Brainwaves on your bookshelf: The Hidden Agenda

In his first piece of a new series of book reviews, David Wethey takes on the book by Kevin Allen, emphasising the value of storytelling

If you’re a fan of business books, you will probably have a comprehensive selection on your bookshelves in your study, office or WFH HQ.

You’ll have read some (a few probably) from cover to cover, speed-read others, and still be intending to dip into the rest…. when you have a minute.

On my shelves, there are a handful I am always going back to — for a nugget of wisdom, a great example, or just a quotable quote. My favourites range from hardy perennials to the best of recent thinking. And I thought it might be fun to share some of the best ideas lurking between those covers.

Why do we have to dedicate ourselves to invention and innovation, when so much of the work has already been done? I am a big fan of valuable ideas. There seems to be an endless supply of ‘new’ and ‘great’ ideas, but how new are they? And how much are they worth? Within reason, and at normal levels of vanity, no one rushes into print with a business book, a ‘how to’ book, or a ‘how we did it’ book, unless they think they have something original to say. Some of these books are quite outstanding. And the content varies from simply useful to inspiring and game changing.

I hope you enjoy these highlights. And I am sure you will want to join in the game and let us all share what you see as the best of the best.


The Hidden Agenda by Kevin Allen, Bibliomotion (2012)

The title says it all. When you are selling, you need to understand not just what the decision makers say they want, but their overriding needs and the agenda they have probably not shared with you.

Declaring my interest, I have known Kevin for many years. I first came across him when he was selling to me. Well, indirectly to me in my role as an adviser to very large advertisers, but more pertinently to the key decision makers in those companies. He was then salesman extraordinaire for McCann-Erickson, then as now a giant global ad agency.

I actually knew quite a lot about McCann myself, having previously worked for them in the UK, Europe and South East Asia. But Kevin took what agencies call ‘new business’ to a higher level of intensity. He also added some new dimensions.

The convention for agencies on the hunt for lucrative new clients had always been to concentrate on delivering what the ad industry calls a ‘credentials presentation’. Agencies would hit their prospective clients with a soup to nuts aggregation of facts, figures, lists of offices and clients, organisation charts, case histories, all swimming in a sauce which was supposed to encapsulate the agency’s philosophy and view of the world.

The Kevin Allen approach is quite different. Instead of telling people what his company does, he concentrates on finding out what matters to his potential client — what they are looking for in other words. And the skill here lies in drilling down into those wants, and being as forensic as possible in turning the wants into needs, and smoking out the real agenda of the ultimate decision taker.

A typical Kevin quote is “remember the brief is not the brief”. Every agency person who has pitched for business knows the truth of this. The brief to all the competing agencies might be functional: launch a new product, increase sales by 10%, become brand leader, whatever. Allen’s advice is to look beyond and behind these goals, and seek out the three vital clues to the client’s hidden agenda. He calls them the ‘leverageable assets‘:

  • Their core: what makes them and their brand special
  • Their credo: their belief system, which an agency has to share, if they aspire to help the client company be successful
  • Their real ambition: which has to also become the agency’s ambition if they are to work well together

Kevin emphasises how important storytelling is in advertising and marketing, and in the book tells some inspiring and true stories about winning pitches that he led — for clients as diverse as MasterCard (the smash hit ‘Priceless’ campaign), South African Airways (a spectacular win for the country’s first black agency), Marriott International, whose credo was originally ‘Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen’. McCann brought that to life in the line ‘The Spirit to Serve’.

In The Hidden Agenda there are many other examples, more case histories, and numerous tips on how to sell and win in the client/agency jungle. But for me the most powerful message in the book is the irresistible power of supreme confidence laced with charm and humility that Kevin himself possesses.

Does this book still have value today ten years after it was published? Absolutely, I believe, for people in the marketing communications industry — not least because of the paramount importance of storytelling. Have you ever wondered why TV advertising seems not be as good as it used to be? Where are the stories that used to make brands special?

In his book Allen tells stories about winning pitches. But why were those pitches successful? It was largely down to the trigger to creativity that understanding the client’s hidden agenda made possible.

Featured image: Alfons Morales / Unsplash

David Wethey

David Wethey is an advertising and marketing man and author of business and self-improvement books. He also lectures at Universities and Business Schools.He began his career in marketing research with AC Nielsen Company. He then worked for 20 years in advertising, managing agencies in UK, Continental Europe and Asia, principally for McCann-Erickson. He was CEO of two London agencies before establishing his own – Wethey Scott Pocock – in 1980.David left the agency world to start a consulting firm Agency Assessments International (AAI) in 1988. AAI advises large (mainly global) advertisers on appointing communications agencies, building productive partnerships with them, and producing work that is both creative and effective. Recently he has been focusing on the fast-growing in-house agency sector. His consulting assignments have taken him to more than 30 countries.Books:DECIDE (2012), MOTE (2015), THE VERY IDEA (2018).

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