by Alistair Mokoena (@AlistairMokoena) 2013 was an exceptionally tough year for our economy, thanks to persistent economic recession.

At a macro level, we failed to achieve our growth target and we’ve been struggling to contain rampant unemployment and poverty. At a micro level, consumers are being squeezed by the rising cost of living, resulting in everyone — from individuals to big corporates — having to tighten their belts.

This has put the advertising industry under huge financial strain. The agency bottom line is no longer what it used to be.

Alistair MokoenaMy prediction

My prediction is that we will continue to see many more agencies close shop while others downsize. We will also see clients in-source some services and recycle or “sweat” their advertising material. It’s a jungle out there. Yes, strength can help you survive, but it takes a lot more to thrive.

So what does it take to thrive? It’s the basic senses. The sharper your senses, the better your chances.

We all have a sense of smell, a sense of sight, a sense of hearing, a sense of touch and a sense of taste. But, as with most things, not all senses are created equal. From a business perspective, the two most important senses are sight and hearing. The sharper your eyes and ears, the greater your chances of thriving in a competitive landscape.

The animal kingdom

Let’s take a leaf out of the animal kingdom.

Animals have the best-developed senses. They use their senses to stay alive, to fend for themselves, to protect themselves and to navigate their way through life.

Owls have the sharpest hearing. Not only is their hearing superior, they are able to pinpoint exactly where the sound is coming from in complete darkness. This helps them catch prey in a split second.

Elephants are also known for their superior hearing. They are able to hear at frequencies 20 times lower than humans can, as well as pick up low-frequency vibrations. This unique ability helps them sense the rain long before all the other animals.

Cats are also known for their exceptional hearing skills. They can hear higher frequencies than humans. They are also able to rotate their ears 180 degrees, which enables them to pick up sound from any direction.

What can we learn?

What can we as advertising agencies learn from these animals? We need to sharpen our eyes and ears.

In my view, the genesis of all creativity is insight. All great creative work emanates from a deep understanding of what consumers want. As marketers, we create brand stories so that consumers can fall in love with our brands. For these stories to be relevant and authentic, we need to be listening to what consumers are saying and not saying.

Having elephant ears will help us hear consumers’ wants, needs, desires and frustrations, while having eyes of an owl will help us read between the lines. It will help us see the unseen and hear the unspoken.

I respect research but I’m afraid you don’t get this level of insight from a focus group. This requires consistent meaningful engagements with consumers, as equals, and not as subjects.

Share intimate details

Remember pen pals? I think brands and consumers should become pen pals so they can share intimate details with each other. We need to encourage authentic dialogue between the two so trust can develop.

Sharp hearing also involves keeping your ear to the ground. In other words, brands need to invest in detectives that tap into sub-cultures and social movements. That’s how you stay relevant and in touch with the latest thinking.

Trends are formed in small cliques of opinion leaders whose frequency evades lazy marketers. A good detective will sniff these opinion leaders out and hack into their frequency like tow-truck drivers do.

Be the elephant that senses thunderstorms long before rain clouds gather. Invest in competitor intelligence. Having wide, hawk-like vision means training yourself to constantly scan the competitive landscape so you can see your enemies coming. It also helps you spot opportunities when your competitors are navel-gazing.

On a practical level, it means training your staff to exhaust divergent thinking before diving into narrow, convergent thinking. Think big picture before zooming into the detail.

Ushering in 2014

So, as we usher in 2014, I hope that fellow marketers will remove all blinkers, reject all stereotypes, suspend judgment, make time to make at least one new friend a week and introduce their brands to a pen pal or two. Let’s all thrive!

Alistair Mokoena (@AlistairMokoena) is a Unilever-trained Chartered Marketer with lots of blue-chip marketing experience. He’s currently MD of Draftfcb Joburg. Mokoena contributes the monthly “The Switch” column to

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