Concepting: Strategy’s New Best Friend

Guest post below from Christine Pillsbury Geordie McClelland @ Altr

Most of us in the world of marketing and product development are given one of two hats: strategy or creative. When talking with clients or peers, we might say “we’re on the strategy side of the business,” or that I’m “a creative.” Sometimes these separate roles manifest themselves in very physical realities, most agencies split their office’s into departments: turn left for strategy, turn right for creative.

The brief, in brief

The brief was the thing that connected us – but conversely it also kept us apart. By providing clarity on the project objectives, target user behaviors and needs, as well as opportunities and constraints that would guide “the creative process”. The brief also represented in many ways, if not a culmination, at least a pause in the work of the strategy team who maybe, might later be called upon to answer questions, confirm that the creative is “on strategy,” or implement a measurement and analysis plan.

In our experience, the “hand-off” is both premature and self-defeating. The butterfly effect of whatever you create, should not be underestimated, for it has the potential to create a new reality with direct implications for strategy. The world isn’t static and your strategy shouldn’t be either.

No longer a baton, but a bridge

That’s why we’ve increasingly shifted our understanding of the brief’s role in project. It’s no longer the hand-off between strategy and creative, but instead it’s a tool used in the cross-disciplinary process of concepting and testing. Iterating on the solution requires iterating on the definition of the problem. From the whiteboard to the marketplace, there are countless opportunities to step back and build upon or even question the reality outlined in the brief, to advance the strategy in order to be relevant in the context of the new reality you are creating.

Concepting, in our experience is no longer the activity that happens as a result of strategy, instead it has become a critical part of the strategic process.

A few examples:

Strategic development at the whiteboard: We recently completed work for a real estate firm whose core offering has been a lead-engine and CRM platform for brokers. They would acquire and serve leads using a proprietary database of residential rental listings and help brokers service those leads with a proprietary CRM platform to help them match properties against their clients needs and notify them when their clients would be back in the market.

As we started concepting the brokers’ CRM experience, we kept bumping up against the reality this tool was competing with an arsenal of other tools that brokers relied on to effectively do their jobs. In fact, the more we built out the CRM experience, the more it seemed to be in conflict with brokers’ other tools, effectively fragmenting their workflow and putting at risk the core benefits of our client’s offering. It was  our client’s product. The tool we were to design couldn’t just be a lead-engine and CRM platform, but instead it had to be a hub for all of the brokers’ work-related activities: including tracking market trends, scheduling, coordinating visits with landlords, administration of lease documents, and inter- and intra-office team development and recognition. We realized that it wasn’t about using the market’s channels better, it needed to be about bring all those channels together into one clear, and more powerful tool, so that’s what we built.

Strategic development in customer testing: Too often testing is designed to answer simple questions like: “Do you like A or B?” or “Does this thing make sense to you? Why or why not?” But testing can be more than just the final gut check before investing in building and launching something, it can be integral in determining what that thing is. We were brought in to help a B2B technology firm craft a new go to market and branding strategy. They had multiple products, serving different users in a single important, though often overlooked industry – an industry that they were poised to revolutionize with a soon-to-be launched suite of products.

Through customer and expert interviews, we began to get speculative advice on the potential risks and opportunities the company might encounter by focusing its product strategy on a single offering instead of a suite of products and by changing its name. But almost all of the feedback boiled down to the fact that people would wait and see how things turned out, leaving the door open for a number of strategic directions.

To help advance the conversations and our strategic approach, we built concepts including product screens, marketing materials, and a website homepage to help customers see where this might go. This wasn’t a test of our recommendations, none of the concepts that we used at this stage ended up being a part of what we ultimately launched in market, instead it was a test to inform our recommendation. Once people were able to see a few potential future realities they were better able to imagine how their relationship with the company might change if we pursued one, better able to advice on what we’d need to do in order to make each successful, what new risks might arise and what new opportunities might present themselves… it was this information, gathered entirely through concepting and testing that ultimately drove our in-market strategy.

Strategic development through in-market activations: Learning doesn’t stop at the usability lab. Often, targeted, in-market activations can provide the most reliable information to drive strategy. In working with a healthcare start-up to help them define their brand and launch a new marketing platform, we found ourselves in a number of long, spirited debates about what the future of healthcare meant to patients and what both excited and concerned them about it.

While everyone in the room for these debates was well-informed about the consumer healthcare market, we kept finding ourselves defending a point of view about this revolutionary new service by offering anecdotal evidence based on either competitors’ experiences or our own, budget-constrained research. The strategy at this point was grounded in projection and could easily be countered using the same, limited set of information.

In order to break the stalemate and (importantly for the start-up) start showing immediate results, we created a number of different marketing emails, each one representing a slightly different take on what the future of healthcare might mean, and the role our client could play in that future. Again, our initial concepts did not find their way into the marketing platform we finally launched, but the way in which people responded to the messages we tested directly informed everything that ultimately went to market.

We are in the business of change

If you or your clients are going to invest your time and money to create something new, a baseline expectation for that work should be that something will change as a result of it – your customers lives might get better, your business might grow, your community might improve. Too often though, strategy doesn’t reflect that change. It’s based on a retrospective view of the world before you did something. However, when you include concepting and testing in the strategic development process, you begin to account for that change and start building for the future as it will be thanks to you.
Don’t underestimate the change that is possible through your work, plan for it.

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The Boss has it right…

Amy and I were in London last week and she couldn’t stop reading the Bruce Springsteen autobiography “Born to Run”. She came across this passage which she sent to me with the note “this reminds me of how you feel about your work.” She nailed it.

