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Agencies Should Start Thinking More Like Consultants

January 14, 2017

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This post originally appeared at MediaPost

Consultant Steve…more than five years ago

For the last five years, my account managers have called me Mr. Scopecreep. I’ve never been able to see a problem and not try to fix it, even if it’s outside my lane or scope of work. As a result, I tend to get involved in conversations or meetings I may not technically be getting paid for. While this used to be viewed negatively — I over-serviced my clients, I worked longer hours than I should, and I was responsible for more than a few bright red cells on profitability spreadsheets — I’m starting to think it may not be.

After nine years as a consultant and five more at ad agencies, I’ve realized maybe the problem lies in how agencies build scopes of work rather than how I’ve interpreted (or ignored) them. When I was a consultant, our clients bought our people. They were buying our consultants’ specialized expertise, unique experience, or both. The who was more important than the what. In the agency world, though, our clients tend to buy the stuff our people produce.  The what is more important than the who.

Unfortunately, because much of what agencies produce has been commoditized, clients have squeezed agencies on costs. This has driven profit margins down and pitted agencies against one another in a “how low can you go?” game that doesn’t have a winner. Consultants, on the other hand, have stayed above this. Instead of selling stuff, they continued to sell the people who create the stuff. And that’s a lot more difficult to commoditize.

From Deloitte Digital to Accenture Interactive to IBM’s iX, big consultancies have taken advantage of the gap agencies created. They’re buying up agencies and integrating them into their management consulting practices, giving clients true business partners who also now offer cutting-edge creative marketing services, too.

If agencies want to compete, they have to start thinking more like consultants. Here’s how.

Sell your people, not what they create. If there’s one thing clients hate, it’s when an agency wows them with senior people and then passes the work to junior staffers without the same experience or expertise. Spend time talking with clients about who will work on their business and commit to keeping them on the business. Make sure clients understand the value your agency brings to the relationship isn’t what these people create, it’s having these people on your business.

Invest in your people. One of the complaints agencies have about marketing their people is there’s a lot of turnover and they need flexibility to switch out people as needed. You can’t market your people if you can’t hold onto your people! Consultants invest in everything from onboarding to training to tuition reimbursement. If agencies invested more in treating their people like primary assets instead of secondary parts, the clients would, too.

Be a partner, not a vendor. To manage razor-thin margins on what’s becoming more project-based work, agencies have gotten good at creating detailed, specific contracts. This keeps client requests focused and the agency from losing their shirt in the process. Unfortunately, it also means the agency doesn’t see the forest for the trees. This turns agencies into little more than vendors responsible for creating a deliverable. Consultants, on the other hand, strive to be strategic partners who focus on solving business problems and integrating the systems, processes, and people required to run the business.

If agencies started thinking more like consultants, they’d realize the real growth opportunities lies in partnering with clients to write the briefs instead of only executing against them.

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Ten “Boring” PR Skills You Need to Have

November 9, 2012

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A few weeks ago, I was talking to some college students about PR, advertising, living in Chicago, and the work I'm doing at C-K. They loved hearing about the work that we've done with Corona, Porsche, and Cedar Fair. We talked about branding, TV commercials, media tours, and social media. By the end of our conversation, they were all telling me that I had their dream job and were asking me if we had any openings. At this point, I was feeling pretty proud of myself – after all, this was a much cooler reaction than when I'd regale them with stories of working with the IRS or the TSA. However, when I got got back to my office, I realized that I did those students a disservice. I got them all excited about riding roller coasters, drinking beer, and driving fast cars, but failed to mention the really fun stuff that I do every day. 

You want to get really excited about PR? Check out my budget spreadsheets and staff forecasting tools! Join me as I write a statement of work and analyze row after row of statistics! Excited yet? Maybe you'd rather stay at the office until 8PM writing a performance review? 

The best PR pros do a lot more than Tweeting, drinking with press contacts, and attending events. That might be what got you into the industry, but if you want to move up the ladder, you better sharpen these ten boring PR skills too. 

You may think these things are about as exciting as watching grass grow, but you'll want to learn these things if you want to keep growing.

