How’s Your How?

I subscribe to Tom Asacker’s free email newsletter, and I read his neatly packaged essays. Because that’s where the nuggets are. Witness:

I have not found an individual’s or organization’s ‘why,’ its purpose or cause, to be the basis for success. Even though it feels good to make that connection—to think in terms of intent instead of execution—it’s clearly not the case. And for one simple reason: People don’t buy ‘what’ you do or ‘why’ you do it. They buy ‘how’ you do it; the unique and compelling way you bring your idea to life for their benefit. It’s your ‘how’ that creates engagement, adoption and devotion.

Don’t let your feelings fool you. Intentions carry weight; they help inform decision-making, inspire like-mined people, and sustain motivation during difficult times. But they only matter if you bring them to life in a bold and memorable way. What matters most in today’s marketplace is timing, guts, and creative execution. It’s the combination of domain expertise, strategic value creation, and an obsessive attention to detail—especially with regards to others’ experiences—that gives rise to great brands.

This is music to a craftsman’s ears. He who makes the best ads wins.

But the agency business, for one, doesn’t work this way in real life. Eric Karjaluoto of SmashLab in Vancouver, BC says, “I know world-famous designers who are broke, and complete hacks who live quite a nice lifestyle. Quality, while important, is subjective and can be hard to quantify; the relationships you have with your customers are what will most affect your bottom-line and the long-term health of your company.”

Of course, Asacker and Karjaluoto are both right. Relationships are everything, and we tend to invest more deeply in them when our partners in business speak the same language. The shared vision between client and agency can be based on creative excellence or it can be all about cost efficiencies and ROI.

Agencies of all stripes come up with ridiculous copy to describe their “how” a.k.a. their patented process that takes a business challenge from problem to solution. Yet, I would argue that the corporate customer in this instance has little interest in the agency’s “how,” but plenty of interest in the agency’s “what”.



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.