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Chapter 23: Finding and Enabling Great Partners

Although I keep saying you’re the best person to market your company, it would be unwise for you to go it all alone. Actually, I’m being too generous here; not bringing in others to lend their knowledge and expertise might doom you to failure. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met with a beleaguered entrepreneur who is still regretting having cut costs by trusting certain choices to an amateur.

In this section, I’ll provide some thoughts on how to access people who are great at what they do. You’ll be able to rely on their capabilities, which leaves you with more time to concentrate on what you are great at.

People who speak human

Whether they want to work with us or for us, I generally chose people over their “pitches.” I look for people who are interested in helping me understand; meanwhile, I generally steer clear of those who can’t present things simply. I tend to end meetings when I hear things like: “The ROI on our SEO, as a result of the PHP integration, will synergize with our Brand Asset Management system before Q3!” That phrase, by the way, is complete nonsense… I have, however, heard people spout things almost as asinine.

If your supplier uses an unending parade of fancy terms and acronyms, I’d ask if they’re perhaps trying to bamboozle you. It sounds mean, but it’s a fair question. The other day I was asked if our firm employed a particular brand management system purportedly used by one of the big agencies (they had a really convoluted name for it). It’s funny; all the name really meant was that their clients could call and ask questions when they arose. I responded that we do the same thing, but call it, “answering our clients’ questions.”

There are times when highly-specialized terms are necessary. Every once in a while I use industry-specific language out of habit. That being said, if you’re looking to hire a brand or marketing company, and their every second word sounds like code, I’d pass on them. I don’t believe in making things unnecessarily complex and if something in marketing can’t be explained simply, I start to wonder if it’s a con. Any good provider should be able to explain plainly how they can be of service. In my experience, those who try to intimidate with vague, jargon-laden language aren’t worth considering.

Those who have all the answers

Every time I open another brand, design, or marketing book, I’m confronted by how little I actually know. This perplexes me; after so many years of doing this work, shouldn’t I know more? Of course, with the number of facets involved in this practice, there’s always more to learn. This leads me to the thought that “knowing” may be less important than being willing to ask questions.

I have a bit of a soft spot for certain kinds of people/suppliers. The ones I like tend to be comfortable admitting that they don’t know everything. Sure, they know their practice, but they don’t think this makes them an expert in your business. Good partners will understand that this kind of work requires the active involvement of (at least) two parties. They’ll bring certain domain knowledge you don’t have access to; meanwhile, they’ll rely on you to educate them on the nature and nuances of your business.

The practitioners I most admire come to the table with few preconceived notions, and instead ask questions and listen carefully to their client’s responses. It seems to me that it’s all too easy to hastily prescribe a solution. I think it’s important for those you bring in to start with a clean slate—minds scrubbed of any baggage that might get in the way of a unique and workable solution. Theirs should be a pursuit of identifying the root problem, seeking out truths, and crafting suitable solutions.

Meanwhile, egos should be left at the door. I know a lot of people in this field and most are curious, interesting, and articulate people. Those who aren’t willing to explain the logic behind suggestions and proposed plans are part of a very small minority—I’d look upon such a lack of willingness to communicate as a big warning sign.

With that said, I think you need to find someone who’ll push you. Actually, I believe the worst practitioners are those who agree with every idea proposed by a client. Doing so represents either an inexperienced party lacking the confidence to challenge your observations, or, someone who has lost interest and just wants to get a job done—but not necessarily the right one. We earn our keep when we question some of our clients’ preconceived notions—particularly if it seems that these ideas are getting in their way.

Lead us

Working on a branding, marketing, or design effort is rarely a walk in the park. While buying a new company car is a rather simple process, crafting a story or determining the value proposition for an organization is rarely as straightforward or commonplace. These projects tend to bring with them a certain amount of stress. This can in part be assuaged by choosing good partners and clearly delineating the parties responsible for each aspect of the work.

This is easier by not allowing unbridled enthusiasm to confuse roles and responsibilities. While few in your operation are likely interested in lending their voice to your selection of legal representation, tasks containing creative aspects tend to bring interested parties and critics out of the woodwork. While most professional practices are acknowledged as outside of one’s particular expertise, most everyone will take an interest in (and proclaim an aptitude for) marketing, design, and communications related issues. Of the many projects I’ve taken part in, the most toxic problems relate to involving too many individuals who then become confused about their roles.

As the one calling the shots, you have to lead by concentrating on the big picture. This necessitates establishing a clear set of goals for the project at hand. It also might entail relinquishing your personal vision. I don’t mean to imply that you shouldn’t exchange ideas and insights; it’s your company and you ultimately have the most “say” in the matter. At the same time, thinking that your marketing partners will do their best even if they don’t have your trust is unrealistic.

This, of course, is the big problem in client/supplier relationships when it comes to such projects. You are the one who has to live with the devised solution, but in many ways you’re the least capable of seeing this sort of thing objectively. You’re in the eye of the storm and this might limit your ability to see things clearly.

A little breathing room

Your role is largely that of ensuring the goals you established at the outset are achieved by the team you’ve employed. If you want to create a microsite that engages teenagers with your energy drink brand for example, you should expect them to deliver a sound strategy aimed at doing just that. You’re also entitled to hold the team’s feet to the fire and demand that they defend their proposed strategy and implementation coherently. If their logic doesn’t hold, they’ll have to go back to the drawing board and make it work. But you need to concentrate on whether the end result actually works, not whether your husband, “doesn’t like the blue in the background.”

