In 1968, Virginia Slims cigarettes were introduced to the marketplace. Not the mass market but a targeted niche -- professional women and those who shared affinity with them. The message, "You've come a long way, baby" was not about cigarettes, but about affirmation, aspiration and liberation. Cigarettes may be bad for your lungs, but this message was right for the heart and soul of the targeted audience.
Focus on the marketplace in those times. Power was centralized in the hands of a few. This was the beginning of the anti-war, civil rights and women's liberation movements. This was the beginning of a power shift. If you were an old white guy in control of the world -- this was the beginning of the end.
If you were a woman, young person, brown, black, yellow, red, disadvantaged, outlier or merely had aspirations for new adventures -- this was the beginning of the beginning.
Focus on the marketplace today. Power is personalized. This is the end of the beginning of the "Information Age," the global economy, the world of Google, smart phones and the marketplace as a niche of one.
Anyone can access anything they want anywhere, anytime. Commerce is less today about individuals and businesses being sold and more about individuals and organizations buying. This seismic shift has occurred because information, knowledge and access have been democratized. As consumers we are "free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last."
For those of us who think the world of 1968 and the evolution that has occurred since then were the "good old days," the future as it evolves may seem to be the "dark ages." For those who were trapped by age, gender, ethnicity, circumstances and culture in those "dark days" of 1968 -- today is the dawn of the age of enlightenment.
From 1968 through now agencies and their producers were in charge. They have benefitted from a product and producer defined and driven marketplace. At one time the producer's job was to hold technical knowledge, expertise, experience and preferred carrier relationships "close to their vest." Quite simply their interests were best served if the customer was "stupid." Customers needed us.
Less than a decade after the introduction of Virginia Slims, the marketplace brought us comparative rating. That was followed by direct bill, service centers, carriers going direct (think AARP, Hartford, GEICO, etc.), consolidations of carriers, alternative funding mechanisms and the banks.
Changes such as these are hard on relationships and agencies discovered that the "marriage" with their carriers was more one of convenience than "love." One tool needed was SEMCI (single entry multiple systems interface). Agencies begged but carriers didn't deliver. You see the carriers' best interest is served if their delivery system is "stupid." They benefit when agencies need them.
Agencies don't trust their carriers and the carriers don't trust agencies. This has resulted in redundancy in products and services, market cycles that pit agencies against their clients, feelings of isolation and vulnerability, and loss of the control agencies enjoyed in the "good old days."
The good news of the Independent Agency System rests in the word "Independent." Agencies refuse to die even though the experts have predicted their demise for decades. The future demands that agencies forget the "good old days" and stand in today and face tomorrow.
The bad news is that agencies are no longer in charge and neither are their carriers. The marketplace owns tomorrow. The future will be client defined and client driven. To complicate matters even more, the "client" no longer is one person that looks and acts like "you" do. More often than not the client is a team of decision makers that are much different from you in gender, generation, expertise, personality style and values.
The client does not want to be sold -- they want someone to facilitate their buying, solve their problems and anticipate their needs -- they want "integrated solutions." This is best explained in the article On a Consumer Watershed by Marshall Goldsmith published in Leader to Leader Magazine
in November 1997.
"As the world becomes more complex, customers' need to 'keep it simple' increases," Goldsmith writes. "However, making things simple for customers may not be simple for providers. Integrating processes from autonomous units (or even separate companies) poses political and organizational challenges often greater than the technical challenges.
"The demand by customers in widely diverse industries for integrated solutions rather than stand-alone products is not a fluke or a fad. It is a powerful response to a more complex, more global, more competitive landscape."
Now's the time for clients to make us smart. We work for them -- not vice versa.
We've got a long way to go, baby!
October 11, 2011
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