Adam Morgan

Founder of eatbigfish and the challenger project

Featured photos courtesy of eatbigfish.

Adam Morgan is amongst one of the most talented and well-spoken strategic thinkers of our time.

I was fortunate enough to get on a call with Adam recently, and am thrilled to have him on for this week’s interview feature. He’s the founder of eatbigfish and The Challenger Project. The former is a strategic brand consultancy with a single focus on challenger thinking and behavior, and the latter—its publication—is an evolving study of challenger brands.

I had the pleasure of chatting with Adam about his long-standing career as a prolific brand builder, his thoughts on the current state of challenger brands, creating a strong culture around learning, and his ultimate mission of creating a family business.

You’re going to love it.

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Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and what you’re currently focused on? I’m a very reluctant entrepreneur. It was never my plan to start my own company—I started my company out of frustration. I had worked in advertising for 17 years, and then I took six months out to write a book—a business book. I was going through a phase of trying to write a novel every five years, so I’d booked a sabbatical in and thought I would actually try to write a business book instead (on the mistaken understanding that it would be easier to get published in fiction if I was already published in non-fiction). Somebody named Kate at the advertising agency I was about to join (which was in Europe) had come up with this idea of the fact that the agency specialized in challenger brands, when in fact it was only on the third page of a new business presentation, and challenger brands wasn’t mentioned at all again. I said “Kate, well, this is a fantastic idea. There’s a lot more to it. What else have you got?” She said “Well, we don’t have anything. It’s just an idea.” I said “Well, why don’t I spend six months researching challenger brands? Then the agency could be all about that.” The agency had Absolut Vodka and Wonderbra. It had a whole bunch of really interesting iconic challengers at the time. We all said great.

To cut a long story short, I’m a very slow writer and researcher, so six months wasn’t nearly long enough.

It took a year after until I reentered the agency in Europe. By which time the agency didn’t want the book anymore—partly because they decided they now wanted it to be about marketing, partly because we were in the process of merging with another agency, at the helm of which was the great Jean-Marie Dru. He had his own book, Disruption. No agency needs two books.

I’m a really easygoing bloke, but for about six months, I was driven entirely by anger and bile. I thought “Well, fuck this. I’m going to show everybody that there’s a real idea here.” I left the advertising world and thought “Okay, I’ll try setting up on my own.”

In the book, I had put a workshop at the back, simply because a friend had suggested it might be a good idea to make it more useful. So I thought I’d try doing that. I set up eatbigfish as a consultancy to do workshops around challengers, to show that the book was a sustainable idea. I thought, “Well, I can always get back into advertising. I’m only 40 if it doesn’t work out.” And I’m still here.

I suppose my mission is to create a kind of family business. Not in the sense of passing it down onto my two sons (although I’d be delighted if they did want to join,) but in the sense of having a company that’s much more about balancing long-term ownership with financial return. So much of business these days has become all about the numbers and all about the quarter. Clearly any company has to make profit. Profit allows us to make choices, but I’m really interested in the idea of long-term ownership. 

I don’t mean literally “long-term ownership,” although clearly a number of the company are long-term owners, but that sense of how to balance the prevailing narrative about maximizing shareholder returns—by which they mean this quarter’s profits, with a longer sense of what your duty is to your employees, to the society you serve, and to the clients you serve. How to create an environment that allows you to make the right decisions, rather than the constantly compromised decisions.

“So much of business these days has become all about the numbers and all about the quarter.

As the pioneer of the term “challenger brand,” I’d love to get your definition of what a modern day challenger brand is. Has the definition shifted in any way over the years? I think what’s interesting is if you look at what were generally considered to be the great challengers of the last decade, the change has been that they are brands that changed something rather than brands that changed somebody. Up to the ’90s, if you interviewed people about challengers, they just said “Oh, you mean like Pepsi against Coke, or Reebok and Adidas against Nike.” They’d talk about adversarial brand versus brand situations, but quite clearly over the last 10 years with the shift, it’s been less about those.

