In 2010 I attended the annual convention of the National Council for Marketing & Public Relations in Albuquerque on behalf of my then-employer, St. Petersburg College. Rather than simply soak up four days of seminars and conferences, I put together a WordPress blog (a bit like the one you are reading) and reported on each of the conference sessions so my colleagues back in St. Pete could benefit from them. (That blog is still up and you can see it if you want to). The following is one of the stories I produced at that conference. This isn’t an example of great writing, but rather an illustration of how journalism can contribute to institutional knowledge and expand the value of things like conferences and seminars.
Four culprits contribute to stalled growth
This session was presented by Steve McKee, a partner in an Albuquerque-based ad agency, McKee Wallwork Cleveland, and author of “When Growth Stalls,”a book that examines the hows and whys of a business phenomenon that many businesses, even successful ones, run into.
That sudden slowdown is just what happened to McKee’s own business just a few years after launch. The new company went through rapid growth and was even cited by a national magazine as being one of the fastest-growing new companies in America. But just a few years later, much of the air seemed to escape from the balloon, and McKee Wallwork entered a period of the blahs. McKee Wallwork remained busy, but the previously steep growth curve went flat.
As a marketer, McKee was not only worried about the sudden negative turn; he also was curious about the reasons for the sudden change, and he wondered whether other companies experienced the same slowdown after steep initial growth. He decided to do some research.
He looked at a long list of other companies, and he discovered that stalled growth was a common thing among companies that had experienced strong early growth. When he looked for the reasons why, he found a number of common issues:
1. EXTERNAL: This would include the economic factors that affect everyone. His research showed that in any average year, 15 percent of all companies stall; in a decade, more than 50 percent experience serious slowdowns. Between 1994 and 2007, he said, half of the best companies stalled. The conclusion: Even the best companies are subject to economic factors.
2. CHANGING INDUSTRY DYNAMICS: Factors such as advancing technology or changing regulation can cause things to shift.
3. COMPETITION: Other companies in the same field are always after you. Sometimes they succeed.
But what about internal dynamics? McKee said the research showed four common internal factors:
- Lack of consensus among management
- Loss of focus
- Loss of nerve
A lack of consensus, McKee said, is the absence of leadership. He described consensus this way: “We know why we are here, and we know what we are doing.” The consensus issue, he said, has to be fixed before any other factor can be resolved.
The loss of focus, he said, is something that is commonly seen in education. McKee mentioned Dell as a company that experienced a loss of focus when founder Michael Dell left the company.
“Today, Dell offers cameras, TVs – it is now really a consumer electronics company,” he said. “It just acquired Perot Systems, a consulting firm. Dell has lost its focus.”
An example of loss of nerve, McKee said, is neglecting long-term strategies to meet short-term goals.
“The biggest sign of loss of nerve is how your spend money. The biggest area for this is marketing and research and development.”
When growth stalls, McKee said, institutions are apt to cut marketing and advertising.
“It doesn’t hurt today to day that,” he said. “In fact, it feels good, and it is easier to cut marketing than to lay people off. But when you cut those two areas, you are hamstringing your organization.”
McKee said that Dr. Pepper found that companies that continued to invest during economic downturns came out of the dark times in much better shape. So, during a fairly recent recession, Dr. Pepper kept the pedal to the metal. The result: Dr. Pepper picked up significant market share when the economy righted itself.
Marketing inconsistency, McKee said, can be seen in rapid changes in advertising or marketing messages. He said that changing marketing messages are seen frequently in companies that stall. Surprisingly, he said that companies are often better off staying with so-so ad campaigns than they are in frequent message changes.
“Why is that a problem? Because we live in the information age,” McKee said. “When we don’t want to consume messages, we don’t. You pass billboards and not see them. TEVO tunes out advertising. We are good at filtering, and marketers have to get through that. One way is through creativity, but the other way is through consistency – being there time and time again.”
So what can be done?
McKee offered a number of suggestions, starting with a visit to his book’s website, www.whengrowthstalls.com. If you click on the “Self Diagnosis” button, you’ll be taken to a 20-question survey that should reveal some truths about your own institution. If the employees of a department or company all take the survey and compare their answers, they may see issues of inconsistency, loss of focus and loss of nerve.
McKee said his company ultimately recovered. He likes to say that McKee Walwork “failed its way to success.”
“The consensus issue broke up our partnership, but since then we have been doing fine,” he said. “We found our focus, and now we serve stalled or stuck companies.”
McKee answered a few questions on this same topic at a previous conference.