I consider it a gift that I have had a wonderful career as a marketing communications consultant for over a decade—and I don’t ever take it for granted. Fourteen years ago I went out on my own and haven’t looked back. I’ve learned so much about business, people, and life. With that, there are some counterintuitive lessons that have surfaced which continue to surprise, inspire, and challenge me (with a dash of entertainment)—and maybe they will for you too.
It’s OK to Be A Generalist
One thing you’ll hear often when you go into consulting is “pick a niche”. In marketing, luckily, there are many paths: Public relations, writing, event planning, advertising, or maybe all of them. It’s a risky move to do all, but an attractive path to weather any storm. If a client needs a product launch, I am here, or web site copy, call me—or has an event in a hurry. You get the idea. The downside, of course, is that your skill-set can appear watered-down, but in fact, you strengthen core abilities and become more valuable to clients, especially for the next engagement (less ramp time = more productive hours). But don’t confuse being a generalist with faking a skill—that’s a no-no. If you need a graphic designer, don’t hire me (unless you are rolling out a stick people campaign). However, I can find you an expert that does great design and project manage them (that’s the marketing generalist in me).
Help The Competition Without Counting “Karma”
When I started my business, I felt alone swimming upstream on the consulting river, excited but scared. There were plenty other contractors, I just didn’t know them. As the years unfolded, I noticed more colleagues, friends, and dare I say frenemies, that were consulting in my same field. The first reaction is to feel threatened and step away, but in fact, embracing like-minded consultants can be the best resource, sanity check, and offer other benefits if you connect and not retract. As a starting point, know that you are good at your job (feeling insecure is usually the root of all problems). If a client wants to low-ball a project and picks a colleague, you can’t control that (and leaves an open door for you to get a higher-paying project). If you are tapped out with work and need a resource for a potential client, pass it on. Or you encounter a sticky client situation, there are instant advisors to lend an ear. However you utilize your network, don’t assume “nice” deeds equals karma credits, or you’ll be disappointed. That’s not what it’s about—everyone is in business for themselves, but look at yourself as part of a bigger community that supports its own.
Challenge Your Client
Unlike the motto, “the customer is always right,” constantly nodding your head in agreement with a client is not recommended, unless you were hired to be a trained monkey (unlikely gig). Whether it’s a turn-key project or a long-term communications plan—you were chosen to provide expertise and guidance for their programs. Poking small or large holes in plans, or clarifying goals, can help the client navigate their thought process and messaging more clearly, even if it means changing the path to get there. Also know that “challenging the client” doesn’t mean playing devil’s advocate just to demonstrate you have an original thought, it’s about offering insight and counter-views when it makes sense with the client’s objectives. Be prepared to provide both justification for your counter-ideas and impact to budgets and timelines. In the end, the client decides the direction, so respect that either way.
Some Things Are Not Negotiable
Throughout time, business technologies, work styles, and corporate acronyms have come and gone, but one thing never changes: a deadline. Once you miss the first one, your credibility goes down, do it again and double the penalty. A third time? You’ll likely strike out. It’s not enough to be responsive on all forms of technologies, it’s about making a commitment and sticking to it. Talk is cheap as they say (and so is texting and email) so you should commit to deadlines like you mean it. The only exception is if the client changes the entire scope of the project suddenly and you literally can’t deliver on time. That’s when it’s time to look at the calendar together and both be reasonable. You don’t want to have “sucker” written on your forehead, but nor do you want “fired” branded on there either.
Handle Their Money Like Your Own
I have worked with all company sizes— from big companies to scrappy little start-ups— and one thing they share in common: watching every penny. Don’t let a big budget fool you into make bad marketing decisions, such as using the trendy, overpriced agency that puts out mediocre work, or hiring a colleague because it’s convenient but more expensive. I view client budgets like my own—how would I spend that money? Is this the best use of their dollars? Can I repurpose the work somehow? You are an extended part of your client’s team and should act that way. Monitoring and saving your client money will also make you an instant hero (or shero), and who doesn’t like that?
So…some of my secrets are out. These are now part of the fingerprint of my business, and yes, my “brand”. And that’s what marketing is all about, right?
Image: New Yorker