Understanding change

Richard KellyRichard Kelly & CompanyQ. What does it take to be an agent of change?A. In my view, by far the most important thing it takes is clients who are themselves agents of change. I won't take on a client who...

Richard Kelly

Richard Kelly & Company

Q. What does it take to be an agent of change?

A. In my view, by far the most important thing it takes is clients who are themselves agents of change. I won’t take on a client who isn’t clearly committed and empowered to bring about change.

It’s pretty much impossible to persuade somebody to change if they don’t want to change, especially as an outside supplier, so I have given up any pretensions to do that.

As far as the most important quality one needs as a change agent, other than obvious professional skills, is a real understanding of the nature of change, and, in particular, how extraordinarily difficult it is for organizations, and the individuals within them, to accept and adjust to change.

If you haven’t studied the psychology of change, you should settle for being an agent of the status quo.

Not incidentally, it’s taken me 46 years to really understand this. The fact that the word ‘change’ is ubiquitous, the fact that the word comes out of people’s mouths, and every tv channel, doesn’t mean a thing.

Change is not a social or a business norm in North America. And if you have any doubts, just ask [u.s.]President [Bill] Clinton.

Other qualities that a change agent needs, there are three that come to mind.

One is that real change is about a few fundamental strategy shifts. It’s not about predicting the future. It’s not about wild, futuristic ideas. It’s real simple.

For instance, going back 20 years ago. Do people want big cars or little cars? Will the rising cost of gasoline influence the kind of cars people buy? You make the wrong kind of call on these two issues, and, as we’ve seen, the Japanese will eat you for lunch.

The second thing is, change agents need the ability to have an eclectic view of the world and eclectic business experiences. They have to have experienced more than one or two ways of looking at business. They really need to understand there are a whole variety of ways to skin a cat.

Thirdly, I think change agents need to have time to think. In most client business, thinking time is a luxury. The pressures of operating a business are so intense.

So, in buying outside help to effect change, the client is looking for someone to try to do the thinking for them, because they don’t have the time. I think prospective change agents have got to organize themselves in such a way as to make thinking time their primary asset.

That’s certainly one of the problems that I faced in the advertising agency business – I was just too darn busy. I did the best I could but sometimes you just need more time than is available.

Q. How has the client-supplier relationship changed over the past couple of years?

A. It’s difficult for me to answer that, because I’ve just changed businesses from being in the advertising business to being a kind of strategist and itinerant marketing thinker. So my relationships have changed.

But overall, from my observations of the marketing world in Canada, I see greater willingness on the part of clients to consider a wider range of options in suppliers. They are willing to seek out individuals and small groups to help them, rather than institutions that impress.

I think there would be more of it, but I think that clients don’t know all the options available to them and they don’t have the time to track them down. I would find it very hard if I were a client to know where to turn.

I thinks that clients are much more accountable now as individuals in their own companies. They simply can’t afford non-performing suppliers. Suppliers can’t any longer go on out the golf course and talk their way out of their failures.

And I see that happening faster in Canada than the u.s. We’re becoming a lot more competitive, a lot faster and that’s a positive thing.

Q. When you enter a relationship with a client, how do you determine just how open they are to supplier-initiated change?

A. First of all, after all my adventures in the advertising agency business, talking to and negotiating with almost every imaginable kind of client prospect, from the sublime to the ridiculous, I’ve developed a pretty effective bullshit detector.

My advice to others would be to talk to the prospective client’s other suppliers, if necessary, beyond the market area, and look for a proven record of rewarding and not punishing change-related initiatives.

Q. How important to the process of change is understanding your client’s business?

A. It’s very important, but not that simple.

In my view, it’s much more important to understand the client’s needs, than just their business.

Most businesses are now too complex and fast-changing for most suppliers to be able to honestly say they understand the client’s business. Understanding the need is absolutely critical.

People in my age group were brought up to believe the only way you could get the business was to impress them that you understood their business.

That became the norm and so you had all these account people doing research and business analyses and very rarely did it make the advertising any better.

Clients have been guilty of saying, ‘You’ve got to understand our business.’ There have been a couple of instances when they have raised this and I say, ‘Why?’

‘Maybe you don’t need understanding of the business, maybe you need understanding of the target consumer group, or new forms of communication, stuff you don’t know.’

Q. From where do you get your inspiration?

A. Facts. I used to be more of a dreamer than I am today.

What I believe now is the trick is to know what are the relevant facts and to know the difference between fact and make-believe.

In the change business, the critical facts are often found outside the client’s existing database. I’m talking about facts from some other area of their customers’ life and behavior.

A lot of businesses tend to research the needs and attitudes related to the purchasing of their product. But consumers don’t compartmentalize their thinking. They don’t think one way when they are buying a car and another way when they are buying property or beer.

For instance, I can remember the things I learned in the fruit juice business had applicability to the health section of the margarine business and the cereal business, because they were all about people’s changing attitudes to health.

They are kind of obvious in some sense, but often those types of facts have been overlooked or dismissed as insignificant by the competition.

I see myself as a kind of data detective. I sniff out stuff the competition doesn’t know.

Q. How do you stay on top of trends in your field?

A. My field is pretty broad, because I work for different types of businesses, so it’s not that I have a field necessarily, but to the extent that I can, I collect all kinds of stuff, newspapers and magazines and sometimes minor, obscure publications.

I am a magpie in a way. The real answer to the question for me is mostly that I am not a trend spotter.

In my view, bringing about real change is not about being in step with trends. Because once a trend has become a trend, it’s too late. I don’t have the confidence to predict the future. A lot of people who are hung up about trends feel they can predict the future. I don’t.

I act as if I don’t know anything about the subject in question, and I build a body of knowledge, from the ground up, much the way I imagine a lawyer might build a murder case. That way, you can be a lot more objective.

I have tried to discipline myself in the past few years, to not sell my opinion, but to just try to get it right.

Q. What would be your advice to clients who have expressed dissatisfaction with their suppliers’ willingness and ability to initiate change?

A. Absolutely the first thing, and it relates to what I said at the beginning, is to make sure the problem is not within the client organization. Don’t necessarily blame the supplier.

If you are not committed to change, or you don’t understand change, or you don’t really want to change, expecting a supplier to deliver it is not only not fair, but doomed to failure.

So I would ask the question, is my organization really committed to change? And if it is, is the level of management that works directly with the supplier, do they share that commitment?

Because it’s often not the case. And even if they do share the commitment, do they really have the knowledge and the ability to make it happen, or do they need coaching?

If you relate it to your personal life, it really is extremely difficult to change, but if a client company has done a good job of that analysis and the supplier is found wanting, then you get a different supplier.