Managing the fifth risk

Posted by: Matt Saler


How Elexicon’s retainer service can help you manage risks to your marketing efforts in uncertain times

When rafting down a new river, it’s good to have an experienced guide.

I’ve been re-reading Michael Lewis’ The Fifth Risk. It’s a slim volume, but I consider it one of the most important books to come out in the past few years. Lewis masterfully demonstrates the critical role the federal government plays in managing an enormous portfolio of risks that no other entity has the resources or inclination to handle.

The “fifth risk” of the title is the threat stalking out of mind, crowded out by focus on more seemingly urgent threats one, two, and three—maybe four. Lewis writes about people whose job it is to think beyond the usual prioritized threats.

Many of these risks are things most people don’t know about or ever think about—things we can live our lives without worrying about because they’re being “handled.” For example, he writes in a chapter about the Department of Energy (DOE):

Roughly half of the DOE’s annual $30 billion budget is spent on maintaining and guarding our nuclear arsenal. Two billion of that goes to hunting down weapons-grade plutonium and uranium at loose in the world so that it doesn’t fall into the hands of terrorists. In eight years alone—2010-2018—the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration collected enough material to make 160 nuclear bombs. The department trains every international atomic-energy inspector; if nuclear power plants around the world are not producing weapons-grade material on the sly by reprocessing spent fuel rods and recovering plutonium, it’s because of these people. The DOE also supplies radiation-detection equipment to enable other countries to detect bomb material making its way across national borders.

So, basically, the DOE is why tales of a dirty bomb or homebrew nuke going off in a city or airport somewhere in the world are only told in fantastical spy movies.

In other chapters, he writes about the Department of Agriculture’s role in ensuring a stable and robust food supply—it doesn’t just happen—and the Department of Commerce’s role in weather forecasting through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—your Weather Channel app would be far less reliable without government data. He could have written a book five times the length and not run out of material.

I should say that part of Lewis’ project is to show how the management of those risks is often itself at risk for various political reasons, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.

The takeaway that I went to emphasize is this: The Fifth Risk argues persuasively you want people at the wheel, thinking about all the ways present stability can dissolve, and working to avoid those trip points so you can keep on living your life.

Basically, you want prevention over mitigation. But it follows that if prevention fails, you want the smartest, most experienced people on hand for dealing with the fallout.

That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot as the COVID-19 pandemic has derailed the world. The virus burst on the scene late last year as a major threat we didn’t prevent—but could have. Now we have to mitigate the threat, with measures that are far more painful than prevention would have been.

Now to Business

You know the #1 risk to your digital and traditional marketing efforts—which is not far off from saying you know the #1 risk to your business. Right now, after three months or more of economic upheaval due to the pandemic, it’s probably painfully obvious. You probably have contingency plans against it and risks #2-3, maybe #4 on the outside. But what’s the fifth risk? Is anybody managing that for you?

It’s also worth pointing out that not every business is facing the same challenges right now. Maybe consumer demand for your product or service has dropped to critical levels because of the pandemic and you need to adapt efficiently to a difficult market reality. Or maybe due to the unique changes to society brought on by the novel coronavirus, your product or service is in unusually high demand and you need to ramp up effective marketing and communications quickly. Either situation carries with it deep uncertainty about the weeks and months ahead.

Whether demand is up or down or just wobbly, it’s smart to have a rapid response team available for the fast-changing reality your business faces—so you’re able to focus on your core mission. Sometimes you have such a team available internally. Often, though, you need to bring that kind of expertise in from the outside. In the latter case, how do you budget for that?

Project or Retainer?

I talked recently with a client about a budget for work they are planning for the year. The question was whether the work would be project-based or funded from a retainer. I suggested a retainer would be a valuable insurance policy for needs that may arise around their goals.

My thinking: from a budget planning standpoint, there can be more uncertainty with projects. That’s because projects often risk expectations being set with unintentionally rose-colored glasses and assumptions about best-case scenarios. When a client and a vendor try to calibrate specific project spends within a fine-tuned overall marketing budget, we find it can be easy to leave too little room for what isn’t known. When you inevitably find out what that was, it can mean costly project overages.

