Tough question: What business are you in?

During the 18 years I managed my advertising agency, I had many occasions to ask new clients what they expected advertising to accomplish for them. Inevitably, this led to a discussion of the company’s line of business. Just what business — precisely — were they in?

Such answers as “men’s clothing” are not adequate. “Marketing clothing for young adult men that responds quickly to changes in style; we want six percent of the Philadelphia market” is an appropriate answer. It says the company is in the business of selling trendy, youthful men’s clothes. It also says that the company must be super-sensitive to changes in the marketplace, and operate in a streamlined way to reach their target market with product while there is strong demand for their styles. And finally, the company is highly competitive and aggressive.

I discovered early on that if I asked five people in a company what business the company was in, I was likely to get five different answers. It often took serious meetings with the boss and his top people to hammer out a mission statement they could all agree to, and a set of objectives for us to reach, together. Even if it was a two-person company, there was often disagreement about where the company was going, and how it intended to get there.

It’s important that everyone in your company understand exactly what business you’re in, and what your goals are. How can they be expected to be effective if they don’t really know what the team is supposed to be doing, and why?

Your company should have a mission statement, and if you’re the boss, you should write it. And make sure everyone knows what it says. Lots of business decisions become simple and obvious, when everyone knows what business they’re in.

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