Category: Collaboration Methods
April 4th, 2017

This is a completely appropriate response.


Look. We know you get a ton of emails telling you to Download The Free White Paper That Will Boost Your Business, Slim Your Waistline or Enlarge Your Junk. Don’t flush this one. This is the one that will lead you to The Big Book of Thinking Small—the express train to discovering your A-ha Moment. The thing that makes you, you. The Big Book of Thinking Small not only gives you insight into finding your A-ha Moment, it will help you learn to share your amazingness with the world.

Go ahead. Pull the trigger. Do it.

July 30th, 2016

Decisions, decisions. What Marketers can learn from Pokemon Go, Katie Couric, and the bacon-cheese log of vacations.


Since 2002 Mortar has been a big idea agency. But no more. We have decided to change.

Read on for why you might want to join us.

Until this year we believed the essential elements of a project should be condensed onto a single page. Each of the briefs we developed were organized around a bold and inspiring big idea.

The big idea was Mortar’s launching pad for iteration and creative thinking.  (Read more here).

In 2016, we replaced the big idea with two steps: a strategic marketing decision (SMD) and an A-ha moment. This article deals with the SMD, I’ll publish on the A-ha soon.

Instead of arguing to a big idea we make a big decision about how to market. To decide what we will do differently this time. To articulate how the message should change because the way we see the world—and the client’s customer community—has also shifted.

Introducing Strategic Marketing Decisions

We call them strategic marketing decisions (SMD). Making one can be a lot harder than it sounds.

For example, let’s take the problem that plagues Yahoo: is the massive internet property a media or a software company?

If it is a media company, then content production and delivery should be its priority. Hiring Katie Couric, buying Tumblr, paying big money to stream the NFL, these are all moves in the right direction. And they contribute to Yahoo’s unique value.

But what about engineering new forms of engagement?

Take say, Pokemon Go’s innovative use of augmented reality (AR). Pokemon Go is a game. It is an app. But it is also an engineering marvel. By smart use of AR, geolocation, and a sprinkling of inspired game theory, Go’s engineering team created a new form of participatory entertainment.

You just don’t get that type of engineering from a media company, you have to be all in on being a software company.

To walk through one door is to decide not to walk through another. In marketing it is never wise to be all things to all people. Effective marketing requires focus. Focus requires choices and decisions. Many argue that Yahoo failed to prosper because it failed to decide one way or another: and the lack of clarity sapped the company of vital energy, spurring multiple failed investments and inexplicable changes in direction.

What makes a decision a Strategic Marketing Decision?

The BBC defines strategic decisions as “long term, complex decisions made by senior management. These decisions will affect the entire direction of the firm”.

At Mortar, Strategic Marketing Decisions, are decisions that impact the direction of, well, marketing.  But they need not be long-term. Just clear and wide-ranging. Like deciding to act like a leader. Or to line up behind a new vision. Or to take a position quite unlike a rival. SMDs are decisions, about marketing, that have important implications.

Writing for the Harvard Business Review Phil Rosenzweig in “What makes strategic decisions different?” describes the basic types of decision. Here’s how they apply to the SMD:

strategic marekting decision

1. Choice

Making a choice can be a strategic move. Many an organization is plagued by its inability to choose—and thus find its focus. Just by clarifying the need for a decision we can often find a new way forward.

Take Vancouver-based Westport Innovations as a example. When Westport came to Mortar they described themselves as “a Canadian IP company”. We very nearly hung up. But after visiting them we realized Westport was, more than anything else, a natural gas engine company. Oh sure they did a host of other things—like make small engine parts and work with other forms of fuel like Hydrogen—but the heart of engine maker thumped at Westport’s core. By making the strategic marketing choice to focus messaging around natural gas engines they could turbocharge the way they talked about themselves and their mission.

2. Inspirational Vision.

“In so much of life, we use our energy and talents to make things happen. Imagine that the task at hand is to determine how long we will need to complete a project. That’s a judgment we can control; indeed, it’s up to us to get the project done. Here, positive thinking matters. By believing we can do well, perhaps even holding a level of confidence that is by some definitions a bit excessive, we can often improve performance.” (Rosenzweig).

In marketing, a decision to make something happen can also be strategic.

By suggesting that a trip to the city of Reno is actually a visit to the Reno/Tahoe area, we remind travelers to the big blue lake that the joys of the bacon-wrapped cheese log of vacations is just minutes away. An example of positive thinking influencing outcomes if ever there was one.

Planting a flag on the hill as a symbol for all to follow can be an inspiring move, and work to spur creativity.