  1. Manage Upward. Do you know how to pitch new ideas and get fast approval to try them? Can you manage your boss and his/her time so they don't become a bottleneck? Learn what makes your boss tick. Learn how they work so that you can expedite getting things done when you want to try something new. Gain their trust so are empowered to take risks and know they've got your back. 
  2. Manage your time. How many hours does it take you to write a press release? Do you know how to estimate how long it will take you to do something and then manage your own workload to get that job done on time? One of the best skills a junior person can develop is the ability to accurately estimate how long it will take them to do a job. 
  3. Give feedback. Do you know how to give honest, constructive feedback to a colleague? To your boss? Learn how to give both positive and negative feedback. This goes beyond saying "good job" – it means giving feedback so that people are motivated to do better. It means giving feedback so that they learn from their mistakes without feeling like an idiot. 
  4. Analyze statistics. Do you know how to make sense out of a mess of numbers? Can you comb through a bunch of spreadsheets and tables to find something meaningful? Learn how to analyze data, but even more than that, learn how to distill it down to laymen's terms. 
  5. Build and manage a budget. Do you know how to allocate $10,000 to get the job done? How many hours do you need? How many hours does your Assistant Account Executive need? How much of that should be allocated to hard costs like giveaways or vendor fees? Learn about hourly rates, profit margins, and scopes of work. Learn how to adjust on the fly and reallocate costs as needed while still staying under budget. 
  6. Delegate. You aren't scalable. You may think you're a hard worker and that you'll do whatever it takes, but at some point, you're going to realize you can't do it on your own. Learn how to delegate work to other people. Learn how to accept that other people may do things differently than you, but that doesn't make them wrong. Learn how to leverage your team's strengths and understand their weaknesses so that you use everyone's time most efficiently. 
  7. Develop and manage a project plan. Can you break up a big project into small tasks, assign them deadlines and then manage to those deadlines? Learn how to create a project plan that integrates deliverables, interim deadlines and costs and how to manage against that. This goes for small projects and multi-million dollar accounts. I've used project plans to help plan my work for everything from website content to huge accounts with multiple workstreams. 
  8. Work remotely. Can you be productive from your couch? How about on a plane? In line? Learn how to maximize your productivity when you're not in the office. I'm not just talking about using technology like wireless cards, cell phones, and video conferencing. I'm talking about knowing how to manage your work so that you're able to take an early weekend because you know you've scheduled your conference calls for while you're on the road. I'm talking about using your time on the plane to write your blog posts or catch up on your RSS reader.
  9. Ask for help. I don't care how smart you are or how hard you work – you're going to need someone's help at some point. Maybe it's because they've got a skillset or experience you need. Maybe it's because you're on vacation and need someone to handle a client crisis. Learn that you don't have to do everything on your own. Learn how to ask for help before it's too late. 
  10. Write a performance review. Sooner or later, you're going to have to write someone's performance review or at the very least, contribute to one. Many organizations have implemented 360-degree reviews where you may be responsible for collecting feedback and writing a colleague's review. Learn how to objectively solicit feedback about someone else, analyze that data and write an objective review of that person's work.  

What other "boring" skills would you add to this list? The opportunity to pitch an idea to the producers of the Today Show or to go bar-hopping with the editors of Maxim may be what got you interested PR in the first place, but those opportunities only happen once someone has done the dirty work first. Someone has to build the strategy, develop the project plan, allocate the resources, manage the budget, and get someone to sign off on the idea before you're going to get the opportunity to make that call. Learn these boring skills now so that you can contribute to the entire process, not just the fun stuff at the end. 

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Ten Things Your Boss Should Be Saying to You

September 7, 2012

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In my last post, I talked about the ten things you should be saying to your boss. Now it's time to  look at the other side and share ten things that your boss should be saying to you.

