Philip is based in Auckland, New Zealand. He can be contacted at philip@philiponeill.com or on +6421689383.

What media people can learn from taxi drivers

I flew back into Auckland a couple of nights ago. I spent a little bit of time enjoying the hospitality of the Air New Zealand lounge before my flight. There were dumplings on offer.

I also enjoyed the in-flight service (there was cheese) before having a nice little sleep. Which meant that by the time I got into a cab in Auckland I was a little…vague. Which may be reflected in this observation.

Because on the journey home I came to the conclusion that there’s a remarkable similarity between the media business and the taxi business. Here goes:

Everyone thinks they can do your job because it’s actually not very hard.

People pretty much begrudge what taxi drivers do. Most people know how to drive, so at a basic level believe they could do the job.

It’s the same for media people. Most people read, watch, browse and listen, so at a basic level believe they could do your job.

The answer is never right.

If a cab driver takes you to your destination via the most obvious route, they haven’t added any value. But if they take you via an unexpected route, they’re taking a risky option that you suspect will probably cost you more and take longer than the conventional route. You sit in the back of the cab suspicious that the other option would probably have been better.

It’s the same for media people. If a media person recommends the most obvious solution, they haven’t added any value, or, more damningly, thought innovatively. But if a media person chooses an unexpected media vehicle, they’re taking a chance on a risky option that you suspect will cost more and be less effective than the conventional choice. Either way, there’s always the sense that you might have done something else and that the other option might have been better.

Technology and costs are your problem.

People believe they should really only be paying for the driver’s time. I bet you do it. You take a 20-minute trip to the airport. It costs you $65. You think ‘that’s outrageous, that’s nearly $200 an hour he’s making’. Only he’s not. He’s running a car, paying for petrol, a GPS, a mobile eftpos machine and probably plenty more besides. But people don’t see why they should pay for that, because he needs them to do his job, so they’re his responsibility.

It’s the same for media people. Agencies pay significant amounts for research, training, premises etc, but clients don’t see why this is their issue (partly, in my view, because we keep telling them that people are our only asset). They pay for those people to work on their behalf. What we are required to provide those people so that they can do their job is our problem.

You should be able to anticipate problems before they happen.

If you’re a taxi driver you’re supposed to be able to anticipate when there are likely to be traffic problems. Two car collision outside a school on Remuera Rd at 3.06pm? You should have seen that coming. You are also supposed to know an alternative route that no one else is aware of that will allow these problems to be avoided. If you can’t anticipate these problems you have a passenger in the back unhappy because you’re obviously not very good at your job.

It’s the same with anticipating media problems. Banner for an oil company served on the same page as an article about irreversible environmental damage caused by excessive mineral exploration? You should have seen that coming. Two ads with very similar blue backgrounds on opposing pages of the Saturday paper? You should have seen that one, too. Because if you can’t anticipate these problems you are obviously not very good at your job.

What it says on the meter isn’t what it costs.

When you finish a taxi journey, what it says on the meter isn’t what it costs. There are things called ‘Extras’. That’s a word that immediately gets you offside. Extra? To what? And why? Then there are the surcharges and the service fees and it all just seems complicated and somehow underhand. It doesn’t matter whether the total cost is reasonable, it’s messy and carries the unmistakable whiff of rip-off.

It’s the same for media agencies. Commissions are awful. So are levies and monitoring charges. The simple outcome is that clients aren’t sure what they’re paying for. And clients don’t like that.

So then I got to thinking that if we are similar to taxi drivers, what might we be able to learn from them?

Be the best Taxi Driver you can.

There are some people who just want to be good at what they do. They take pride in the job and all that goes with it. While they very probably would like to be doing something else, you’d never know. While lots of media people broadly like what they do, they often wish they were doing something a bit cooler – a more senior job, a more interesting client or task – and you can tell.

It’s seldom the driving. It’s knowing when to shut up.

Most taxi drivers are adequate drivers (though we’ve all had the horror experience). It’s what goes around the driving that matters. Some passengers like to talk. Some like to listen. Some like silence. Clients are like that, too.

A clean taxi is good. A taxi with an in-seat DVD is bad.

A clean taxi suggests pride in one’s work and respect for one’s passengers. A clean boardroom and the offer of a glass of water do the same. A taxi with an in-seat DVD suggests an indulgent driver and fares that are probably too high. A retractable 52” flat screen and a tray of almond croissants do the same.

Confidence goes a long way.

I don’t like being asked which way I think we should go. But I don’t mind being told which way the driver thinks is best, and asked whether I agree.  My sense is that most clients feel the same way.

This is why I find research frustrating

Focus groups. Your Neighbour's opinion. And witches.