3. Betting.

“The best decisions must anticipate the moves of rivals. That’s the essence of strategic thinking, which [we can] define as “the art of outdoing an adversary, knowing that the adversary is trying to do the same to you.” (Rosenzweig).

Deciding which way the game will go can also be a candidate for a strategic decision about marketing.

A lot of what we decide is based on what we think a rival will do. Strategic decisions based on reading a rival’s tea leaves are wonderful raw material for marketing.

In marketing, deciding to decide can make the difference between success and failure. Watch for my next post: the A-ha moment that follows from the SMD.

July 12th, 2016

Hello VMware. Welcome to our community.

What follows is an open invitation to the good people of VMware to change the way they market, from their new advertising agency partner, San Francisco-based Mortar.

After two years of intensive work with the Corporate Marketing and Communications team, we’re convinced the key to helping VMware stand out is to add a lot more community.

If you want to skip ahead, click here to see our website and some recent VMware work here and here.

So, why is community important to VMware?

Let’s start with what keeps VMware marketers up at night: You can no longer be defined as just an infrastructure company. Or the pioneers of virtualization. You play a big role in mobile. You have a lot to offer the end user. And you are essential if customers are to cavort across the gap between on-prem and cloud.

But all that is technospeak. It’s geek talking to geek. VMware is much more than a company of nerds. VMware provides essential fabric for global enterprise – and thus touches millions, even billions of lives. People. Society. Teachers. Kids. Farmers. Non-engineers. Astronauts. Cows. We help them all.

We think it’s about time the company acknowledged that you are helping our software-obsessed planet became a kinder, gentler, creative and yes, more efficient version of ourselves.

We CAN say bigger things to humanity. Which is important as we seek to drive beyond IT and into the C suite and on to connect with the teams building and publishing apps.

How can VMware use community to connect with its audience on an emotional level?

We have heard it said that VMware does not actually touch end customers, what with your vast network of partners. Trust us. You do. And you need to start telling those stories. 

Anyone visiting VMworld can’t help but take away the stirring sense of fervent community in your backpack-sporting brethren.

Engineers are amazingly creative and innovative. But for some reason many abhor marketing—and this unseen force can suppress creativity and the ability to market with power.

We’re on a mission to let loose your creativity and your community, while keeping you connected to your core.

Over the past couple of years, we’ve had some success extracting your human side.

Our work on What will you leave ahead? * revealed an enormous opportunity to talk about the impact of VMware on kids in Africa, dairies in India and schools on the Amazon river. “What will you leave ahead?” also fed the desire of VMware’s marketing team to illuminate your customers’ work and tell more human stories—clearly we are not the only ones thinking this element of VMware is a neglected area of marketing opportunity.

And Pat made big use of our “Innovate like a Start-up, Deliver like an Enterprise” theme in his VMworld 2015 keynote.

Ok, so what does Mortar offer VMware?

We chose “mortar” as a name because it means glue. Building connections. Between people and organizations. 

Every line of code started with a person. The decision to install VMware and buy even more VMware? That too is a decision by people, influenced by the opinions, experiences and feelings of other people.

VMware has a massive global fan base. So let’s start thinking of your customers that way, and ask ourselves what we can do to heighten their anticipation? Incite action? And stoke the fires of fanaticism for the next gen of VMware?

Or we could just continue to address the market through a complex morass of acronyms and language that only makes sense inside-the-data center. But that doesn’t build community. There’s a place and time for all that, but it’s not the kind of marketing you’ll do with Mortar.

Give us a buzz if you want to have a collaborative conversation about communicating VMware as the head and heart of an amazingly innovative, ridiculously effective, and emotionally-connected global community. We are chomping at the bit to get into it with you right now.

* Mortar developed the WWYLA theme. Other VMware partners  produced the work on Radius.
January 12th, 2016

What if agency briefs were faster, better, briefier?


2015 taught us that the brief could be shorter. Briefs developed in a day can be as effective as documents developed after months of study. I’ll explain.

For the last 12 years pretty much everything we have developed has been built after securing approval of a brief that fits on one page.

Every Mortar brief has seven sections: i. our objectives; ii. what we know to be true about the target audience—and why they will care; iii. several key insights about the project; iv. the story we want to tell; v. a single big idea (the Big) designed to point the team in the right direction; vi. important decisions about style (personality and voice); and vii. details about anticipated deliverables.

This year we added a new section: viii. what is the strategic decision? i.e. What are we willing to give up in order to gain an advantage.

