I was having lunch with Alan Thompson who runs the Haystack Group.
They’re a new-business intermediary that places hundreds of millions of pounds of business a year.
But Alan told me something more interesting at lunch.
Alan’s dad is over eighty years old.
When the weather got really cold, his dad turned on the central heating.
The boiler fired up, but the radiators stayed ice cold.
The house was freezing.
He had to put on an overcoat, gloves, and scarf.
He could see his own breath, indoors.
For an elderly person, this is serious.
So his dad went through the Yellow Pages and found a plumber.
The plumber came and did the usual thing.
He sucked air through his teeth and tut-tutted.
He said “Blimey, this is an old boiler.”
Alan’s dad said “Yes, I’ve had it ages.”
Then the plumber walked around and felt all the pipes.
Eventually he took out a hammer.
He hit one of the pipes two or three times and waited.
The pipes began to warm up.
Then the whole house gradually got warm.
The plumber said “There you are, it was an air-lock in your pipes, that’s shifted it.”
Alan’s dad was really grateful.
He said “Thank you very much, what do I owe you?”
The plumber said “Nothing.”
Alan’s dad said “But I must pay you for fixing the heating.”
The plumber said “No, I can’t charge you just for hitting a pipe with a hammer.”
Alan’s dad said “That doesn’t seem fair.”
The plumber said “Look, this is a really old boiler. With luck it’ll get you through this winter, but you’ll probably want to replace it soon. All I ask is that you let me quote on it when you do.”
Afterwards, Alan asked his dad what he was going to do.
His dad said “Well I don’t think I’ll bother getting any competitive quotes. I mean, even if they are cheaper I don’t know if I can trust them.
I know I can trust this plumber, he didn’t rip me off when he had the chance. I’ll just get him to do it.”
What a brilliant piece of marketing thinking.
This plumber’s not just looking to make a quick few quid.
He’s building a brand.
He’s worked out what his point-of-difference is amongst his competitive set.
Which is: he’s an honest plumber, you can trust him.
Given that most people are insecure because they don’t know the first thing about plumbing.
Given all the TV programmes showing people getting ripped off by plumbers.
Given how vulnerable people are to cold in the depths of winter.
Given all that, this is a fantastic positioning.
Of course, trust is the positioning most marketers say they want.
But this guy doesn’t just talk it, he walks it.
He invalidated all the competition for a much bigger job, without even a pitch.
And he’s got a client who’d doing his WOM advertising for him.
How brilliant is that?
You might say, well that’s okay for plumbers but what’s it got to do with us?
Years ago, Nigel Bogle was running TBWA.
Clients occasionally came to see him when they were in trouble.
When the work their current agency presented was unusable.
And they needed to be on air with a new campaign in a matter of weeks.
Nigel would listen to their problem.
Then he’d say “I understand your problem and I wish we could help. But I think you’ve got more fundamental issues than just hitting an airdate in the short term.
I think it needs a lot more strategic thought.
If we did a quick fix for you I don’t think it would benefit either of us.
We wouldn’t be doing our best work, and you’d be disappointed.
But, I can understand that you do have commercial imperatives and you need to hit that deadline.
So, if you’d like, I can help you pick an agency that will do a reasonable job in the short term.
Then, when you do have a bit more time, we’d love to talk to you again and show you what we can really do for you.”
You might think, he’s crazy, he’s just given away business.
But has he?
Isn’t he actually doing the same as the plumber?
What are the chances of the other agency doing a brilliant job in those circumstances?
The very best they’re going to do is perhaps adequate.
And which client can resist the thought that they’ll never know how great it could have been if they’d got TBWA, and Nigel, involved earlier.
The client has to keep the lines open.
So that later on, he can ask him to have an in-depth look at his business.
And now, the whole balance of the relationship is different.
Now Nigel, and TBWA, is a trusted adviser not just a supplier.
You trust Nigel like you trust that plumber.
Which is why he eventually opened his own agency.
And why Bartle Bogle Hegarty now has offices on five continents, billing one and a half billion pounds a year.