GallupPathI often get hired to lead a specific marketing initiative for a mid-size firm. After I have worked with a particular executive for several months and trust has been established they often ask me to candidly tell them what I think the biggest issues at their company are. I almost never tell them it’s their marketing, or their lack of good IT systems. The biggest issues at mid-size firms are always related to their people: generally they have the wrong people in some key positions, they have no processes that identify talent during the hiring process and they have poor processes for managing talent within their organization. As such they have many people working in areas which they lack the talent for. This leads to low employee engagement which leads to poor customer service, low customer loyalty and ultimately puts a huge damper on profitability year after year.

So even though my primary practice is in helping mid-size firms grow profit using internet marketing, I have developed a secondary practice in employee engagement and talent management. Why? Because in the long run it will have a greater impact on profitability than any marketing strategy will.  Gallup calls it the Gallup Path and the graphic above shows you the powerful linkage between talent management and sustainable profitability.

If you are an executive and are interested in a roadmap to sustainable profitability through managing your talent then the seminal works on this topic are a series of books put out by the Gallup organization. They are international best sellers and I give these books to executives more than any other business book. It’s most helpful to read the books in order starting with First, Break all the Rules and then moving on in the order below. They come in both book and audiobook form.

First, Break All The Rules: What The Worlds Greatest Managers Do Differently (book)

First, Break All The Rules: What The Worlds Greatest Managers Do Differently (book)

First, Break All The Rules: What The Worlds Greatest Managers Do Differently (CD audiobook)

Now, Discover Your Strengths: How to Build Your Strengths and the Strengths of Every Person in Your Organization

Now, Discover Your Strengths: How to Build Your Strengths and the Strengths of Every Person in Your Organization (book)

Now, Discover Your Strengths (CD audiobook)

StrengthsFinder 2.0: A New & Upgraded Edition of the Online Test from Now, Discover Your Strengths

StrengthsFinder 2.0: A New & Upgraded Edition of the Online Test from Now, Discover Your Strengths

Strengths-Based Leadership

Go Put Your Strengths to Work: 6 Powerful Steps to Achieve Outstanding Performance

Marcus Buckingham: Go Put Your Strengths to Work DVD

I spent the last 2 days at SES Toronto 2009, a global conference on Search Engine Marketing. Aside from catching up with friends and old colleagues, I enjoyed meeting Emanuel Rosen, the author of The Anatomy of Buzz Revisited and his was by far the best session. I liked it so much I bought his book and I swore I would not buy any more books until I had read the 5 beside my bed. Sound bite: 73% of buzz (viral sharing about brands) is in person, 17% by phone and 10% online. The top category people talk about is …… Food! Three meals a day… I guess it makes sense.

Most of the booths (other than Microsoft, Google and Yahoo) were small tech startups providing incredibly niche services that most of my CEO clients would be hard pressed to understand.  And there is so much hype in this space. If you are not careful you can start to feel like you are a total loser because you didn’t name your kids based on the available domain names and google keyword bid estimates. Everywhere you turn someone is taking a photo with their iPhone and posting to Twitpic and Facebook. I had to send someone into the bathroom ahead of me to make sure the coast was clear.

Microsoft has a nice big booth promoting their new search engine Bing looks interesting and I’ll give it a try. I like competition – it keeps everyone on their game.

I came away with several good ideas on how to develop more successful social media campaigns for CPG clients – which is one of the biggest challenges out there. Here are some other random things I learned:

My big learnings from the SES Toronto 2009 conference:

  1. You must stimulate your happy customers to talk in order to overcome the 30% of brand buzz that is negative and comes from people who have never used your brand.
  2. We imitate some people and we distance ourselves from others. Fairly key ☺
  3. If you want buzz you must give people something to talk about. There must be a good story.  Check out “Will it blend iPhone” on YouTube below this list or Tom’s Shoes.
  4. Dispersion matters. People are clustered into social silos and you must get buzz from across a diverse group of people, including across different social clusters, to predict success.
  5. You have to prepared to do 10 social media initiatives to get 2 winners. Paraphrased from Jim McDowell of BMW.
  6. Mobclix is a great tool for iPhone app developers. Great stats on best apps by category.

Jonathan Burns is an online strategy consultant based in Burlington, ON but serving Oakville, Mississauga & Milton.  Jonathan is the only online strategy consultant in Oakville who is an ex Procter & Gamble Brand Manager – so he brings a unique combination of packaged goods brand strategy and in-the-trenches small-business online marketing know-how. Jonathan’s passion is helping small and mid-sized businesses grow through smart internet marketing including:

  • having a contemporary looking website managed by a Content Management System (CMS)
  • choosing your keywords very carefully based on keyword research and understanding organic search rankings
  • improving organic search rankings using Search Engine Optimization (SEO) best practices including on-page and off-page SEO.
  • driving extra traffic using Pay Per Click (PPC) campaigns on Google, Facebook or LinkedIn
  • using email marketing and marketing automation best practices to build a following that you can cultivate and sell to over time
  • harnessing social media. His favorite starting points:
    • A Facebook page
    • A twitter account
    • A social media management tool like Hootsuite or Tweetdeck.

