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Don’t specialise in everything. Get niche or get out!

Get-big-or-get-out

My friend runs a beautiful yum cha restaurant in an entirely unexpected location: a quaint little country town in the central west of New South Wales, surrounded by farmland and, well, more farmland. To spare tourists any confusion, she named her restaurant ’29 nine 99 Yum Cha and Tea House’ and it does exactly what it says on the tin.

As unlikely as it sounds to imagine authentic Beijing yum cha in the heart of the Aussie wheat belt, her restaurant has become incredibly popular. Not everyone, however, is a fan.

Get me a coffee.” That request lead to one unhappy diner to storm out in a huff after the wait staff politely declined to fulfil said request, primarily due to the fact that ’29 nine 99 Yum Cha and Tea House’ does not serve coffee.

Why would I serve coffee?” explained my friend. “My restaurant is a tea house.

At this point in the story, I bet there are fewer of us wondering ‘What kind of person makes that demand in a tea house?’ than there are of us wondering ‘What kind of tea house doesn’t serve coffee?

And there’s the problem. We’ve become so enamoured with the idea of convenience, so demanding of it as a basic right, that it simply boggles the mind to imagine there’s a place that doesn’t have what we want, when we want it.

The magic of one-click shopping has led us to genuinely wonder why can’t the world be more like Amazon? Why can’t I get it in red? Why do I have to pay for shipping? Why can’t you get me a coffee?

There are at least six other places in this charming little town that serve coffee. Almost half of them do a pretty decent job of it. According to my friend, nowhere else does tea and yum cha. And that’s the way she likes it.

I don’t have time to do anything else. I just want to focus on doing a good job on these few things. That is enough for me.

And I think we’ve just found our solution. The power of focus, coupled with the joy of doing something really well.

Now that it is so achingly hip to be multi-skilled and multi talented, to be a polymath, to be a U-shaped talent, it seems kind of old fashioned to have a speciality. In fact, it’s downright anachronistic.

Get big, get niche or get out!

I recall reading in one of those ‘death of advertising’ pieces that come around like an Eagles track on WS FM (which is to say, every twenty freaking minutes) that the advertising industry faced only three possibilities: Get big, get niche or get out. In the race for scale (a race that still generates a lot of wreckage in turn number three), we stopped handing out prizes for the winners of ‘niche’. The niche players might have been cool, but they were not deemed profitable. Or perhaps, just not profitable enough.

In other industries, many of the ‘get big’ crew are now struggling for relevance. As Australia goes Amazonian (despite the twin threats of forex volatility and international shipping rates), we’re witnessing the long, slow decline of the department store. DJs and Myers were built on a culture of convenience (a one-stop shopping experience) rather than a single idea such as expert curation (You’ll only find fashion we approve of in our store) or quality assurance (You’re protected from making a ‘bad’ choice because we only stock ‘good’ products here).

As Bunnings proves, it’s a trend rather than a law, but the evidence for the ‘death of big’ is nonetheless compelling. Is there a corresponding ‘rise of niche’?

I think so, but then I’m probably suffering a mild case of bias-confirmation. I’ve built a career out of occupying a series of niches. After an introduction to the full spectrum of traditional advertising, I went through a series of very focussed skill-based roles: radio copywriting, Direct Mail then Interactive. When I did finally go ‘channel-neutral’, it was within the structure of a single-brand account, a role I had for several years.

While the idea of working on one brand for more than twenty contiguous minutes would be horrifying to most ‘creatives’, I found it incredibly interesting: my client was truly massive, impossibly complex in structure and operating in a genuinely world-changing industry (heavy on tech, change and disruption). There was always something to learn, something to master.

It was the mastery bit that was most satisfying. Being familiar with your client’s business and their products was a good start – knowing their competition and understanding the state of their industry gave me (and the team I was part of) the ability to offer expertise, not just opinion. There’s a difference, and good clients are willing to let you price it accordingly.

So count me among the believers: niche is nice. We believe so fervently, it’s the basis of our new business: we’ve opened the Australian branch of the global advertising network wordsearch, specialising in marketing for developers and architects. Simply put, we just do buildings.

Just like my last ‘big agency gig’, this new role offers abundant opportunities to learn — and not just because the field is new to me. The property industry is involved in one of the biggest challenges of our time: making cities truly liveable places. That’s some niche.

Helping people build cities is arguably a bigger task than creating the perfect plate of yum cha or brewing truly transcendent tea, but if I get even halfway towards the level of perfection my friend has achieved with her restaurant, I’ll consider myself a success. And I’ll owe most of it to a willingness to focus on my niche.

 

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