Brand engagement and the problem of 'negative time'

How do you communicate with people who don’t just have little time available, they have negative time?

These days, it’s relatively easy to get an alignment at the top table of a professional services firm on the importance and value of having a strong brand narrative, market position and clarity on key messages. And, although not exactly simple, it’s possible with the right approach to develop the strategy and content for these. But then comes a significant internal challenge. How do we engage our client-facing people in all this – which is a must – who aren’t just ‘time poor’ they have ‘negative time’.


The idea of ‘negative time’ came to me observing a senior partner at a Big 4 firm that I was working with recently. I was meeting him in a London airport hotel lobby because this was the only way to manage a face to face meeting to discuss an important stage of the branding project. The slightly odd thing about the scheduling was that we both lived in London, but the only practical time to meet involved being at the airport between one thing and another. We had 30 mins. He arrived on time but was on a call that was running over, and he couldn’t leave it. He was apologetic but had to leave on the hour for another important call. We were discussing a fairly important piece of work that both he and I were passionate about – by which I mean it was a priority for him – but even so, this was the best and only way to connect on it.

Many brand engagement initiatives fall into the trap of thinking that if it’s ‘sent out’ it’s ‘received’.

This everyday story of the life of a front-line consultant / fee-earner illustrated to me that there is a macro time problem in these (all?) firms, where people have learned to triage inputs into urgent, must do, want to do and really should do – and maybe a pile of non-important things that they maybe shouldn’t do. Of course, the urgent and must-dos always get done by hook or by crook. The problem is that there are many many other things that people want to do and really should do that never manage to make it to the ‘next customer please’ ticket in their internal triage system. The question, when it comes to engaging fee-earners in the brand strategy, is how to compete with this?


You’ll be thinking, “time management has been an issue since the office was invented” and yes, of course, it has, but I think that recently the equation tipped somewhere from ‘squeezing time’ to ‘negative time’. Rather like a hospital A&E department moving subtly and almost imperceptibly from ‘black status on occasions’ to ‘permanent black,’ day in day out. Partly this is because of the rise in inputs (email + Linkedin + phone + WhatsApp + Twitter + meetings + reading stuff…).

We are all getting more adept at navigating all sorts of content despite this, but two things give: stuff that isn’t urgent or must do simply doesn’t get engaged with, and stuff that is desk-bound (i.e. not consumable on mobile) suffers most because so many other things can only be done in the office – talking to people, systems stuff, big-screen stuff, etc.

There is a way for leaders to get through; go face to face and go mobile.

Many brand engagement initiatives fall into the trap of thinking that if it’s ‘sent out’ it’s ‘received’. I’d say that this is a fallacy. Almost no one in the front line will read it or engage with it. Brand engagement without engagement isn’t a thing.


But there is a way for leaders to get through; go face to face and go mobile. Face to face engagement is the gold standard of brand engagement techniques. Get people in a room, and you’ve got them – at least if you’ve got a pretty good chance if the content is good. That requires commitment from the top, to schedule the meetings and make it clear they’re essential, but that’s a virtuous cycle in my experience. Generally, done well, fee-earners value the tailwind that an improved brand strategy can give them and they get it that they need to be involved in getting the message out there. And for the supporting communications? Think about the ‘other content’ that you consume that isn’t mission-critical. We all consume a ton more content than we ever did before, despite our busy schedules, but it’s consumed on the train, in a cab, waiting in line for coffee, even in the bathroom if the number of drowned iPhones is anything to go by!

Mobile isn’t easy. Internal networking platforms, such as Yammer and Slack, are evolving quickly but are not yet anything like as ubiquitous as something like email. There are genuine concerns about security, depending on the way your ‘work phone’ is configured and there’s also a reasonable hesitation to be seen to chase employees with ‘corporate stuff’ even when they’re out of the office. But done sensitively that’s not a problem. Anyone adept at using their phone to consume content (pretty much everyone these days) also knows how to manage their filters so that they engage with content that they choose and aren’t like a cartoon character expanding on the end of a fire hose. If you can create some high-quality content that’s digital and mobile-friendly (not everything digital is) you’ll stand a much much better chance of engaging with the hardest to reach – who are often also the most important to reach.

Ian Stephens

CEO and Founder of Principia, Ian is the trusted advisor on branding to leaders of many of the world’s most prestigious international professional service firms and knowledge-intensive B2B businesses across a range of sectors including law, consulting, strategy, technology, engineering, and innovation.