Jonathan can help you sort out the hype from the elements that really work, based on your unique business and target market.

Online Strategy Case Studies website and online marketing strategy including marketing automation, email marketing, video marketing, e-commerce.

Lifespring Clinic website and online marketing strategy

other examples of online strategy work can be found here.

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The Problem:

The team at 7 Systems had a nice looking website but they were finding it expensive and frustrating to update the site because it required them to pay the agency who built it to make all changes and updates. They wanted to enable several of their people to easily add content and make text edits themselves without having to pay the agency every time.

Our Solution:

I shared with them how rebuilding the site on a WordPress system would give them a content management system (CMS) so they could update the content themselves and it would also give them a blog so that various members of the team could contribute stories to help sell the 7systems products. It would also help their site be found more easily in search engines because Google loves WordPress blogs because of how they are structured and organized. Many of our clients find their WordPress blogs get 2 to 4 times the traffic than their HTML site gets.

Recently 7systems wanted to run a contest so they asked us to design an inexpensive contest mechanism into WordPress so that they could create Athlete profiles and then have visitors register and vote for their favorite athlete story. See some screenshots here.

Client Feedback:

“Strategy Cube was a true strategic advisor.  Jonathan effectively presented a recommendation and then helped every step of the way in making sure the execution delivered on the ideas presented.  We’re seeing double the traffic and saving major money because we don’t have to rely on an agency for the constant updates we make to our pages and our blog.” Martin Rydlo, Co-Founder,


You can visit the WordPress powered site we built for them at

nice WordPress template

nice WordPress template

How NOT to respond in an agency creative presentation:

I often see a new person on a marketing team get invited to a creative presentation from an agency that’s presenting work started before they joined the team. The most common thing on their mind as they walk in is, “how will I comment on this when the agency, or my boss, asks me what I think?” Generally they just respond with some comments about whether the ads look nice or not – which is really just a waste of air in most cases.

So what should they do? Well, the most important piece of feedback the client needs to give the agency is whether or not the creative is on strategy or not, followed by whether or not it is well executed (and therefore elicits the desired emotion and response from the viewer).  In order to comment on the strategy, you need to have it written down somewhere. So the first thing you should ask if you are the new person who gets asked to sit in on the creative presentation is, “where is the creative brief?” You can only assess if the creative is on or off strategy if you have something to compare it to.

Here’s how to respond to a creative presentation:

  1. If you have a strong gut reaction, give it, but perhaps not as your first comment.
  2. Even if you have lots of negative comments, try to start with something positive. Creative people need encouragement.
  3. MOST IMPORTANT – Compare what you see to the Creative Brief and especially to the Advertising Strategy (Benefit, Brand Character, Design Theme). You have to have an Advertising Strategy to do this and it should have been in the Creative Brief. Your most important assessment and feedback is: is this ON STRATEGY or OFF STRATEGY.
  4. Either send a follow-up email after the meeting summarizing your comments and requested changes or ask the agency to send you a follow-up email containing that.

For more perspective on why and how to write a good creative brief, check out this post.

You can purchase a detailed Creative Brief template with notes and explanations at, one of my sites.

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The Situation:

My client is a new safety training firm and they required ground-up brand development and marketing to be able to present themselves professionally and generate awareness of their services.


  1. Develop a compelling brand identity for a small safety training company.
  2. Acquire new clients for Insight Safety Services by making prospective clients aware of them and their services.


  1. Start with developing a compelling brand identity integrating the concept of “people” as the object of the training and a contemporary design that communicates up-to-date expertise.
  2. Build Insight Safety Services a professionally designed, custom website through which visitors from the ad campaigns can explore the company and its services and be encouraged to call or email for more information.
  3. Add to the website an easy to use WordPress blog with a CSS template that matches the existing site. Teach the principal of Insight Safety Systems to use the blog to post articles and expert advice on safety training. Use our favorite WordPress Plugins to 1) automatically optimize posts for SEO and publish new blog posts to google and Yahoo, and 2) send the blog post content via RSS to Feedburner and other blog sites to drive additional exposure on the web.
  4. Use locally targeted google adwords and facebook ad campaigns to drive targeted traffic based on keyword searches and content placement to the new ISS website. Also register the company with Google for visibility on Google Maps.


Logo & Brand Identity:

Insight Safety Services logo

Business Cards:

Insight Safety Services business card front

Insight Safety Services business card back

Brand Guidelines:

We created an 8 page set of Brand Guidelines to ensure continuity of the brand over time and different executions. Some example pages are shown here.
ISS Brand Guidelines example


The website is live at

Insight Safety Systems website homepage

Google AdWords Campaign:



Facebook Ad Campaign:

ISS Facebook ad

Other Print Collateral:

We also developed:

  • Printed letterhead and envelope artwork
  • Printed desk cards for training sessions
  • An HTML email template
  • A Word document letterhead template
  • A Powerpoint template for presentations

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When you hire an agency to make a marketing piece for you, do you take the time upfront to write out a detailed Creative Brief? Most people don’t, but great marketers do. As an Assistant Brand Manager at Procter & Gamble my Brand Manager always insisted that I write one. I often resented the time it took, just like I resented much of the process P&G forced me to follow as a new hire there. I was a young punk right out of business school and I knew everything. I just wanted to call the agency and tell them over the phone that I needed a direct mail piece made. But then I eventually became a Brand Manager and I too insisted that my staff take the time to write a creative brief before every project that involved contracting an outside agency. So what happened to me?