  1. "What do you think?" Your boss should value your opinion and contributions and frequently ask for your input. He/she should understand your unique perspective and solicit it often. This isn't done just to make you feel better, but because teams function a lot more smoothly when everyone feels like they're contributions matter.
  2. "I'm sorry." Just because you're the boss doesn't mean you're without fault. Be honest. Be transparent. We all make mistakes (well, I assume we do – I sure as hell have). Your boss should be self-aware enough to know when they're at fault and why. And guess what? If you're the boss and someone on your team messes up, your first inclination to should be to look internally – it's your team. You're responsible for their success and their failures. If they mess up, is it because you didn't provide enough direction? Because you forgot to pass along a key bit of information? Because you didn't read an email they sent to you? Own up to it. Apologize and move on.
  3. "Are you having fun?" My very first boss at Booz Allen made this a habit to ask this question of everyone on her team at least once a month. While she was always focused on meeting our deadlines and staying under budget (she was a PMP, after all), she also realized that there was often more than one way to do that. She made sure that everyone was also enjoying their work because she understood that more (and better) work got done if people were having fun doing it.
  4. "How can I help you?" Despite what your job description and place on the org chart may say, you aren't employed to simply ensure your boss's success. It's a mutual relationship. One of your boss's most important jobs is to ensure your success as well. One of the first things I told my account supervisors when I took my current job was that I wouldn't be successful unless they were successful. Just like you should be proactively asking your boss what you can do to help, he/she should be asking you the same thing.
  5. "Go ahead – I got your back." Sometimes, the best thing your boss can do is to give you the top cover to take a risk. To do something innovative. To challenge the status quo. One of the reasons I really enjoyed working at my last job was because my leadership always encouraged me to push the envelope and empowered me to do what I thought needed to be done. Even when they didn't agree me every step of the way. My boss once told me, "I don't really get what you're doing, but you seem to be passionate about it and I trust you know what you're doing so go for it." And if I stirred up a political battle or wrote a controversial blog post, my bosses were right there behind me to step in and negotiate those difficult conversations. Employees need to know that their boss is behind them 100% and will go to bat for them whenever, wherever, and with whomever is needed. Employees with this freedom and encouragement can do amazing things.
  6. "Here's what's going on…" One of the most common complaints in pretty much of every organization that I've worked with has been internal communications. The C-suite gets frustrated when they tell their senior leadership teams something and it doesn't cascade down through the organization. Middle managers get inundated with messaging and don't have the time, or the incentive, to take time away from their projects and budgets to share anything with their teams. Operations staff feel like their just cogs in the machine because they have no idea where the company is going. Junior employees get frustrated because they don't see a path forward for their career. A good boss will take the time to sit down with his/her team and pass along the information they receive that their teams may not be privy too – either because they're not on the same distro lists or in the same meetings. Your boss should be filling in those details for you and letting you know where you fit into the bigger picture.
  7. "This isn't going to work for me. Here's why…" Being able to provide candid, timely feedback is a lost art among many managers. They try to sugarcoat their feedback or they avoid the confrontation altogether and fix everything themselves. If I create something that totally misses the mark, I want my boss to take the time to tell me that, help me understand what I did wrong, and how I can do it better next time. If your boss doesn't give you that feedback, how can they expect you to do it any differently or any better the next time?
  8. "You did a great job." As a manager, it's easy to get caught up in the day-to-day deadlines, budgets, and client demands. You become so focused on what needs to get done that you forget to share positive feedback as well. Your boss's feedback should always include a mix of positive and constructive feedback – while it's certainly important for you to clearly understand your mistakes (see #7 above), it's also important that you understand what you did well and why.
  9. "Here's what I'm looking for." I used to work for someone who was notorious for giving very cryptic direction on new projects. In some cases, she wanted you to follow her direction to a tee – your role was to simply regurgitate her exact words into a PowerPoint slide. In other cases though, doing exactly that would only cause her to throw out everything you did because you took her too literally. You can imagine how confusing this was to her team as they were constantly guessing what she was really looking for. Your boss should be able to clearly articulate exactly what he/she wants you to do…even if sometimes, that means, "I don't know what the right answer is – see what you can find out and bring me a recommendation."
  10. "It can wait until later." Have you ever worked in an environment when everyone is seemingly "putting out a fire" or "handling another fire drill?" No one likes working in that kind of job. Guess what? Not everything is a fire. Not everything needs to be done ASAP. Make sure your boss is helping you prioritize what needs to be done today and what is truly important. If you don't need that report until next week, make sure you're telling your team that so they don't spend 10 hours at the office on something that you aren't even going to look at until next week. I don't think bosses realize how stressful an environment they create for their teams when they make it seem like everything is a priority all the time.

