by Alistair Mokoena (@AlistairMokoena) Like medical professionals are lousy about taking their own medication, so, too, are communications agencies generally bad at communicating.

Take internal communications. We are often accused of either under-communicating or over-communicating to staff. How many times have we presented really good ideas badly by being long-winded on irrelevant stuff? Or by articulating ourselves badly because we inherently believe that a great idea doesn’t need a great sell?

Businessman Pointing Business Words by pat138241 courtesy of
Image by pat138241 courtesy of

How, not what

Many pitches are lost, not because of bad ideas, but because of a bad sales pitch.

Communicating what you are proud of is less important than communicating how you plan to solve a problem. The focus should be on how effective your solution is, not how smart your idea is — a subtle but critically important difference.

Many pitches are won on attitude and the heart, not so much on ideas and the mind.

Many communications agencies miss the importance of positioning, communicating and managing their own brand:

  • How many agencies have a brand-positioning statement such as a brand blueprint, brand pyramid or brand ladder?
  • As kings and queens of a single-minded proposition, how many agencies have a payoff line?
  • What benefit do we own in the minds of prospects?
  • What space do we occupy in the marketplace?
  • What do our prospects think of our price-positioning? Are we an economy brand, value brand or a premium brand and why?

Do we ever wonder?

As an industry, do we ever wonder why do we battle to convince the market of our value and worth — why is our craft seen as easy and mindless, with low barriers to entry? Why does everyone think they are marketers? Is it because we have done a lousy job of communicating the science and the art behind marketing communications?

For the longest time, the strength of communications has been measured upon the basis of what is said and how it is said. In other words, verbal and non-verbal communication elements are equally important. Society has become a lot more-discerning over time. More and more people are searching for meaning and purpose in their lives. For this reason, the “why” question has become more important. The reason that something is said is becoming increasingly important.

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” If we show how much we care about helping our clients win and helping improve the lives of customers and consumers, we will improve our hit rate.

The right audience

Communicating to the right audience is also very important. As one of my favourite Buddhist proverbs proclaims, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” Don’t waste your time presenting sustainability ideas and goodvertising ideas to your marketing clients. They will tell you these ideas are not core to their business KPIs.

Rather, sell these ideas to their corporate affairs colleagues. It doesn’t matter that we haven’t been asked to solve sustainability problems. We have to challenge ourselves to see our clients’ businesses holistically. We employ very bright people with clever ideas that can change the world but these remain our best-kept secret because we haven’t received a brief for these ideas.

For people who deal with segmentation models and target-market identification daily, it’s a surprise that we are not good at tailoring messaging according to the target audience. For example, our government and local municipalities are grappling with challenges that, if solved, could radically transform the way we experience life. Why don’t we have hackathons that are aimed at improving service-delivery issues, health care and crime? Are we knocking on government’s door with these solutions?


These are the kind of ideas that do well at Cannes Lions; why aren’t we making them a priority?

I think part of the problem is that we are so fixated with daily survival and short-term revenue opportunities that we ignore the things that will bring us long-term success, such as investing in strong brand equity and driving good corporate citizenship.

The questions you need to ask yourself are: Do you have the right people working with you, do they share your vision, do you know what keeps your client up at night, are you in touch with the things that society cares about and are you clear on the legacy you want to leave behind?


Alistair Mokoena November 2014

Alistair Mokoena (@AlistairMokoena) — a Unilever-trained Chartered Marketer with lots of blue-chip marketing experience — joined Ogilvy & Mather Johannesburg as MD in January 2015). Formerly, he was MD of FCB Joburg. One of his favourite pastimes is driving around in the bush, photographing wild animals. Alistair, who switched from client to agency side at the end of 2012, contributes the monthly “The Switch” column, covering relationships inside agencies and between agencies and clients, to


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