One year on the dark side…

Having worked on the agency side for over 10 years as a strategist here I am on the dark side of the client world. Why the dark side? From the outside you always tend to see clients as the enemy of creativity who kill all your ideas. They demand fresh thinking and creativity but whenever it is presented to them they simply lack the guts to make it happen. This twitter account inspired by quotes from Lee Clow captured it well in this tweet:

Frustrated by the inaction of clients to accept these bold new ideas I decided to cross over and try to make things happen myself. With this bustling ambition I took on the role as Brand Experience Director at one of the most promising telecom companies in the country. So how did it go? With no expectations, I went with a fairly open mind to accept anything that came my way. Little did I know that I was in for one hell of a roller coaster ride. Although I must add that much of what I experienced and learnt is somewhat unique to this organization there are clearly larger implications and learning for others in similar positions. You be the judge!

What unique circumstances am I talking about? I think this analogy pretty much sums it up “Imagine making a trans-atlantic journey on a ship while it is being repaired, undone and rebuilt midway without ever stopping” That scenario is bound to create some serious challenges. Personally for me that meant reporting to three different bosses and two different Chiefs over a course of 12 months. So you can imagine! What did I learn in these 12 months? Here are the top five lessons so far!

Lesson #1: Simplicity is key when it comes to strategy building

A number of times when marketers at the client end don’t buy your idea, it may not have to do with the person you are dealing with as an agency person but the larger organization itself. The key people making decisions at the C-level may have a larger role to play in what gets accepted and what is not. Why I say that? A strategy that may seem very logical and straightforward maybe as alien and irrational to a non-marketer as perhaps an engineering process would be to a marketer. I say that because one of the projects I embarked upon was a brand strategy refresh exercise, one which enabled me to meet with a large number of CXO’s across the organization from multiple disciplines. And what I realized was that even at the highest level my work could mean nothing if I didn’t tread carefully. The idea that someone cannot understand or relate to simple concepts of branding and what that meant for the larger organization was something I couldn’t quite grapple with. The only way to get through was to keep the strategic approach very simple and yet ensure it was enabling enough to steer the organization in the right direction. Easier said than done.

Lesson #2: Ideation is the easiest task in the grand scheme of things

The other interesting lesson that dawned upon me is related to this belief that clients are too conservative, prefer to play safe and very rarely can you find someone bold enough to go with a crazy idea. This was one goal I had set for myself from the word go! To boldly go where no client had gone before (at least in this part of the world!). What I learnt were two inter-related lessons. For one, within the team itself I found so many team members with gutsy and fresh ideas. In fact there was absolutely no dearth of ideas in any way. An hour of a brainstorming on any given challenge with the right mix of people could lead to some interesting possibilities. So much so that sometimes I felt the internal teams were doing far better than our agencies. The challenge really was translating those ideas into execution. To illustrate my point I recall an experience in my first few weeks when I was working on a brand campaign and needed some digital activation ideas. While presenting the ideas to my boss and to the CMO then I included one crazy thought in the end knowing that it was absurdly ambitious and would never get a green light. To my surprise it was approved! What followed was a grueling eight months to make it happen. It was an app idea…simple as a concept but a technical challenge. It eventually got made four months late and so didn’t fit the purpose it was created for. In the end all I can say here is that when you are trying something crazy don’t select your execution team just on the basis of price, which leads me to lesson number three.

Lesson #3: You are as good as your team

Unlike agency setups which can be very lean and therefore the entire process can be somewhat controlled and pinpointed to a few key individuals. The size of telecom companies can spread responsibility a little too thin. With hundreds of people working across disciplines, each handling only a part of the business, working together can be an unsurmountable challenge. Sometimes departments would be located not just on a different floor but in a different building altogether. Not that geographies matter in todays world but there was strong evidence of working in silos. And if everyone is not working seamlessly together it is hard to get breakthrough results. And this is what it comes down to. It is very hard to make an impact if everyone you work with is not on the ball. Working in a brand and communications role there is only that much you can do to impact the bottomline. If all other areas of the organization don’t deliver then you can’t win beyond a department and that is not winning when you are losing market share and leaving customers unhappy and frustrated.

At the same time, the partners you work with become so crucial to your success. As I pointed out in my previous lesson. Ideation is easy but making ideas happen is not. Execution requires paying attention to so many components. Each piece has to deliver. An app for example has to have the right UX to begin with but it also needs an aesthetically powerful UI to match. Again this is half the story. Putting it altogether as an app, the back-end programming and developing has to be sound. If any one of those elements fail to deliver then the entire idea behind the app is destroyed. Customers don’t care for good enough. Either you deliver or you don’t. The people challenge in an agency setting maybe limited to 2-3 key people to drive the entire setup but when it comes to a telecom company the challenge spans across functions both internally and externally through the hordes of vendors, agencies and consultants all working together. This is when I realized how the leading companies around the world manage to create beautiful synergies across every function to deliver magical experiences at every touchpoint and why only a handful are doing it right at every level. It’s so hard to get every piece of an execution right without the right teams.

Lesson #4: How the mundane becomes crucial

When writing strategies for brands I was always pushing for bolder and fresher concepts. I truly believed that each new strategy piece that I worked on had to take my thinking to the next level. Each component of the brand had to be distinct, something that other brands had not done. It was largely an intellectual challenge which would sometimes come down to simple semantics. Sameness was camouflaged with new synonyms from a thesaurus or through a more creative word play. The goal was to ensure nothing ordinary was ever presented to a client. However when the task involves not just devising a strategy but actually executing it I realized how simple ideas sometimes become so crucial. What am I referring to? The idea of having “human” and “friendly” in a strategy document maybe obvious and intellectually uninspiring. But if the organization is not delivering on some basics of let’s say customer care, these simple ideas suddenly become crucial. So the next time you come across a strategy that includes some 101’s of business as a key component of the strategy make sure that those basics are being delivered before writing them off because I certainly won’t!

 Lesson #5: Compromises are needed to get things done!

I think this last lesson is a summation of all the other lessons. In the end, marketing communications is a support function. If there are business priorities that need to be fulfilled then marcom has to deliver. There is an optimal time needed for everything. But if the teams across various functions are sub-optimized, under-staffed or under-skilled you don’t have the luxury to seek perfection or sadly even seek optimization. There are targets to be met, objectives that need to be delivered, actions that need to be taken. And so we ship. The product teams sometimes would put out offerings that are not game changers. The time given to the creative teams to deliver their big idea is insufficient. The budget needed to support the campaign just right is simply not there. Things just need to be done. Efficiency takes precedence over effectiveness. Sometimes you hit it right despite all these challenges but many times you don’t. But you keep pushing, keep moving the needle forward. It’s not ideal but compromises need to be made just to get the job done! Period. I don’t know any better at this point. If you do then please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Feature image by Wasi ahmed02 used under Creative Commons Attribution – ShareAlike 3.0 License

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