The point is to fit it all onto one page. So if you find yourself in a conference room about to work on a Mortar Big, everything you need to contribute will be right there in black and white on one side of a single page.

Mortar is not alone in our fanaticism about short briefs. Still, this piece would hardly be worthy of “What if” if we didn’t pick a fight with our own process. So here’s what 2015 revealed:

Yes, you can get to a Big in a day.  And the brief shortly after. That’s can, not should. To get to a decent Big quickly, you will need four things: 1. a client who is willing to bring a team to the table and will turn up in their best pair of participation pants. 2. An ability and desire to whiteboard like a crazy person. 3. A purposeful agenda. And 4. Bags of energy. Most good clients can tell their agency what they need to know in a few hours. And they will be even more effective if they bring a verbal, passionate colleague or two along for the ride. Plus, if the agency arrives with some experience of the market or the target audience, all the better. It’s easier for consumer-facing assignments too. Deeply technical stuff can require significant study before the team is ready to boil facts into the insights we need for a good Big.

It’s not a good idea until it’s a good idea in the morning. Most ideas change a little after a good night of sleep. The Big is no different. Attempts to wrestle complex marketing problems into one all-defining simple phrase benefit from swimming around the subconscious and being thrown into the ring with the lions a few times before they are ready for serious exploitation. So give the Big some room to spread out and grow.

The Big is rarely THE idea that will make it to market. Bigs are very rarely headlines. Few make it into print. Bigs are directional. Sure, a product might be 12x faster, 3x cheaper and 2x easier to use, but what will people do with it? What need does it meet? How will prospects feel about it? What will they tell their friends? All of these questions need to be answered in the brief. They all need to roll up to a Big. In the ideal world, the Big is the sweet center of a delicious cake of analytic goodness. Settling on the right Big marks the beginning of the rest of the process. No one should be surprised when the work ends up focusing on another part of the brief—and coming back with a previously unconsidered approach to the Big. Some of the best concepts are born from phrases dwelling somewhere else in the brief. 

Briefing can be faster. We used to take several weeks or even months to get to a solid brief: and in some cases we still do. But clients willing to sit and wait for the agency to complete the investigative steps so essential to developing a clear, objective viewpoint… well, they were harder to find this year. The 2015 crew generally greeted a lengthy development cycle with dread. So we changed it up, stripped down what we needed to the bare essentials, and figured out how to get to get the heavy lifting done inside a couple of days..

Let’s not kid ourselves, abbreviating the input stage has an awkward tendency to actually lengthen development. Smart teams of people fueled by coffee and donuts will find the gap you plastered over, in no time. Like it or not those gaps have the potential to send you back to research. And that’s ok. Often, an abbreviated process is driven by a need to be in market fast. That doesn’t mean we might not find an equally compelling, more on-point way further down the line. As our relationships get deeper, so do our Bigs.

Briefier briefs are not always weaker. The key to developing a good brief quickly is the quality and “in it together” energy of client input. Look, no one needs to teach an agency to be hyper critical and dismissive of new ideas. We do that as a matter of course. But all that negative energy can be put to good use if it is aimed at a particularly galling issue by an enthusiastic advocate who knows their customer. To make progress quickly clients need to be willing and able to roll up their sleeves and describe what customers actually care about and how they can be expected to greet the solution. Here’s a tip: focus on the target audience in as much depth as possible. Speed and enthusiasm do little for an assignment if they are not tethered to deep insight into the customer. If you don’t have it, be wary of attempts to fake it.

How can I tell if a briefier brief is right for me? Briefs can be shorter. Briefings can be quicker. You can cut weeks out of development with briefier briefs. But only do so if you can meet these three conditions:

