“…Perseverance. A good friend told me “there are two kinds of people. Those who are in sales and those in denial”. Don’t be in denial. You are in sales. Go sell it. Every day. And when you think you’ve done enough and spoken to enough people know that that is actually 10% of what you need and go do it 9 more times. Sales outreach or follow-ups are the first thing I do every day and most days, the last thing I do too.”
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Neil Bedwell. Neil is a marketing strategist with 20 years experience on both agency and client-side running work, teams and businesses in London, Amsterdam, San Francisco and Atlanta. Neil is co-founder of Local Industries, a strategic consultancy focused on Change Marketing — using consumer grade marketing techniques to design and implement meaningful organizational change. Local Industries works with a wide variety of clients including P&G, Delta Airlines, Coca-Cola, Zurich Insurance, Cru and UPS. Before Local, Neil led digital strategy and content for Coca-Cola’s Global Content Excellence group. His work included leadership of the digital program for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, real-time content development and global digital agency relationships. Neil is an advisor to multiple start-ups, a General Assembly Instructor and a regular keynote speaker on culture, brand-building and innovation. Before all that, Neil trained as a race engine designer for Benetton F1 and ran a digital film start-up.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Looking back, I think I’ve always been interested in the people side of business. It’s what attracted me to strategy back in the early days of digital marketing. As a strategist, my job has always been digging in to find the cultural, behavioral or emotional space with our audience that a brand can most authentically find resonance.
However, I became increasingly frustrated with how ill equipped we were as an agency team to protect the idea inside of the brand organization itself. Company culture and the dysfunction that permeates large complex structures eats great ideas. After moving to the client side as a digital leader at Coca-Cola I got to see it happen first hand. The idea for our company, Local Industries, came from that experience.
Can you share your story of Grit and Success? First can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
There’s been quite a few, but what unites them all is being told that something you want to do, that you believe in, can’t happen. Like changing careers from Engineering to Advertising. Like building an internal creative team to work on real-time content creation (back when that was mostly unheard of). The reasoning is always the same “that’s not the way it works here”.
I have a deep dislike of corporate legacy. Muhammad Ali created a legacy. To exist, businesses need to worry less about what they’ve done and more about what they need to do next. I saw a great line by Leonard Cohen just this week (shared by an entrepreneur I admire in this space): “How can I begin anything new with all of yesterday in me?”
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I’m not sure it’s a drive to win or beat the competition that gets me up in the morning. I think it’s more a curiosity. Could I do that? Would that person (a successful founder or leader, for example) like what we are doing? Could I make that thing work better?
I’m lucky that I’m a natural optimist. It may be my best trait. My wife calls me a Helium Balloon. And as an optimist I take one piece of advice very seriously (given by a mentor): If you don’t believe you are going to be successful then stop right now and go and get a safe job that won’t stress you out and will keep you and your family fed and content. I think about that most days when I have a hard call to make, a tough problem to solve or a choice of paths that feel uncertain.
So, how are things going today? How did Grit lead to your eventual success?
I’m humbled to say that things are rolling very well at Local. I have two amazing co-founders and a fantastic team delivering work for a wide range of clients. We are in the fun, yet challenging transition from small start-up to more established boutique (less-small, not quite mid-size yet).
I’m working my way through “The Messy Middle” by Scott Belsky (which I highly recommend) right now. It’s a well-trodden path but one that requires real, intentional change for the founders particularly, as we go from working “in” the business to “on” the business.
Very recently, I’ve become the first of our founding team to take the step, with a move to a more focused growth role. It’s going to take every bit of curiosity, optimism and energy I’ve learned over the years.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’m not sure it’s a funny story, but it made quite an impact on me. In the very early days of Local, we conducted a rapid feasibility assessment for product-start-up inside a large media corporation. It was between Thanksgiving and Christmas, so we dug deep to put something of real value on the table before the team broke for the holiday. Our recommendations included a longer scope for us for most of the following year. It would have been our biggest project to date and the discussion with our clients made it feel like a certainty, so we went into Christmas happy with heads full of ideas for our own growth.
When January came and the clients didn’t call, we took it as the usual slow start. When they finally did, we learned that the delay was something else. The exec committee funding the business took our recommendations as the final straw and shuttered the venture.
