two coworkers brainstorm strategy on a whiteboard

Rumors of clientside budgets being frozen and research projects being put on hold are circulating. What will the research industry look like if we go back to lockdowns or more optimistically if end clients resume the appetite for research and adapt to new realities? What is the future of my agency”;s brand?

I started to think about the idea of antecedents and the importance of things that have “;come before”; especially when we are trying to formulate a plan for an uncertain future. This is immensely important now, as services companies facing a challenged post-COVID economy, are looking for ways to reinvent their offerings.

So, let”;s break this down. What is an antecedent and why is it so important?

The Oxford Learner”;s Dictionary defines “;antecedent”; as: “;a thing or an event that exists or comes before another and may have influenced it.”;

You could think of antecedents as historical context, or even just nostalgia. But the implications are more nuanced. If you operationalize antecedents into your strategic planning, your reinvention has a better chance to be bulletproof even in tumultuous times.

Three things to consider when formulating your services reinventions and how you market them:

1. Understand the past in order to reinvent it.

It is tough to market an innovation or new offering unless you know the landscape you are trying to disrupt, the pain point you are trying to alleviate or the new client segment you are targeting. Ironically while applicable to all brands, this is particularly relevant to startups or disrupter brands in uncertain environments.

Too often emerging tech-based companies create tools for which there is no real or apparent client need. Think of it like the hammer in search of a nail.

This can really come around to bite you when you are trying to articulate a value proposition in a highly competitive economic environment AND one in which the landscape is shifting. It is hard to convince a customer they need you if you can”;t speak plainly about the problems you solve. And you had better be solving mission-critical problems, in a challenging economy like the one we are in. where “;nice to have”; quickly becomes “;don”;t need, can”;t afford”;.

It helps when you can authentically point to experiencing the pain yourself, such as John Dyson”;s origin story. Tired of his vacuum cleaner”;s diminishing efficiency because of its bag clogging with dust, he was motivated to invent the world”;s first bagless vacuum cleaner.

Whether you”;re a start-up with a great idea or a seasoned provider who can point to a compelling origin story and a purpose-driven motivation for your solution, make sure you can point to the unmet client need served by your brand promise. And do your homework, because the current economic climate may have shifted the goalposts in terms of what is keeping your prospects up at night TODAY, versus a time in which we only wore masks for Halloween! Being clear about how you can solve problems that are evolving by the day and it can be the start of a conversation that demonstrates to brands how you are different, better than your competition, and worthy a brief.

2. Leverage your core competencies to fuel your evolution.

B2B services companies looking for inspiration on ways to productize key skills and knowledge, particularly in the insights and marketing sectors, can benefit from benchmarking companies in other industries. One reinvention and growth story I love is that of Penske Corporation, a global diversified transportation company whose history you can read on their website.

The short version is that founded in 1969, they quickly became a hugely successful truck leasing company. Over time they recognized that they were leasing trucks to companies with multiple challenges moving freight, as well as managing and maintaining fleets of their own vehicles. They realized that they could actually increase their revenue opportunities by providing logistics, supply chain and warehouse management, and other services beyond truck leasing. What they did well for themselves, they could turn into services for customers who might not lease a single vehicle! Today they are a $32 billion company, operating in over 3,200 locations and employing more than 64,000 people worldwide, providing every conceivable service related to transportation and the movement of goods.

Are you likely to become Penske? Maybe not. But if you can productize some competency in your own wheelhouse, maybe your reinvention can be an evolution rather than a complete transformation.

Is there something your company is really good at doing for yourselves that you might provide to clients, in addition to your core services?
Do you have a really unique way of visualizing data?
Have you perfected a way to integrate disparate sources of data to develop better diagnostics of the consumer experience?
Do you have a technical capability that you have applied to one industry that might be applicable to another?
Do you have a database against which you can apply advanced analytics to generate useful metrics for guided decision making, perhaps even fueling a syndication offer?
Have you developed recruitment processes that other research companies could utilize?
Can you lend the expertise you use to manage your own processes to deliver more embedded, collaborative and consultative services, integrated into more upstream business processes at your clients?

It is not a slam duck to monetize services that you have typically performed for your own company. But when thinking about new revenue streams, or what might be useful to firms who are downsizing or looking for partners, don”;t overlook what is in your own operations toolshed.

3. Lean into your Institutional Memory and Past Relationships.

Institutional memory can be an albatross to reinvention initiatives if it becomes “;this is the way we have always done it!”; But if you are taking time to review the business for the possible restructuring and reinvention it is really important to do some deep analysis of what you actually know about your business.

It is also time to do some forensics around some business development basics:

Who are your lapsed clients? What did they use to buy from you?
Why don”;t they buy from you now, and what might you do to get them back?
If your key advocates have gone to new companies, have you taken the time to figure out where they have gone? After all, the easiest prospect to convert is someone who already knows you well.
Are you reviewing your customer database and updating it to facilitate one-to-one contact as well as to make your outbound marketing more efficient?
And if your main contact has been furloughed, how are you going to make sure the decision-makers who are left know the role you have played with the company?

Lastly, if your own organization has gone through a contraction, identify contacts that were managed by individuals no longer with your agency, and make sure you pay particular attention to these relationships. Determine the nature of the engagement in the past, comb through your data to understand where you have added value with completed projects, and make sure the relationship is assigned to someone in your company who will make nurturing it a priority. In this “;new normal”; clients are strapped too. They would love to lean on reliable existing advisors. Don”;t assume they know that you have skills and capabilities that can be adapted and made “;fit for purpose”; as THEY face new realities.

Looking back so we can move forward

Much has been made about predicting this “;new normal”;. It will be a while before we can divine precisely what the future will be for insights and marketing services companies. Not every supplier will be able to adapt and survive. But those who win the opportunities that will emerge are likely to be the agencies who mine antecedents for clues, and despite uncertainty, evolve to create the future.

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