Working the slack in the system

Brian Vella

  • Managing partner, AKQA
Brian Vella is a managing partner at AKQA, the world’s leading global marketing agency (according to Gartner). Home to over 2100 professionals in 22 international studios, Brian is responsible for Sydney, Melbourne, Shanghai, Tokyo, Wellington and Auckland. In addition to leading one of the highest growing agencies over the last decade, Brian sits on the WPP AUNZ executive committee. He also sits on the board of Dogs for Kids with Disabilities, a not-for-profit organisation. Brian is passionate about brand and customer experience in the digital age. He’s growth minded and a business builder. His career began at a pure-play ecommerce company in the middle of the first dot-com boom. At this time, he was inspired to help other companies make the most of the possibilities. He has undertaken executive education at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, and prior to that combined a Management & Marketing degree from Monash University. Brian is also a Graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors (GAICD).

Clearly these are challenging times for all of us. The most important thing is our families and communities are as safe as possible. Flattening, or really bending the COVID-19 curve, must remain firmly front of mind.  

In the background to that, and arguably connected to humanitarian efforts, one of the things we can do is keep our businesses as healthy as possible. The livelihoods of so many are at stake right now, so doing what we can do to maintain them is not insignificant. Not just for today, but so when we come out of this - and we will - we are in the best possible position to serve again.  

In among the pandemic there’s talk of Australia’s Research and Development Tax Incentive being reduced. It’s entirely responsible the Federal Government takes swift action to balance its stimulus response. There’s an alternative view here too, as shared by the Australian Investment Council, to also be doing everything we can to encourage businesses to continue to innovate and conduct research.  

If the policy change is carried out, the challenge to maintain a focus on exploration is intensified. And leaders will be asking themselves if an ongoing investment is justified. I think the answer is yes.  

For many right now, there is likely to be what can be called ‘slack in the system’. As projects get put on hold, and or budgets are reduced, there is less work to do. In response, you can reduce staff hours, stand them down or at worst, make roles redundant. I’m not naive enough to say these things won’t and shouldn’t happen in some cases. But additionally, you could look at that slack as an opportunity to prepare for what’s next.  

Innovation is a primary source of differentiation and competitive advantage. In many ways, this is a terrific opportunity to take stock and evaluate how strongly differentiated your brand or service truly is. In a cost-competitive world, where it’s tougher and tougher to compete on price alone, differentiation is a key strategy for many business leaders. Add to that breakneck acceleration of the digital economy, and you may find yourself behind your competitors or where you’d like to be.  

This is likely to be the ecommerce tipping point in Australia and change consumer behaviour forever. Perhaps some slack in the system can explore how your products or services compete better in that world.  

Or it might be spent on more immediate needs. Warren Buffet said to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders in 2001 as the dot-com bubble burst: “You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out”.  

Under normal conditions, with high tides, your business sails along the calm seas buoyantly. It’s when tides are low that rocks underneath the surface are revealed: Everything from a lack of differentiation, to culture and leadership weaknesses. With unexpected disruptions like COVID-19 one day you’re cruising, the next you’re dealing with sharp obstacles never before seen or considered.  

This really is a great opportunity to ask yourself how valued you really are. Either way, the market will decide. At best you gain market share. At worst, it’s irreversible as you’re permanently replaced by something more efficient or effective.  

Expectations on brands were already rising. Businesses and organisations providing a great experience through this period will once again raise the bar. Current-day examples include the Singapore government's TraceTogether App (intelligently alerting people of possible infections), Bunnings ‘click to car park (allowing no-touch pickup) or House Party (bringing isolated children together virtually).  

Increasingly, customer experiences are felt in totality - online, instore, through social media, as employees, in media about their environmental and ethical standards, through customer service responses - and more. It’s the sum of all the parts, and it's complex. Though as Sun Tzu once said, chaos equals opportunity. The key to weathering the economic chaos is to find the opportunity within it.  

I believe the best way to find this opportunity is through a commitment to Innovation. That by choosing to explore through this period we are choosing to learn, adapt and to grow. My fear is those that don’t risk even greater disruption on the other side.  

At AKQA, we have teams of three people working in three-week sprints on research and development. One I’m most proud of is anApp we created for the NZ Coast Guardwhere all boaties now log their trips. Artificial intelligence (AI) analyses the data and predicts possible incidents, allowing the Coast Guard to proactively take action like never before. We don’t create many things that literally save lives, but this is one. The initial exploration in terms of time and effort was modest. Great ideas only need a little space to grow, but their impact can be large.  

Now is the time to embrace some slack in the system. Leverage it wisely and prepare yourself for an exciting future. COVID-19 will not be the last challenge we face this decade. Getting into this rhythm or remaining committed to it will greatly determine the nature of that future, for the better.

Tags: brand strategy, leadership strategy

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