  1. Time is truly the enemy. We are accelerating. Speed, velocity, momentum, call it what you will, solutions and products race down the track barely steps ahead of a pack of howling competitors. It doesn’t help when marketing decisions occur at the tail end of a major decision. Or that they arrive at the agency with outsized expectations. But then few things would happen if we didn’t all have a deadline to hit. If time truly is against you, then good enough has to be enough. Get over it and move on. There’s always time to go back in the future. But do learn the difference between need and want. And let that guide you.
  2. You know the audience… It bears repeating. There is no replacement for understanding who your customer is and why they will care. None. If you don’t have it, your Big will be wrong. If you do, you can move forward. Now any effective discussion will quickly reveal gaps in what you think you know about your customer. In fact, gap discovery is probably assurance you have the right team on the job. Eliminating information gaps at the beginning of the process will enable you to move forward more quickly and with greater confidence. Thankfully, research too can be abbreviated if you have the will and the right team. (We favor engagement sessions for exactly this reason — when members of the client team sit in the same room as respondents and actively participate in the discussion, next morning’s water cooler conversation changes for good). My point here is pay attention to the gaps. Knowing the difference between something you can think your way through and something that requires more data is a critical judgement issue.
  3. You have a good idea of what internal stakeholders feel is important, exciting, and wise. Ah, this old chestnut. We sometimes tell ourselves that our main job at Mortar is to save clients from themselves. There is no shortage of genius ideas and breakthrough strategies. Even a mediocre agency can provide awesome ideas given the time and energy. So why does so much of what makes it to market suck? Our happy emphasis on momentum and decisiveness creates unanticipated anxiety and doubt. The faster we push our colleagues ahead the more we spark concern and doubt. Knowing what clients and their key stakeholders consider important to communicate, exciting to highlight and most of all, wise to say, is the part only you can judge. There’s a fair amount of gumption and gut-trusting needed here. You have to know when to dive deeper. And when to let go. But either way, make sure you believe it before you agree to your agency’s Big and proudly pack them off on its maiden voyage. You need to own it, love it and be one with it.

Just as much as your agency.

That’s how we see it. Let us know your thoughts. Join the conversation #whatifmortar.

November 16th, 2015

Four ways to avoid needing a stiff drink after creative presentations

Mortar agency what if

So you want to sweat less in creative presentations in 2016? Here are four things you and your agency could be doing now to make creative development easier and more fun:

1.  Switch the dynamic from vendor to partner

The first thing to consider is how you think about each other.

The big reveal thrives in a client-vendor relationship.

It feeds off a competing power dynamic which sets you up as the benevolent dictator, ready to punish the imagination of your agency if they get something wrong.

Leading your agency to second-guess their position as your favored supplier.

In truth, the vendor dynamic sucks creativity out of the process and the soul out of participants. 

The best people never work for you. They work with you.

Partnership not bondage, cooperation not domination, love not war: ambitious, passionate and ongoing collaboration is the best way to unlock creative freedom and achieve a common goal.

Thinking of your agency as a partner is the best way to avoid the pain of missed big reveals.

2. Throw open the doors to new ideas

How many times have we heard it said: great ideas can come from anywhere. But does your agency actually mean it? If your agency’s idea of agency-client collaboration stops at Google Docs, read on.

Effective creative groups are built from members with an ability to think broadly together, confident that lunacy will be greeted with warmth and enthusiasm. Agencies build creative teams just like this all the time. But most Creatives remain walled-off behind the account team, separated from you by “the need to push-back” and coddled by a culture deeply suspicious of contributions from outside the creative department.

That is how the Mad Men did it. Sadly, it is still how most of our colleagues run their shops.

Given the right conditions, awesome ideas can come from anyone—yes, even the client.

Advertising is the “most fun you can have at work with your clothes on.” And while it’s the reason many of us work in agencies, there’s no reason you shouldn’t share in the fun too.

3. Your agency should fit like a glove, but not all gloves are comfy

If you have made the choice to partner with your agency, evaluating fit is essential.

At Mortar, we focus on clients that can thrive in constant and urgent collaboration. We have found that our best clients often have substantial experience with creative development—some of it gained on the agency side. Your agency may be different.

Either way, success hinges on being honest about who you can partner with, and who you can’t.

Over the last 18 months, our new focus has helped cut our client roster by almost half. Giving us the chance to focus on the clients most willing and able to collaborate.

When we work with them we can confidently throw our hearts into sharing ideas early and often.

4. Break the ice (preferably over cocktails)

Lastly, it’s up to you and your agency to break the ice.

This means being upfront about what honesty really means, about what you’re trying to achieve together and why it is so hard.

The place to start may very well be over your favorite cocktails—because partners prefer to kick things around in person, not on conference calls.

Breaking-the-ice means being clear and frank with one another, and holding one another accountable. Good partners make room for feelings (gasp) and don’t point fingers when things go awry.

Good partners are kind to one another because they share the same goals and aspirations.

And effective partnership also means instead of schmoozing you during fancy dinners, you work together in impromptu whiteboard sessions designed to squeeze your brief for hidden value and insight.

It is a simple idea: Great ideas thrive through open, honest and regular collaboration.

They shouldn’t be jammed into a box and expected to shine in the dark while they wait for their big reveal.

What do you think? Do you have the courage to change the dynamic and revel in a pool of collaborative goodness with your agency? Does your agency?

Follow our “What If” series here. Join the #WhatIfMortar conversation.