The Real World

I’ve just had a gap between one project finishing and another one starting; rather than hang around for a month I fancied something different to do. A friend works for a garden centre in Maida Vale and I asked if they needed temporary help pre-Christmas and landed a job delivering to customers homes. Nobody asked anything about my background so I volunteered nothing.

It has been a fascinating and enjoyable month, so vastly different to sitting in an ad agency or clients office speculating about ‘the consumer’. I thought often about the lack of experience most people in the ad world has of working with the public. Years  ago I was in a meeting at Morrisons HQ in Bradford and Sir Ken Morrison walked in to the room unseen and sat next to me at the back. We’d met before and he nodded and listened to a young female planner pontificate about something or other. I tried to get her attention and suggest she stop talking but failed and inevitably Sir Ken interrupted and said “Excuse me love but have you ever worked in one of our stores?” and of course the answer was no. Also nobody on the agency team had worked in a Morrisons store, not even for a day. Schoolboy error.

To make matters worse the young planner didn’t recognise Sir Ken, thought he was some local bloke being pokey and argued about the importance of being distanced from the day to day issues of grocery stores. The meeting went down hill very fast and I took her off the account the next day. (I’d always thought she talked intellectual rubbish most of the time but she had been protected by the Planning Director, until the Sir Ken episode.)

Returning to my recent immersion in face-to-face experiences with customers I was re-acquainted with a number of blindingly obvious lessons:

  • It is impossible to generalise. The range and variety of homes, ages, race, wealth, attitudes was mind boggling. One day I delivered to a stunning penthouse apartment overlooking Regents Park with a couple of £500 pots, expensive plants and and a huge Christmas tree; the next delivery was around the corner to a tiny, slightly shabby basement flat with a £30 tree. The difference between the two could not have been more extreme yet they both are customers of the same outlet, they were in the same post code area, on the edge of a trendy part of London. Attempting to create a pen portrait of the the garden centres customer is almost pointless and possibly very mis-leading.
  • Distribution is king. This was one of the major pre-occupations of the Cadbury managment when I worked there and it becomes so obvious in the retail environment. If you don’t have your product stocked, displayed and promoted you will not get any sales. At my temporary employers they stocked one brand of stands for Christmas trees. These are the Porsche of stands, German made, very expensive and very very good. They had clearly taken the decision not to stock a range of stands, focus on one and not give their customers choice. They flew out and must have made them a ton of money and provided their customers with a high performing, enduring product.
  • Think about the transaction and the ‘feelings’. Delivering Christmas products to peoples homes was mostly exciting for the recipients. Many times children would get excited when they realised I was bringing in their Christmas tree. In  most cases I would unwrap the tree, put in the stand and chat to the children and sometimes their dogs. The ‘feelings’ were warm and happy so taking part in the ‘feeling’ moment was a good thing (and often would result in a nice little tip!).
  • Finally, don’t make people wrong. This is a view I’ve held for many years mainly because it is all too easy to become defensive at best, or aggressive at worst if the recipient has a problem. I delivered a large tree to a house in Bayswater around 5.00 pm on a cold and dark evening; the lady of the house was a bit grumpy and when I saw the stand she had I knew there was no way I could put the two together. She was getting upset and it clearly wasn’t my problem as my job was to deliver and not get involved with the lady’s domestic issues. However I told her we could fix the problem, not to worry and I would be back within the hour. I returned with a second person, a drill, saw and a spare stand just in case. We fixed the problem in 10 minutes and her tree was stunning and she was very happy. Whilst we didn’t get a tip for our trouble my guess her opinion of the business would be on a high and she would repeat the story to others

So what have Christmas trees and stands got to do with the price of potatoes? I suppose it is all about ensuring we all keep our feet on the ground and live in the real world. The ad world is without question operating in a bubble and I can’t recall any account person I’ve every worked with who has spent time getting their hands dirty along the lines of The Apprentice. One exception is Mike Greenlees who was a salesman after university for Bowater Scott and he was, and I assume still is, a great salesman. The question is whether this is important or not?

I believe it is because we are all involved in selling, that’s what we do on behalf of clients. My little experience for 4 weeks made me think it should be obigatory for everyone involved in the ad world to do a months sales experience each year! How most would hate it but how much would it help them become better at their chosen discipline?

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