Brand versus brand challengers still exist, but there are many more that instead challenge the prevailing culture of a category. Look at Airbnb, for instance, challenging the culture and conventions of the hospitality business and the way we think about travel, or Uber in terms of our relationship with how we think about getting from point A to point B in a city. It’s less about who you’re challenging and more about what you’re challenging. That sense of standing up for and taking on something on behalf of your consumer. 

I think that is a considerable shift. I think the other point is that there’s a change in emphasis in terms of size. I think historically, people thought of it very much as a David versus Goliath in the sense of not simply adversary versus adversary, but also small versus big. Now, for instance, there’s a very interesting article in Bloomberg recently about Netflix having broken into the Brazilian Market, how it’s expanding overseas, how it’s one of the very first content providers to genuinely get content picked up in a variety of different countries and a variety of different languages, which is something some of the bigger players historically have found it very difficult to do. On one level, of course, Netflix is a very dominant player in its category. In another it’s a very agile, very interesting, very adaptive global challenger.

I think the other interesting variable in all of this is disruption.

How do you mean? “Disruption” has become the word of the decade. I think it’s an interesting question about what’s the relation between disruption and challenger because there are a number of brands that call themselves disruptors in a way that goes quite obviously way beyond the original definition of disruption. I think what’s interesting about that is that disruptors by and large are defined as having some big technological breakthrough that allows them to dramatically step change the nature of the convenience or the value of performance offered to a consumer.

I think what we’re seeing is that a lot of the disruptors reach a certain point in their lives and then at that point realize that what they’ve got is a product offer—a disruptive and effective product offer—but they don’t yet have an underlying purpose or ideology. What’s going to give them the long-term relationships both with their staff and with a consumer for whom their initial “wow” starts to cool, is that challenger kind of ideology of purpose that defines them and becomes part of them.

I think one of the first questions you asked is what’s my current focus. My focus is trying to create a much greater level of clarity and understanding in the marketing world about the difference between disruption and challenger. I think they’re both interesting and powerful. They are both complimentary, but they’re not the same thing.

“It’s less about who you’re challenging and more about what you’re challenging. That sense of standing up for and taking on something on behalf of your consumer.

Having a long-standing and very successful career in the consultancy space, your name has certainly become a well established one. What do you attribute your accomplishments to; how have you found it best to stand out in such a crowded industry all these years? I think I took a view very early on that we needed to have a point of view—we needed to own something. We decided we would look to own a challenger position. Part of it is about continuing to have the kind of rigor and commitment to research around that—to make it learning based rather than simply having a chart we put up that says we specialize in that area. We have a full-time pair of people who continue to research challengers and share that on our site. 

The Challenger Project is an absolute key part of what we do. We have now instituted new things. We have challenger live events in the UK. We’re going to do them in the US, which are free events where three to four of a new generation of challengers come in and talk to a group of 60 to 80. In a sense, it’s about us pretty much keeping our feet on the ground and giving back to a new generation of challengers. But partly also about recognizing that you can’t simply talk about the things you talked about in 1999—18 years later—and succeed. We need to keep that conversation fresh and moving. 

The most recent book we published, A Beautiful Constraint, really looked at how challengers take apparent limitations and constraints and turn them into sources of possibility and advantage. At some level, that’s always been a part of what we have done and what challengers have done, but it’s a fresher, more stimulating, perhaps more broadly footed piece of work that opens up a new set of tools to a broader swathe of people. We’re taking that, for instance, into education and healthcare categories that we wouldn’t have 10 years ago. Continuing to own that challenger space, but to refresh it, to keep it interesting, keep it stimulating, keep it relevant, to give clients who work with us three, four, five times new ways of enjoying, benefiting from it, bringing it to their teams and companies is very much a part of what my daily work is.

“Continuing to own that challenger space, but to refresh it, to keep it interesting … to give clients who work with us three, four, five times new ways of enjoying, benefiting from it … is very much a part of what my daily work is.