Well other than becoming Proctorized, I became convinced that the upfront time invested in a Creative Brief pays out in spades versus the “just call the agency and then add new requests every few days for the next month” method.

The purpose of writing a creative brief is to clarify our thinking upfront and to force us to make decisions at the beginning of the project so that the agency can start working on it with a complete picture of what we want. This process allows the design and production process to happen efficiently and therefore less expensively. People who don’t take the time to write a creative brief frequently end up making many changes to the requirements of the project during the project and this causes rework and ultimately leads to missed deadlines, higher costs and frustrated designers and agencies. A good creative brief should be so complete that if we handed it over to the agency and disappeared for the duration of the project, the end result should be pretty close to what we wanted.

Objection: If I spell all this out then why I am I paying my agency so much? Isn’t this their job.

No it’s not. The client owns the “strategy” (the content of the Creative Brief) and the agency owns bringing that strategy to life creatively. They are very different skills. Strategy is primarily about research, numbers, analytics, decision making models, and ultimately making clear choices. (In a small organization it is often just knowledge we have about our organization and stakeholders that we can’t expect the agency to know combined with some careful thought around the options and a sense of where we want to go in the future.) The creative process is about taking dry, sterile words and miraculously turning them into ideas and eventually executions that resonate, and produce emotion and action from the target audience.

Good agencies need the information in a Creative Brief in order to produce creative material that is “on strategy” for your brand. If we don’t give them a Communication Strategy then we are expecting them to create one for us out of thin air and that’s not their job. Their job is to take our Communication Strategy and bring it to life creatively in the elements we have asked for.

When we see their creative concepts or executions we should compare them back to the Creative Brief and ask, does their creative version communicate the message we asked for, even if in different words? If yes, then their creative is said to be “on strategy”, which it needs to be. If no, then their creative is “off strategy” and needs to be revised.

You can purchase a detailed 20 page Creative Brief template with notes and explanations at, one of my sites.

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The Situation:

My client is a 7 person physiotherapy clinic in Aurora, ON and until October 2008 they had a holding page for a website and were running no online advertising.


Acquire new clients for LifeSpring Physiotherapy by making prospective clients aware of the physiotherapy clinic and its services.


  1. Use locally targeted google adwords and facebook ad campaigns to drive targeted traffic based on keyword searches and content placement to a new LifeSpring website.
  2. Build LifeSpring a beautifully designed but cost effective website through which visitors from the ad campaigns can explore the clinic and its services and make a decision to call or visit.


The website is live at

LifeSpring Physiotherapy homepage

LifeSpring Physiotherapy Team Page

Ron O Hare physio, AJAX popup example

Google AdWords Campaign:

Google AdWords Maps ads for LifeSpring Physiotherapy

Facebook Ad Campaign:

LifeSpring Physio Facebook ad example

4″X9″ Rack Card brochure:

LifeSpring 4

LifeSpring 4

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Google SketchUp design exampleGoogle SketchUp is a free 3D content creation tool that has been available since April 1996. It was originally developed by @ Last Software and released in August 2000. Google acquired @ Last Software in 2006.


The Tool:

Google SketchUp has the potential to radically alter the design playing field. While there will be many people who just download and use the tool for fun, it puts commercial quality design tools in the hands of anyone with a computer and access to the web.

One of the major changes of the past 10 years is that smart people living in the developing world are able to buy a computer and get web access at a reasonable cost and with that start to compete with North American based workers in fields like software coding, web coding and graphic design. They earn substantially more than their peers even when they charge rates that represent massive cost savings for North American companies.

With Google SketchUp these changes are coming to the commercial design industry.

The Community:

Google is great at creating communities and there is already a community developing around SketchUp. That community will only grow and it provides companies that currently design in North America and Europe an opportunity to access design talent from anywhere in the world and substantially increase the rate of new product innovation while lowering their costs.


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One of our clients wanted to improve the marketing on two of their online brands (websites). After an initial audit, we determined that the right starting point was to create Marketing Strategy Templates for each of the brands that would clarify the marketing choices on the brand and serve as a key reference tool for the program managers for several years to come.

The template applied best practices from the Consumer Packaged Goods industry modified to suit a much smaller organization with scarce marketing resources. It included:

  1. Targeting
  2. Brand Equity Messages: Benefit/Unique Selling Proposition, Brand Character, Taglines
  3. A Tactical Advertising Plan with a focus on online media, specifically Google AdWords and Facebook and the purchase of ad space in opt-in email newsletters.

We then executed the marketing plan including buying the media and then optimized the campaigns through test and roll-out period. So far the programs that are running as a result of these Strat-Plans have acquired new registrants at the lowest cost yet seen by the client.