It may seem odd that I bring up an example like this. In my experience, though, things like this are more likely to compromise a project than bigger, more strategic concerns. I’ve been present at many meetings in which ten guys in gray suits get into a long-winded (and ill informed) debate about color or typefaces, instead of the underlying strategy and messaging. I suppose this is a good time to say it: the more people at the table, the harder it will be. Likewise, the smaller and more focused the team, the better. This is a rule that I have yet to see challenged effectively. As Charles F. Kettering so beautifully put it, “If you want to kill any idea in the world, get a committee working on it.”

I’ve watched great ideas die from fear introduced by too many people wanting to drive. In some respects, yours is an exercise in restraint; set your bearings, stay the course, and turn if you’re going to hit a rock. Let’s just not put everyone’s hands on the wheel.

Plans that work

When we started our company, we met with a young fellow who had recently completed his business degree and was eager to share his insights. His eyes opened wide as he sat down with us, and a little froth formed at the corner of his mouth as he said, “Let’s talk about your business plan.” Every time we met, he’d do the same, and it became almost a chant of sorts, “Business plan! Ya, ya, ya, ya! Business plan! Ya, ya, ya, ya! Business plan! Ya, ya, ya, ya!”

After a while it all started to sound pretty convincing. Meanwhile, we reasoned that we didn’t know much about business, so we spent days crafting an elaborate document that ultimately sat untouched in a desk drawer for several years. What’s strange is that we’ve spent a lot of time planning since then, but never in quite that fashion.

Planning is a core component of every project we take on, be it for a client or an internal project. In my experience, this is done best when plans are kept simple, short, and free of rhetoric. As you look at your marketing efforts, I suggest you do the same. Outline details as succinctly as possible. If one word will do the work of five, use it. This isn’t a book report, and you don’t get extra points for fulfilling a word count. Good plans should also be flexible and easy to augment; we’ve even taken to crafting them in emails or shared files, so that they can be quickly revised by key stakeholders. We also tend to limit these documents to a single page, to hold everyone’s attention when we review them.

Read a few marketing books and you’ll end up with all kinds of things to think about and employ. This is problematic as it can embroil you in marketing discussion, instead of focusing on the job at hand. Take your short, simple plan and go through it verbally with another team member. Ask them to call “bullshit” on points that are overly aspirational or vague. You need clear, tangible goals and tasks that can be acted upon.

Starting a fire

The part you probably don’t want to hear is that little of this comes for free. Some combat this by cutting corners, piecemealing efforts, or employing unproven partners whose sole benefit is price. I assure you, someone can always offer a lower price; most times you get what you pay for.

This piecemeal approach to marketing can obstruct a company’s efforts. Many are eager to create a one-off with hopes that it will prove a catalyst for change. This is hardly ever the case, and often results in frustration as sporadic efforts tend to bear little fruit. With this in mind, I ask you to instead look at such efforts as ongoing.

The analogy I liken this to is one of lighting a fire. Most small organizations put countless hours and resources into collecting dry kindling, finding matches, and getting it started, only to walk away once a small flame takes hold. A week, month, or year later they return to find that their fire has burnt out, and needs to be restarted. So they begin again, hoping for something different, only to repeat the process ad infinitum.

Fires need perpetual attention to grow. Once you have it going, the hardest part is over; from there you need to stoke it from time to time and add some dry wood when necessary. It’s not hard, but it does require consistent attention. By keeping at it like this, you can build a roaring fire. If you’re lucky, it might even turn into a wildfire, bigger than you ever anticipated. The trick is to keep going.

It’s going to cost something

Marketing involves time, attention, and money. Look over your projections for the year and determine what you can reasonably allocate to your marketing. As with any budget, establishing this number helps you and your team determine what you can afford to do and in what sequence. Perhaps this isn’t the year for a complete identity overhaul, but those funds might be more than ample to pinpoint a particular market and connect with them.

Some are fearful that a marketing or design team will simply match their quote to whichever number is provided. In my mind, this only happens with the shadiest of firms. Determining that number will help the team determine if they can work with you, and if so, what projects might be undertaken with the allocated funds. Keep in mind you don’t need to spend your whole budget with one firm, but knowing what you have allocated is certainly useful. All too often we’re confronted by clients with a fixed budget which they are unprepared to reveal. This seems a little like showing up at a car dealership and saying “I need a car, but I’m not going to tell you how much I have to spend.” To get you into the right one, they’ll need to know what you require, and how much you can afford.

I’ll also caution you that almost all companies underestimate the cost of design and marketing services. Don’t get me wrong, most in this field enjoy helping people out, but there are hard costs associated with this kind of work. Meanwhile, anyone who’s good will want to be compensated fairly for their efforts.

Marketing is a “long haul” kind of thing. Look for good people who you can trust, knowing that you can always pull the plug if things don’t go as they should. There are a lot of smart, talented, and capable people out there. Finding a good team that you can trust will make your job easier.

Get it done

Why all this talk about making it happen? Mostly because you’re one of the little guys. You don’t have focus groups, assistants, budgets to fall back on, or possibly even time to spare. The moments you do have available are right in between getting all of the other work done and perhaps watering the office plants.

Others may have the luxury of taking an extra day to get marketing in place but you don’t. As one of the small guys you have to take every opportunity you can get. One of the strongest advantages you have comes down to pure sweat. When everyone else goes home, you can still be working. More to the point: for everything you complete ahead of schedule, you earn time to address one more thing. Take every one of those opportunities you can.


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