I grew up in a town with a large population of first and second generation Australians. Most had emigrated from Italy after WWII. I had many mates with Nonna’s and Mums who were invariably great cooks and I was fortunate to experience truly authentic provincial Italian cooking on a regular basis. The grandmother of one friend once served as the cook for a wealthy Venetian family. She’d received excellent training and had learned a number of secret recipes which had been passed down to new staff for literally hundreds of years.
The feature of one dish was sour gravy made from vinegar and milk. It sounds disgusting and looks even worse but I swear it’s one of the most incredible things I’ve ever tasted. You won’t find this recipe anywhere on the internet (I know, I’ve tried) and to me it’s the closest thing I’ve ever found to a truly secret recipe.
Even the 11 secret herbs and spices created by the Colonel have been cracked by food laboratories and re-created by culinary copycats the world over. After he sold the business in the late 60’s, Harlan Sanders even commissioned a 2nd spice maker to supply the mixture to a group of rogue franchisees and continued to advocate that it was superior to the corporate version. There was actually a legal brouhaha in the 70’s around this. Although they cannot legally market it as a KFC blend, item number S609 known as Chicken Seasoning 99-X, is readily available from Marion-Kay Spices in Brownstown Indiana to this day.
Low-brow foodies cracked the code to McDonald’s special sauce as early as the 80’s. In 2012 McDonald’s officially admitted that there was nothing secret about the mixture and that the recipe (mayonnaise, sweet pickle relish and yellow mustard whisked with vinegar, garlic powder, onion powder and paprika) had been “widely known for many years”.
And even the most famous of secret commercial ingredients, Merchandise 7X which contains the seven oils that combine to form the flavouring syrup in Coca Cola, has been well documented (though not the exact combinations of these oils). To its credit Coca Cola has done a great job at maintaining the mystique behind the origins of the recipe and the number of people who actually have access to it.
Having spent a decade as an in-house marketing manager for some pretty big brands and worked as a marketing consultant for more years since, I have met and worked with literally hundreds of different agencies, freelancers, trade suppliers and industry organisations.
Although I didn’t knowingly engage with any ‘Brand Warriors’, ‘Change Agents’, ‘Ninjas’ or ‘Evangelists’ back when we all had normal job titles on our business cards, I have been fortunate to work with some seriously clever people, some of who were genuine pioneers in their field. Whenever I worked closely with these people I would always try and find the secret formula to their success but it always proved to be elusive.
While I’d always suspected that a secret formula was even rarer than a North Sydney Bears premiership, I’d never truly ruled out discovering one … until a few weeks ago.
I recently had the opportunity to engage with an extremely successful and interesting business, an industry darling if you will, who had been engaged directly by one of my clients. My client had asked for my help to brief this ‘agency’ and run my eye over the subsequent proposal they would present.
This provider has a reputation in their field which almost rivals the legend of Genghis Khan coupled with the entrepreneurial spirit of Richard Branson and blended with the innovative thinking of Steve Jobs. To be invited to visit their offices was an akin to winning a golden ticket for a tour of Wonkas factory.
The offices were indeed impressive. Not Google level funky (yes, I’ve been to Googles offices and they do have sleep pods, unicycles, hoola hoops, pinball machines and a fully subsidised staff cafeteria run by qualified chefs) but pretty cool nonetheless. They also had Easter eggs.
The meeting was … just like any other. Completely standard aside from the six mini Caremello eggs I devoured. The host dipped his hand into the bowl first so I accepted the challenge. I departed completely underwhelmed and bereft of any fairy dust, rocking horse poo or other stuff of legend. But I quickly got past that because even the most amazing people have bad days and the proof would be in the (magic) pudding that was “The Proposal” so I eagerly awaited my copy of said document that would surely provide me with the magic formula that this company was widely known to possess.
Sadly, their proposal had no hidden Illuminati references, no proverbial unicorn wearing a sparkly vest and singing an ABBA tune, not even a minty hidden in the wrapping like my local burger joint does. And certainly no secret sauce.
I asked my client if they thought the agency had left the bit about the rocket science out but they said no, it’s all there.
While it’s true this business was an early adopter of specific technology, boasts an impressive client list, appears to have an amazing company culture and has a list of awards longer than the Nullabor, they appear very much to be a business just like most other successful businesses – built on superior product knowledge and industry research, great third party alliances, a product that does what it says it does, generous dollops of elbow grease all backed up by good old fashioned service. The real difference is that, because of this formula, they can bill their clients at a price that would make even Nathan Tinkler blush.
My point is that most specialists, be they a plumber, an obstetrician or a mortgage broker, all have the same core competencies. It’s the way they package themselves that makes the difference. Who do they surround themselves with? How do they manage (and massage) their professional reputation? Have they realised their value? Those that do this well, thrive and prosper. The ones that do it extremely well not only prosper but actually create the illusion that they sprinkle magic dust on everything they do.
If you’d like to start work on building your own magic dust machine give me call, I’ve been collecting parts for years!