Less than a year before the Great Crash of 1929 – and more than forty years before the Mad Men era – my grandfather started an ad agency.

He announced it with a printed card, distributed by hand and post, to about 300 companies in Canada. Inside was a short bio and cut-out/hand-glued photo of his father – who he named the agency after and made its first president to add credibility.

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Like any start-up, the company needed to do three things to get noticed: Concisely present its story (the cover was almost tweetable); demonstrate relevant experience (his dad came from an established agency); establish the company ‘persona’ (the paper and embossing were classy, the wording was understated – so was my grandfather).

People who worked there told me one of the reasons it succeeded was because it followed very simple rules. Here are three “Old School Golden Rules” that remain relevant for any start-up:

 

1. “It’s not about your grass seed. It’s about their lawn.”

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In the mid-1970s, a famous grass seed company started selling in Canada. During the agency search, the brief focused on the science behind their product. Decades of research and millions of dollars had gone into creating the perfect mix of seed and fertilizer. Lots of agencies created pitches around that. But one agency surprised everyone by never mentioning the product. Instead, it told the story of people’s lawns: Lawns that impressed neighbors and fathers-in-law. Lawns that kids and dogs played on. Lawns that made people happier just by being green, lush and full.

In startupland we’re all proud of our technologies – and rightly so. But no one really cares.

We all use phrases like unique, innovative and patent-pending. But no one’s actually buying our IP.

Our customers are buying what it does for their customers. And the better we describe that, the quicker we pull them into the picture.

At Pretio (and our mobile ad network Tap for Tap), we think Moments-Based Ads are the least intrusive way for brands to connect with consumers in apps and games. But brands care about acquiring more customers and developers care about making more money. If our ads do that, then that’s what matters. Our technology is just grass seed; its performance is their lawn.

2. “When they’re talking, we’re winning.”

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My grandfather loved fishing. But anyone invited to join him knew there were two rules in the boat: Keep your line tight. And keep the chatter to a minimum. He wasn’t much of a conversationalist.

My father, who joined the agency in the 1960s, had a silver tongue. He loved to tell stories, interact with employees and strategize with clients. And he was brilliant at it. Under his leadership, the agency grew to be one of the largest in Canada. So whenever there was a big account to land, he was invited for the first meeting. Under one condition:

Keep quiet.

So, just before walking into the room his team always said, “Jim, remember: When they’re talking, we’re winning.”

The obvious truth here is that we need to listen in order to understand. Less evident is this: People like to talk about themselves.

Growing up, my wife’s father had a rule for his kids: Spend 80% of any conversation asking questions. He was so good that people walked away from his parties saying “I just had the most fascinating conversation with Brian” – even though all he did was let them talk.

Pretio’s Vice President of Sales is masterful at this. Our clients adore Vivienne far more than is logical for a company of our size and influence because (a) she makes every conference more fun and (b) she knows more about her clients than any other partner.

How? She lets them talk. Because when they do, they share more details than their RFP, website or latest press release could ever tell us. And they feel really, really good about the conversations because it was all about them.

3.“Everyone sells our services. Everyone services our clients. Everyone is our brand.”

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In the late 1970s my father needed a new secretary. His CFO told him “Go down to the second-floor typing pool and pick one out.” Now, there’s a lot wrong with that statement, notwithstanding the fact that a lot of bad things were said in the 1970s. But my dad’s response was still pretty advanced for its day: “John, I’m not looking for a new telephone. I’m looking for a human being who will be the first person clients meet when they come to my office. In 30 seconds, how that person acts will be how our agency is remembered by the people who pay our bills.”

Not finding suitable candidates on the second floor, he looked further afield. Postings and recruiters only brought him more typists. Finally, on a flight from London to New York, he found someone. She had never worked in an office, rarely answered telephones, barely typed, and knew nothing about advertising. What she did know about was customer service, in stressful situations, for high-end clientele.

She was the head of the airline’s first-class flight crew. And he hired her on the spot.

Over the next thirty years, she personified the agency’s brand for many. She may not have signed clients, but she certainly saved some. And it wasn’t by typing eighty words per minute.

At Pretio, we have a small team of seventeen people, split about evenly between tech and sales. As is common with a young workforce, everyone on the sales side knows a lot about technology – and a few even code. They problem-solve and help with integrations well past the sale – because it’s the right thing to do.

Similarly, our dev team can be a secret sales weapon. Every interaction they have with our clients and partners is an opportunity to reinforce Pretio’s value. Interestingly, our dev team often talks less about our “grass seed” (the cool stuff they build) and asks more questions about clients’ “lawns” (what they’re trying to do with it) – a perfect combination of lessons 1 & 2 above.

Advertising is a tough business. It was in 1929 and it remains so today. As Roger Sterling said, “The day you sign a client is the day you start losing them.” Or maybe that was Don Draper. Whatever. They were right.

But so was my grandfather – and my father – in knowing that some basics have remained unassailable. It’s about performance not product. It’s about paying attention to what’s being said. It’s knowing that the selling never stops – even when you don’t think you’re selling.

Any company that does that should be around for a long time.