In the early 1990s I worked as an account director for a Sydney-based, multinational advertising agency. One of our clients at the time was Australia Post. At our first ‘get to know you’ meeting, we asked them the standard question we dutifully asked all new clients: ‘What business are you in?’
‘We’re in the letters business,’ they said confidently.
We accepted that answer as valid and moved on. After all, they were Australia Post so it seemed pretty obvious.
Twenty-five years down the track and seeing the decline of their letters business, it’s pretty clear we all got the answer to that question wrong. So what business were they in? With the benefit of hindsight, the answer should have been ‘We’re in the ‘transmission of information and products’ business.’
Is this just word play? Semantics? After all, what’s the difference between ‘the letters business’ and the ‘transmission of information and products’ business?’ As it turns out, a lot. The difference shows up when you ask the next question, ‘Who are you competing with?’
After Australia Post answered, ‘We’re in the letters business’, their answer to our second question (who are you competing with) was, ‘No-one. We have no competitors. As a semi-government authority we are the only ones who can deliver letters.’
So what do you do when you have no competitors? You get complacent; you overlook opportunities; you ignore the need for innovation. ...