I’d really like to learn more about eatbigfish. With a focus on keeping your team small, highly specialized, and as you mentioned, revolve around a sense of a family business, it seems you have a really intimate company culture. Can I get a better glimpse of what this culture looks like? Yeah. Right from the beginning, we said we’ve got three key currencies in eatbigfish—fun, learning, and money. Anything we do has to satisfy two out of those three. Clearly if we’re always having fun and learning, but we’re not delivering any kind of financial return, then my finance director gets a little irritable, but it’s important for me that we’re enjoying learning, enjoying sharing what we’re learning, and that this company is a platform for everybody in the company to grow, expand, and find areas they think they can contribute and add to. It’s very much a key part of it. For instance, we have learning days two or more times a year where we essentially close the office, get together, share the most recent interviews and research that we’ve done, and discuss what it all means. We talk about how it takes our thinking on. We talk about what new tools and exercises might come out of it. That sense of genuinely investing in not only that research, but internalizing it and working it through is really important to us. We have that commitment to a learning culture.

In our first office in London, there was a dining table in the kitchen in the live/work space we had. Another thing I always said from the beginning was that I didn’t want us to grow so big that we couldn’t fit around that dining table. The office laughs about that because we’ve now moved into a bigger office, and we’ve got a modular Ikea white dining table that clearly could be expanded almost infinitely across the size of the room until the wall stopped us. We are 20 people now. My sense is that’s a good size, and I don’t really want to get any bigger than that. I want us to genuinely know each other really well. 

My defining criteria for anybody who joins is “Will I want to have dinner with this person in five years time?” If this person is going to be somebody who I stimulate and they stimulate me in a more informal way over the long haul. I’m not interested in them joining for one year or two years. I’m interested in a much more longer, robust, and mutually fruitful relationship than that. It is about that kind of family aspect. It is about that sense of fun, learning, and money. It is about learning. 

I think the other aspect, I suppose, is we’ve very much resisted the temptation for what you might have thought was efficiency. It would be easy for us to have 10 strategists start having formal teams where the same group of three always works together on a project, and that group of three may have A team, B team, and C team. We’ve resisted that. We want to be a mixed up company. We want everybody to genuinely get a chance to work with everybody else. We’ve got a mixture of cultures, nationalities, energies, enthusiasms, and talents. Part of the richness is constantly mixing those up. It’s an informal culture, but we have a few things that we’re relatively fierce about. 

“My defining criteria for anybody who joins is will I want to have dinner with this person in five years time?

I got a chance to read through some of the work that you’ve done for some world renowned clients. It’s clear you take a very personal and individualistic approach to solving each of their challenges. What’s the usual process that you take each brand through before coming to a solution? From what it seems, some brands aren’t even sure of what their challenges are before they approach youYes, let’s get into some principles around that. First of all, you’re absolutely right—brands need to have clarity around what they need or want to challenge in order to succeed. That’s absolutely at the heart of some of the first bits of work that go out. In the same kinds of way, in order to really create impact and success, they need to also have articulated what the business case for change is.

One of the biggest reasons that any strategic project fails, is because they aren’t clear on what they’re challenging or need to challenge to break through. That usually is what rather than who. It isn’t going to be another competitor. By and large it’s going to be something either about the external world or about their own internal culture. Then a journey begins—which is usually a series of workshops with an incubation period in the middle of it that allows people to rapidly prototype implications and ideas.

That does two things, I suppose. One is because it’s cross-functional, it means that any challenger strategy that is developed is genuinely robust and will work in the real world of their business. Secondly, again, because it’s cross-functional and they are exploring and learning together, it creates a challenger culture—a challenger cultural bubble around that strategy in terms of that team’s relationship to each other and how they understand their need to think and behave as a team. That gives it the best chance to succeed.

My two reflections since I left advertising; two of the biggest things I’ve learned in this kind of work are first of all, the strategy is only as good as the culture that supports it, so you have to help the client create the right culture that allows the strategy to grow, adapt, and become real. The second thing is that ideas and strategic thoughts need to travel together. Because we are all humans within those environments, there will be some people who are good at consensual thinking, and some people who aren’t. Some people will therefore find an illustrative idea that brings a strategy to life—a much easier thing to grasp and understand than a set of words that formally defines it. So, getting people in right from the beginning and getting illustrative ideas to travel at the same time as the logic of the strategy, are two of the key tenets of our processes.