And even if the project goes well and stays on budget, there’s always the question “what now?” A week later, the CMS or a plugin for crucial site functionality requires a critical security update that impacts functionality. The person trained and responsible for maintaining the site content leaves for another organization a month after that. The new Chief Marketing Officer wants to change direction by next quarter. The original project is over—how do you quickly account for these new needs?

A monthly retainer is a recognition of the inherent messiness of life and work, projects and marketing. It can encompass all that is good about a project budget while offering ongoing stability and certainty.  It can position an expert agency to manage risks an organization may not have the resources or expertise to manage itself, while offering flexibility to change direction that a project-based approach lacks.

The marketing department challenge

Effective marketing translates to increased sales and profitability. To get there, you need a highly-skilled team with expertise in several key areas, as well as the right technology. Depending on the size of your business, it can be difficult and costly to make the right moves in the right sequence to build that team and bring on the right tools.

If you manage a team with marketing responsibilities within a larger organization, you may have budget, hiring, or internal resource usage limitations that restrict you in similar ways.

The marketing and digital retainer solution

An Elexicon retainer matches your marketing needs with the skills and technologies necessary to meet those needs, at a predictable cost.

We do this by:

  • working closely with you, within an overall strategy and toward set goals, with regular communications and monthly reports.
  • providing a skilled roster of experienced staff, using proven tools that are ready to plug in.
  • sharing a vested interest in the overall success of your organization—we’re always thinking ahead about what can and should be done.
  • letting you mix and match skills to goals on a month-to-month basis, making sure you only pay for what you need, when you need it.
  • harnessing the momentum that’s made by being constantly engaged, thereby avoiding the frequent startup time and costs that come with the estimate process for tactical needs.
  • offering a discounted hourly rate due to the annual commitment of the retainer

This partnership means you always have the resources and confidence to set and achieve marketing goals. A retainer approach allows your needs and costs to stay synchronized (even when needs change from month-to-month), and delivers the talent and tools you need, when you need them. The talent and tools specifically manifest in our full slate of services.

Stay vital to being vital

Our user interface design and user experience services ensure that you’re thinking through every aspect of your customer journey and user flow, whether you have a software or SaaS product, or an e-commerce ecosystem for your physical products. Your development teams may be collaborating with your sales and marketing teams to deliver the features that help the product sell, but do they help the sales “stick?” We help map out the big-picture and long-view of your user’s relationship with the product, to identify where they may be running into frustrations, and opportunities to boost customer delight.

Customer delight is especially important in times like these, when folks need to prioritize what they’re spending money on, and are thinking about what subscriptions and memberships they find vital. Your user interface and digital experience is vital to being vital.

Laying a foundation that stands the test of … anything

With our strategic services, we help our customers not only envision the big picture and the long view, but plan it and map it out. We build and iterate early product prototypes. We research, refine, and report on your digital traffic and optimize audiences. We place the right messaging and content in front of the right prospects and customers at the right time. All of this establishes a solid foundation for customer loyalty, and a clear strategy for acquiring more of those ideal customers.

Teamwork makes the dream work

All of this works on a project basis, but is particularly powerful with the continuity of an ongoing retainer relationship. Such a relationship forges the kind of bonds of teamwork that only come with practice.

With the right resources in the right place working together in the right way, you can finally accomplish things like:

  • Refreshing your site’s design
  • Updating your logo and branding
  • Setting up a digital ad and remarketing campaign
  • Getting a handle your site’s security (i.e. stopping that spam)
  • Standing up an email campaign for the first time
  • Developing a new type of communication page for your customers/audience

You can probably add to that list.

But what does it cost?

If you’re thinking “I’ve just finished my pandemic lockdown rewatch of Mad Men. Retainers are expensive. I don’t have room in my budget for a retainer,” let me put your mind at ease: a retainer is what you make it. You can, of course, do more with more. But even if it’s just a way to ensure you have somebody to call when something goes wrong with your website, that’s okay too. We’re confident you’ll see the value because we know from experience that retainers work.

If you’re ready to make a safe investment in your digital marketing, if you’re ready to have your marketing risks managed—#1-5 and beyond—by an experienced team dedicated to your success, get in touch.

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