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Stepping outside the comfort zone

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of articles that reflect upon the 25th anniversary of Boomm B2B Marketing. Each article examines a significant milestone in the agency’s history, why it transpired, and its lasting relevancy to today’s marketing landscape.

Marketers love to ruminate on original thinking. They romanticize big ideas, out-of-the-box approaches, breakthrough concepts and game-changing strategies. Professionals who drive original thinking on a regular basis are given lofty titles such as thought leaders, strategic savants and creative geniuses. There are countless award shows that recognize brilliance in all its forms from every area of marketing and many industries.

In short, original thinking is single most important force in marketing. Why are so many agencies afraid to apply it to their own business models?

If you’re an agency leader, you might bristle at that question, and with good reason. Agencies are in business to be bold, inspiring and original. But all too often they get trapped in their own secure little worlds.

For an agency, the comfort zone is the known in its many forms. That can include the industries they serve, the channels their campaigns employ, the types of people they hire and promote, and the new business accounts they pursue.

From an agency management perspective, the comfort zone is the smart, safe and profitable place to be. It’s the land of regular billings, proven expertise and relatively few surprises. Many agencies that enjoy longevity and industry-wide respect exist entirely in their comfort zones.

One highly profitable discipline, pharmaceutical advertising, has essentially created a multibillion-dollar, industry-wide comfort zone. To work in this exclusive space you truly need to “know pharma,” and understand the world of highly regulated communications. If you want an example, ask a pharmaceutical creative to explain their latest two month battle with legal over fair balance in a TV campaign.

What is the world of marketing like outside of the comfort zone? It can be extremely intimidating. An agency must be willing to work harder, embrace uncertainty and occasionally look foolish in a meeting with a subject matter expert.

 When an agency ventures beyond its comfort zone, there will be challenges from all parties concerned.

Management will ask: “Can we really make this work?”

The account team will ask: “Why are we going after this type of business?”

The creative team will ask: “How can we compete in this new space?”

The IT Team will ask: “Do we need to learn an entirely new platform?”

Prospects will ask: “What do you know about our industry?”

And the sleep-deprived people who made the ultimate decision to go for it will ask: “What have we done?”

Given all of that, it seems unlikely that any agency would ever step outside of its hallowed comfort zone. It’s even more implausible in B2B marketing, where specialization and industry experience are table stakes.

But it has happened. In fact, back in 2009 Boomm B2B Marketing took that first step out of its comfort zone.

Prior to that, Boomm had been strictly a “food shop.” The agency worked with some of the leading brands in the food industry and had built a strong reputation for applicable knowledge and positive results. In addition, many of the agency employees were food industry lifers.

The decision to pursue additional business in different industries may have seemed foolhardy from the outside, but it was the best decision Boomm ever made.

There were uncomfortable moments when a client challenged, “We have never done it that way before.” But when the programs launched, those same clients wondered, “Why didn’t we do it that way before?”

 In retrospect, Boomm succeeded outside of its comfort zone because of two simple facts:

    1. The valuable learnings gained from the agency’s foodservice experience were needed in other industries. They expanded everyone’s thinking.
    2. The valuable learnings gained from other industries were needed by foodservice clients. They expanded everyone’s thinking.

As Boomm celebrates its 25th anniversary, it’s rewarding to look back to its courageous venture outside of the comfort zone. That bold first step has led to many rewarding journeys for Boomm and its clients.