“There is love and respect at the center of everything we do together. It’s not just business, it’s personal.  When you came to work with me, I had to be assured you’d bring your heart.  Heart sealed the deal.  That’s why the E Street Band plays steamroller strong and undiminished, forty years in, night after night…”  

Every time I see my friend Steve Papa he loves to give me a hard time “are you still cleaning up the world’s data?” 😉  The answer is always “yes” – and although at Tamr we live in the weeds of our customer’s “dirty data”, I love what we do – it’s more than a business for me – it’s personal.  When we are able to help our customers produce transformational analytics that are only possible because we’ve helped them create clean, unified data from across their company – it makes me incredibly proud of my work.  This is especially true when those analytics help them save hundreds of millions of dollars.  I suspect it’s a similar feeling (with a lot more 000’s) that Larry Page and Sergey Brin have when they watch the search logs and Google and see tens of millions of people finding information using tools they’ve built.

I can see the same pride from the people @ Tamr when they deliver for our customers.  I love “playing” with all the folks at Tamr and am psyched to be able to do what I love every day with people for who “bring their heart” to their work.  It’s not just business,  it’s personal for us.


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Right cost & tech curve for storage…

Whenever Amazon reduces the price of S3 (as they did last week)- I’m reminded of how important it is to be on the right “cost curve” for storage.  There is still a bias in large enterprises toward on-premise storage that is provided by the likes of Dell/EMC.  This bias is beginning to change – but there are still people who believe that the exorbitant cost of on-premise storage systems such as Isilon is justified relative to the cost of services such as S3.  Now to be clear – there are times when specialized systems/storage are required (respect to my friends/colleagues in HPC) – however – for MOST large enterprise applications/systems – storage services such as S3 will do just fine.

In short – storage as a service is the right path – both in terms of tech AND in terms of cost.  Companies such as ClearSky Data are making it easy to get on the right curve.  (I have no vested interest in Clear-Sky – just a fan of their product/approach)

My favorite guideline for this is very simple : “when was the last time that EMC cut their prices by 30%?”

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Harry Weller – Great Investor & Even Better Person.

I am deeply saddened by the loss of Harry Weller.  Harry was my friend and trusted colleague.  We worked together on many companies including Vertica and Tamr where NEA was a lead investor.

Any time I was faced with an important decision (personal or professional) – I could always count on objective and thoughtful advice from my good friend Harry.

One of the biggest decisions that a serial entrepreneur makes when raising money is : from whom will I raise funds?

A key principle for me was always : only take venture funding from people (specifically people) who you trust to make outrageous amounts of money in the best case scenarios.  Harry was the kind of person for whom I was psyched to make money – no matter how outrageous the returns.  I always felt great about Harry and I making money together because I knew that he would turn right around and invest those returns in the next generation of great, mission driven entrepreneurs and startups.  The entrepreneurial community has lost one of it’s best members and I have lost a great friend – I will miss you brother.

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Privacy in Connected Health : Great post by Joe Kvedar

Joe does a great job of summarizing key issues here concerning privacy in connected health.

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Using a “host factory” to deliver secure hybrid and multi-cloud instances…and then…secure container management

For those of us that track AWS – last week was pretty welcome update that includes a bunch of great new features – announcement here.

One of the key challenges that I see over and over again for large enterprise tech is trying  to get the best of AWS without complete lock-in to Amazon (multi-cloud) while  at the same time supporting their mix of on-prem and cloud systems infrastructure (hybrid).  Hybrid AND multi-Cloud is hard – but possible imho if you select a small number of key elements of your architecture that are independent of AWS (or any PaaS cloud provider for that matter).

One of the most important elements to protect as independent is your core authentication/authorization/secrets infrastructure – but where do you start – it’s such a complicated, tangled mess.

Try this….it can be very useful to provide a service that is essentially a “host factory” to assign dynamic identity to VMs.  The host factory provides a single, independent identity for the VM so that services such as secrets management, ssh, service authorization, PKI, etc can all be delivered independently of the physical location of the vm and/or the cloud provider.

For example – in AWS, your instances authenticate to the “host factory” using it’s AWS IAM role. IAM roles are the bridge between AWS instances and their “host factory” identity. This host factory identity can be used to deliver all of the services mentioned above regardless of the provider – on-prem or any cloud service provider.  This essentially provides a “line in the sand” where your intimacy with any given cloud provider is going to stop and where your control of your own machines identities starts.

Now that AWS has brought IAM roles to containers. The same bridge from ec2 instances to your “host factory” identity can be used to manage container identities.

So whether your app is VM based or containerized, it registers in the same way with the “host factory” and uses all the same core features (except ssh of course; which is not really a for containers 😉

IMHO – this approach is possible to implement quickly if you use a great system like Conjur.

There was a similar dynamic a few years back with networking identity and access management – along came a great product – Illumio – which has been adopted broadly to solve this problem.  Conjur is doing for the app layer – what Illumio delivered for network layer.

Give it a try and let me know what you think.

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OpenVPN on ChromeOS – just say no

For anyone who is trying to make OpenVPN on ChromeOS work – just stop.

If you’ve got ChromeOS device – it’s likely you have an Android device – best to just use OpenVPN on Android rather than the unnatural act of getting ChromeOS OpenVPN support to work.

Worth a blog post – I dunno – but it would have saved me more than a few hours this weekend 🙂

Maybe the forthcoming Android support on ChromeOS will get us a freebie.

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