The times are changing, the season is changing and my own time and season are changing.
So, it feels like an opportunity to take stock of my years in the marketing and communications business, a cumulative inventory of experiences that can be better understood and shared with the objectivity of time and reflection. Or… how about this… been there, done that.
Here are some choice lessons that I’ve learned and relearned… and keep learning.
# 2 in a series – Differentiate this.
Expanding a business into new markets and territories is a big job with lots of challenges and risks. Apart from the role of luck, good and bad (see The Role of Luck), strategizing ‘outside the box’ is essential. Your arrival on the scene has to be noticed.
The decision in 1980 to open a Toronto operation for our B2B marketing agency specializing in healthcare followed the departure of clients and prospects west, down the 401. We got busy networking, mailing and calling with the news but were looking for something dramatically noticeable and different to deploy. Little did we realize that it was going to be 70 tons of CNR steel.
Coincidentally, my partner was reading for interest about the club of private railway car owners in the US. On a whim he called CN to see if they might have any passenger rolling stock for sale. He had already made the brilliant connection between launching in Toronto and riding into town in style. Quite unexpectedly, there was an old car they were selling for the price of scrap. It was called The Metis and with a little research and probing we learned that it was in good shape and had been both the private library car on the train of the 1939 cross Canada royal tour and later, the private railway car of Governor General, George Vanier
What an investment, we thought! Although the price was not cheap, it was way below what we feared and the basic repairs, a tune-up, paint job and interior refurbishing, could be managed. The Metis was returned to former glory both inside and out and moved into service to coincide with our launch activities in Toronto, a launch that, as yet, did not include an office or staff, but here it was, the agency on wheels and rails – never before done.
At the time it was the only private railway car in Canada. From the back of the regular Montreal-Toronto passenger train and standing on the brass-railed balcony at the rear of the car we had a lovely view of scenery and towns sweeping by. As you stepped inside you could be seated in the lounge or for meals at a long glass table in the dining room. Further down the car, past the stainless steel, fully equipped kitchen. were three private bedrooms with washrooms. What a venue to meet, socialize, work and travel in unusual style.
This launch tactic was looking great but surpassed our expectation when we tracked down, in retirement, the original Governor General’s valet and chef, Jacques Pelletier. He was very enthusiastic to return to his favourite job and place of honour in The Metis and cooked five- course meals for our team and guests while we were rolling or at our designated spur in Toronto’s Union Station. It was in The Metis’ dining room that we learned that we got the job of agency of record from our first Toronto prospect.
As the press coverage unfurled and word-of-mouth kicked in, we gained a foothold and presence in Toronto. Business steadily grew, as did the number of new challenges. Soon we had to transfer to a bricks and mortar office.
Times have changed is a clichéd understatement. Rapidly evolving communications technology and a pandemic have driven us onto fibre highways to ‘beam-me-up’ virtual meeting spaces. But curiously, I’ve recently met a boutique recruiting firm that just bought and converted a spacious RV into a travelling office and boardroom to save on heavy travel costs and to stay safe from Covid 19 by sticking to private highway travel. Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.
There are imaginative and attention getting ways to get to one’s destination in business – innovating to be noticed and attracting business in a big way. How you differentiate from the competition, stand out from the crowd, can make a statement that gets attention and is remembered. A prospect might reasonably expect that you will have equally great ideas to address their challenges.