How many of these are you hearing from your manager on a regular basis? If you have a good manager, what other things are they saying to you that you appreciate? If you're a boss, are you saying these things? Why or why not?

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Ten Things You Should Be Saying to Your Boss

August 21, 2012

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One of the questions that my team members and potential employees have asked me a lot over the last few years is "what are you looking for in an ideal employee?" We just finished a performance review cycle here where I worked with a few members of my team on their development plans for the next year. I've also been spending some time identifying and interviewing potential new team members and holding regular mentoring meetings with the members of my team. This is all on top of leading the annual performance review process for more than 600 people while I was still with Booz Allen. Over the course of all those interviews and development discussions, I found that I've repeated a lot of things.

Here are ten of those things that I've said repeatedly over the last few years that I think any employee should be regularly saying to their boss. 

  1. "How am I doing? How did I do?" Ask for feedback early and often. It shows that you want to improve and that you want to know how to do things better. After every presentation you give, report you complete, article you write, etc. make sure you ask your manager if he/she has any feedback for you. And don't let them get away with just telling you that "you did a good job." Ask them specifically what you could have done better. Seek the negative AND the positive feedback.
  2. "Don't worry about it – I got it." One of the things that all managers love is to be able to cross something completely off of their to-do list because they know that someone they trust is taking care of everything – from beginning to end. From doing the actual work to keeping the right people informed, the ability to take something entirely off your manager's plate and do it well is something that will be much appreciated. It will also give you some great experience in showing him/her that you've got what it takes to move up to the next level as well. 
  3. "I just read/watched/heard…and it got me thinking that…" Learn how to look at everything you read/watch/listen to from a work/client perspective. I want people who are constantly on the lookout for newer, better, more efficient ways to do things and who can apply them to their current work. You should be bringing new ideas to your boss at least as often as he/she is bringing them to you.
  4. "You know how we've been doing X? Why do we do it that way?" Question the status quo. Don't just accept things because "that's the way they are." If you're curious about some process or rule or regulation, ask for the background on it. You'll be surprised to discover how many things we do for no other reason than that's the way it's always been done and no one ever bothered to ask.
  5. "I don't think that's the best way to do that. How about we do it this way instead?" Please, don't be a yes-man/woman. Disagree with me. Don't just assume that what I say goes. Sometimes, I have no idea and am just throwing ideas out there and want some honest feedback on them. When I was first given a team, the first person I approached was a good friend of mine whom I knew would be candid with me and tell me when I was wrong. I knew that she'd tell me about an awful idea long before it made its way to the client.
  6. "Here's what I'd recommend and why." If I've asked you to work on something, don't just send me your research. I want to know your thoughts on it too. You're the one closest to the research. Give me your recommendation and your rationale for it. It shows me that you can think critically and that you can back up your assertions.
  7. "Here's what I learned and how I'll do it better next time." Learn how to be your own worst critic. One of the best things you can do is become self-aware. Know where you're strong, know where you're weak, and know where you can improve.
  8. "You gotta see/read/listen to this – I know you'll love this." It doesn't always have to be about work. Don't be afraid to send your boss the latest meme if you think he/she will enjoy it. I like to know my team's interests outside of work, and I want them to want to get to know mine as well.
  9. "Do you know who I can talk with to understand this better?" If you're struggling with something, I will NOT think of less of you if you ask how you can get smarter on the topic. I'll be impressed that you were self-aware enough to know what you don't know and confident enough to ask about it. I may not know the answer either, but I'll be sure to help put you in touch with someone who will.
  10. "What can I do to help? Be proactive. Don't wait for other people to task you with something. Ask if you can help with something. Or better yet, refer to numbers 3 and 4 above.  

Now don't get the wrong idea here – while you may have thought this post was targeted toward more junior employees, these are all things that I try to regularly talk with my boss about as well. These aren't just for entry level or mid-level employees – at no point should you feel that you're too old or too high on the org chart to ask for feedback or to challenge the status quo. If you're a manager now, start asking your employees to think about these things. Likewise, look internally and ask yourself if you've been been doing the same with your boss.

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