Is everything measured in numbers? There are the intangibles, too

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It makes sense to build some risk/experimentation into your business/marketing plan.
It makes sense to build some risk/experimentation into your business/marketing plan.

We certainly need to measure our success and anyone who says you can’t measure intangibles should talk with the successful AEC practitioners and marketers who have discovered the correlation between senior decision-makers’ non-billable direct time spent in proposals, and their success. The argument can be made that hourly tracking codes should be assigned for all business development work, and both technical and executive leaders should be expected as part of their duties to do some trackable business development or marketing activities.

But these observations lead to another, more challenging issue: Can the core heart, soul and vision of a business be turned into a set of financial transactions?

This story by Brian Fraley, about how his family’s formerly successful AEC marketing business essentially was destroyed by the bean counters after a corporate acquisition, shows the challenge of getting it right.

In 1996, Fraley Communications was acquired by a large general advertising agency that wanted to own the niche. They recognized that we had built a strong brand and a loyal client base over the years and understood that an acquisition was the only option. They were a very successful organization with exceptional capabilities, but they were generalists.

The deal looked attractive on the surface. They would bring additional staff, capabilities, and funding to the table. In concept, this would allow us to increase the quality of our services.

But it wasn’t that simple.

What they neglected to see is that the cultures were misaligned.

They hired my father and I as part of the deal, hoping to keep the client base engaged and continue the growth trajectory. They also needed us because, despite their extensive capabilities, they couldn’t provide services to an industry they didn’t understand. This problem was especially pronounced when it came to public relations services. How can you write about what you don’t understand?

They were general ad agency folks that wore suits and ties in a Class A office building and couldn’t distinguish bulldozers from skid steer loaders. These were men that chose manicures over hammers.

While there’s nothing wrong with that, they wouldn’t have fit well into the culture of the construction industry.

We, in contrast, were more casual to reflect the needs of our clients. We spent time on construction sites and heavy equipment shops so there were days we showed up in boots and jeans. After all, our clients were builders, construction equipment distributors, and heavy industrial manufacturers.

They also failed to recognize that the brand we had built died on the day of that acquisition. This was a financial transaction executed to tap into a lucrative marketplace.

We had passion for the industry. We were enamored by the machinery and the folks behind impressive construction feats. We had personal connections and a shared history with our clients. They had a checkbook.

As I write this nearly 20 years later, that firm no longer exists. They turned out to be the kind of business people that made false promises. We had both moved on within two years. Our former clients left shortly thereafter.

I think of these matters as we review our own business — balancing the need for economic responsiveness, measurable success, and yet, somehow respecting individuals (employees, clients and suppliers) as humans. It isn’t always easy to get things right, but in the end you need to go beyond the hard data to the underlying values and respect for the people around you. Numbers count, of course, but a business cannot survive and thrive by the numbers alone.

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