Shiv Sethuraman
Guest Article

What has Orcinus Orca, the Killer Whale, got to do with agencies?

A lot, it turns out...

For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by Orcinus Orca, the Killer Whale. Its size, grace and intelligence make it the ocean's most fearsome and effective hunter. But more than that, it is the sophistication, versatility and width of this oceanic dolphin's hunting strategies that make it a particularly fascinating subject. When I look at the business environment around us and the VUCA world we live in, it seems to me that "Orca Behaviours" may well be the difference between eating and being eaten.

#1 Orca Behaviour: Opportunistic Hunting

What has Orcinus Orca, the Killer Whale, got to do with agencies?

Shiv Sethuraman

One of the unexpected consequences of global warming takes place every summer in a place called Baffin Bay, in the North Atlantic. The Narwhal is a species of whale native to the area and the summer is typically spent raising the young in the protected bay. They are safe there because the Arctic pack ice is dense and keeps away the Orca, their only known ocean predator. But in recent years, the dense sea ice is diminishing due to global warming and the opportunistic Orca have figured out a path into Baffin Bay where they are hunting down the hapless Narwhal in massive numbers.

Companies that behave like the Orca always figure a way to get to new hunting grounds when most others are still fighting over scraps in the old ones. Everybody in the Comms business wants in on the e-commerce action, but the smart people at one Agency figured out, long before others, that the hunting ground wasn't in the traditional places you'd expect it to be. It was in the offices of the big VC firms. And building strong relationships with them was critical because they often advise their portfolio companies on the choice of agency. Boom! That agency today has a disproportionately high share of the e-commerce advertising business.

#2 Orca Behaviour: Adaptive Hunting Strategies

The reason Orca are geographically well distributed is because they are extremely adaptive hunters, deploying very different strategies depending on location and prey. In the Californian Pacific, when hunting for grey whale calves, the Orca crash land on top of the blowhole of the calf to prevent it from breathing and ultimately drown it. The New Zealand Orca have a taste for Rays and they have figured out that flipping them upside down causes the Rays to enter a catatonic, immobile state, making them easy prey. In Argentina, the killer whales hunt seals frolicking on the beach by literally launching themselves out of the water onto the land.

The principal reason for the decline of the agency business is the steadfast refusal to adapt. One of the more baffling examples of this mindset is the average agency's desire to only do "first-class business in a first-class way" (as David Ogilvy termed it). In a country like ours where the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprise (MSME) sector contributes to 8 per cent of the GDP and 45 per cent of industrial output, it seems downright irresponsible to have not adapted quickly and well enough to create a different growth strategy for this segment. I remain convinced that the Agency that is able to re-frame their "big client, big city" business model, will be a future Orca.

#3 Orca Behaviour: Pod Hunting

Most marine scientists will tell you that while Orca are large and intelligent, the real reason why they are such successful hunters is their capacity for complex teamwork. One of the most stunning examples of Orca hunting is a technique they use to catch seal called "Floe tipping". Working in perfect harmony, the pod isolates the seal on an ice floe and then creates large waves that destabilise and crack the floe, causing the seal to be washed into the ocean. Now here is the kicker and the reason I am a fan of "Orca Behaviour" - in a documented case, a pod succeeds in dislodging the seal off the floe and into the ocean. But, an adult female puts the seal, unhurt, back on the floe so the youngsters in the pod can have a go at hunting (Training and Development, anyone).

I have never understood why agencies create "Business Development" teams. Business growth has to be an organisation wide responsibility and it is the job of the CEO to make sure new business is everyone's business. Creating siloed growth teams means the rest of the organisation does not learn how to hunt. Which in turn means the organisation does not pass on the learning or the skills acquired from hunting to as wide a set of people as possible or indeed, to the youngest members of the team.

(The author is the founder of 'The New Business', a business acquisition service for communication agencies)

Have news to share? Write to us