It was a big lesson for us in three ways. In asking bigger questions (we didn’t engage with the exec committee, only the business leaders) and that there are never any guarantees. But the biggest lesson of all is perseverance. 10 minutes after that fateful call, I got an email from a contact we’d reached out to months back. Multiple projects have since come from that relationship and have helped us get where we are today.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
There are a lot of consulting firms working in and around change, but few that take a People First approach. As a team of ex-consumer marketers (we have a real mix of agency, consulting, consumer brand and non-profit expats) it’s natural for us to build solutions around humans, with technology and process as supporting enablers.
Our engagements often come on the back of a big consulting firm’s work. We are handed a heavy PowerPoint presentation thick with data and efficiency recommendations. The question we walk into is always “how do we take this to our people?” Communications is often treated as an afterthought, which is crazy given the data. 50–75% of transformation projects fail (BCG & McKinsey) and 66% of change success factors relate to talent (Gartner). Companies need to better understand their people in the midst of change.
We start every program with a Discovery phase designed to understand the employees and their cultural readiness for change. And we start every communication strategy with Belief — stories and content that frame the change for employees to help them understand and care about what’s happening. If they believe, then they are more likely to participate. And change that happens with employees rather than to them will be more successful.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
It’s taken me a long time to understand how to be intentional about my time. What am I good at? What do I do that generates the most value for the business? What do I enjoy most? Then prioritize those and seek to delegate everything else to people who excel in those areas you don’t.
Also, get up early. That takes a lot of practice too but there’s something good and honorable about getting a work out, having coffee with my amazing wife, taking my wonderful 9-year-old to school and crushing my most important work task before 9am.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are plenty of people who have been integral to my journey so far, so I’d like to call out a few:
Marcus Willox and Kerry Bateman at WARL in London who put me on the path as a strategist.
Wendy Clark and Jonathan Mildenhall at Coca-Cola who pushed me to drive change inside one of the world’s biggest companies.
Martin Lauber at 19York who made a big bet on us and continues to provide guidance with endless wisdom and generosity.
Most all I want to recognize my co-founders. Andrew Osterday, our powerhouse of creativity and resolve who can turn any wistful strategy into action and impact. And Brooke Wright, our empathetic and wise client service leader who brings calm and confidence to every project we work on. Without them focused on today I couldn’t live in tomorrow and what’s next for Local.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Not enough, not yet. Over the years I’ve been intentional about mentoring young people taking their first steps in the industry. One success story I’m most proud of started when a customer service guy at Lowes offered to help me carry a heavy package out to my car. On the way we got talking and he told me about his marketing education and problems finding an entry level job. It took a couple of months, but I was able to make the right connection for him for an internship that lead quickly to a full-time role at a well-respected agency.
As a company we have plans to extend our services to support organizations doing real good in the world. This is something we’d love to do as a free partnership, once we are grown enough to make it work well. Watch this space.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Simplicity. We sweat our positioning constantly. Not to make it better or bigger but simpler. When you land your idea for a new business test it on as many people as possible for simplicity. You have just a few seconds for a potential client to get it before they move on.
- Confidence. As an entrepreneur there are more reasons to lose confidence in your idea than to build it. More people ready to knock it than celebrate it with you. You have to build confidence deep into the heart of the team and yourself, and constantly remind yourself why this is the right thing to do.
- Perseverance. A good friend told me “there are two kinds of people. Those who are in sales and those in denial”. Don’t be in denial. You are in sales. Go sell it. Every day. And when you think you’ve done enough and spoken to enough people know that that is actually 10% of what you need and go do it 9 more times. Sales outreach or follow-ups are the first thing I do every day and most days, the last thing I do too.
- Trust. This has been hard for me to learn. Not doubting the talent of our people, but that they can deliver without my final input or review. Our team is world-class and letting go, trusting them has not just freed me to build the business but also made the work better.
- Risk. A wise friend has a great line. “There is a misperception of instability in freelance or entrepreneurial life and a misperception of stability in full-time employment.” I think this is spot on. The problem is that it takes risk to leave the perceived comfort of a regular salary, but once you understand what’s on the other side, you’ll see that it’s not reckless, just a new way to look at risk.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
70% of people are “disengaged” at work (Gallup, 2017). So more than two-thirds of us are unhappy with the thing we spend more than half our waking lives doing. Beyond the vast cost of all this misery (we think it’s the next wicked business problem for every company) it’s also a humanity problem. We need to know we matter, that what we do with our lives counts. If affects everyone…
We want to part of a movement to create more meaning at work. Not lightweight solutions like points and prizes but by reconnecting people to the meaning of work. Helping other people. Making things better. Bringing people and communities together. If you are reading this and working on something like this, we’d love to hear from you.
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This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!