing a strategic plan may take less physical time but in how it absorbs the team working on it with the focus of required concentration and experience, it’s equivalent. Maybe implementing it over a month is going to take another four units of attention.

So you spec a project by working back from objectives, establishing the strategy and calculating how much attention it will need. It’s not re-inventing the wheel, it’s just trying to find ways to produce them more efficiently and end up with a better vehicle. 

Obviously there’s no way to discuss this properly with a panel, without becoming that guy (or girl) whose question turns into a diatribe and a distraction. But for the value of thinking about this further, I have to congratulate the PRCA on creating a little haven for us to escape the day-to-day and really scrutinise what we’re doing and why.