“Two of the biggest things I’ve learned in this kind of work are first of all, the strategy is only as good as the culture that supports it … The second thing is that ideas and strategic thoughts need to travel together.

What are some challenges you’re currently facing in your work? Well, one thing, the world is speeding up. People want things faster. The work that we’ve done historically has been workshop based because we describe ourselves as catalysts, not consultants. We’re working with cross-functional client teams and their primary business partners to help them arrive at conclusions, and at the same time, create a new cultural understanding around their new strategic understanding. That, obviously, is a journey. That takes a bit of time. Of course, time is the one thing that increasingly nobody feels they have in their lives, let alone in business.

The question about how much of that we can do faster, more efficiently, sometimes remotely, how much needs to be done slowly and deliberately, in-person to make it stick, and what needs to be flexible and adapt is a very big question. The nature of our product, the nature of how we’re delivering our product is very much adapting how to create certain versions of digitally delivered products that can be used at point of need if somebody in Colombia or India wants to use our frameworks and exercises without us being there. That kind of product diversification is very much part of it and also, as I say, maintaining that clarity. When you get certain kinds of trends like, I don’t know, disruption, or purpose, or big things that start to pull the marketing world in one direction, how do you keep the marketing world focused on the timeless essences of good challenger strategies while recognizing that there is a drift caused by some of these other trends and interests?

When we started talking about challengers, nobody else was doing it. Now it’s become relatively commonplace, so that clearly was a lot of conversation around how it’s quite shallow, trivial, or underestimated. I think a lot of what we continue to do is focus on research, learning, and sharing that research and trying to keep the conversation robust and useful.

At the heart, if I had to put my job down on my passport, I’d probably describe myself as a tool maker. I’m interested less in theory and more in practice and learning from some of these generalities about how challengers succeed. I want to turn that into usable frameworks and tools that help people who want to walk that way.

What are some emerging trends of challenger brands in 2017 that you’re noticing? I think one of them is about proof of purpose. I think one of the key media narratives from the mainstream media is that the establishment is wrong. That more or less, wherever you go in any establishment—whether it’s professional athletes, whether it’s the church, whether it’s the government, whatever it happens to be—is that everybody is on the take, and nobody is doing what they’ve promised they’re going to do, and you can’t trust any of them. The challengers that we respond to and like, we like in part because they are the antithesis of that narrative. We feel they’re doing something for the sake of doing it well and for giving us something because they take pride in giving us that. Doing it the way it should be done rather than by making shortcuts or for cynical reasons. 

Clearly because we are so taken by this media narrative, increasingly people who are taking time to evidence their integrity in dramatic ways, I think is a big shift. At a very big public level, it’s REI’s Black Friday activities. At a very small level, it’s me going inside of a coffee house and finding a little plastic bag on a couple of parcels and a couple of baked goods for sale on the counter saying “Baked yesterday, one pound.” That’s a really interesting example of somebody saying “We are committed to selling you what’s baked fresh every day, and if it isn’t baked fresh, we’ll sell it to you cheap.”

Again, in its own way, they’re making a sacrifice in terms of potential commercial return that REI is, so that sense of proof of purpose. How do we know that this is serious? How are we going to dramatically indicate to you that we really are doing what we’re saying we’re going to? 

The second I think is that a lot of challengers are getting scooped up. They’re getting scooped up by big companies, so whether it’s Beam Suntory buying Sipsmith Gin, or whether it’s Unilever buying Dollar Shave Club, a lot of the smaller challengers are getting scooped up. What you’re getting is large corporate solar systems where there’s a big corporate sun, and then there’s lots of little challengers rotating around to that who are not actually getting absorbed into the main body of it. A lot of those larger companies, I think, have learned that it’s counterproductive to buy a company and then try to absorb it into the mainstream and expect it to still succeed. That just doesn’t work.

I think the third is about the relationship between global and local. I think increasingly as challengers look to not try and have a 30% share of a single market but actually grow by moving into other markets successfully, that question about how do you recreate success in your home market by having just enough of a local flavor without losing that core ideology that made you what you are in the first place is an increasingly prevalent trend. It’s to do with different patterns of growth and different ways in which challengers are seeking to grow.