Straight talking and outcomes-focused: the independent strategist

It’s not always easy being a strategy consultant. To operate with integrity, it is necessary to avoid the temptation to just tell clients what they want to hear. Everybody loves a pat on the back, to be told how incredible their latest creative idea is, or that the latest investment they made with a respected agency was worthwhile. But more often than not, I find myself in the less glamorous role of asking difficult questions about goals and outcomes.

I recently had dinner with a communications trainer in a large organization, who told me that when her colleagues from around the world invite her to train them, they tell her what they want but she teaches them what they need. As a result she is able to ensure far more effective training, and better equipped teams.

This reminds me in many ways of the role we play at Creation Healthcare. We made a decision some years ago to put down the ‘agency’ component of what we were doing, including the creative design and technical development arms of the business. The reason we did this was because we knew that the only way we could provide genuinely independent advice to clients about healthcare engagement strategies was if we literally had nothing to gain from the advice we gave beyond seeing our clients succeed. Today, we only provide advice, to people in companies and organizations who truly want to know how to improve their outcomes.

In the leadership team at Creation Healthcare, we also commission external consultants who advise us. Their external perspective, together with their understanding of our vision and goals, helps us to take a step back and see what we really need to do to achieve our mission. I love it when I am forced to change the way we are doing things in order to get closer to our goals.

Outcomes > exposure

You see, we don’t measure our clients’ success by how many mentions, re-tweets, followers or friends they have. We don’t even think that press headlines, opportunities to view, or website downloads count as credible measures of success. What we are interested in is understanding the impact that any of these measures have had against a client’s real goals.

To illustrate this, I recently asked a team of communicators what they felt had the highest value – 500,000 downloads, 750,000 views, 4,000 friends or 20,000 followers? The funny thing is that you might actually start to consider the relative merits of friends versus followers, or the value of a download compared with a view. It was a rhetorical question of course – what really matters is the outcome! Friends, followers, or downloads may be reported as the outcomes of a social media campaign but they are completely meaningless unless you know what impact they have had on your actual goals.

The big question you must really ask when you see these kinds of measures is “So what?” It’s not always easy to ask such questions and as an external consultant it can sound negative at first, until you realise that what we’re really interested in is the real outcomes.

It’s a similar story with creative work. In the course of our strategy consultancy, we work with many agencies. Sometimes our clients ask us to help them to select an agency; sometimes we work with an existing preferred agency. In every case, we are looking for the outcomes against our clients’ goals.

Social media is not a strategy

For some communications and marketing professionals, this is in itself a new way of thinking. Ever since the early days of the Internet when so much significance was attached to the meaningless measure of website ‘hits’, many communications teams are still structured in a way that demands such numbers.

I was asked by a communications professional recently whether I would recommend Facebook over Twitter as a social media channel. He told me that he had received various differing pieces of advice from agencies, some telling him that he should use Twitter for a low-maintenance approach, and he wanted to know whether I agreed. How could I possibly advise on one channel over another without at least some understanding of the real needs?

This kind of thing happens all the time. Only today, literally as I was writing this post, a communications agency who works with some of our major global pharmaceutical clients called me. They were about to present their credentials to a major brand in consumer health, they told me. And could I send them some advice to include in their presentation to this brand about what they should do in social media? I declined, of course.

Or, as I have also said recently, “We will use more social media” is not a strategy.

Your best friend

It has been said that your best friend is the one who will tell you the truth, even if it’s painful. The one who cares enough about you to be honest even if it means risking the friendship.

One of my team recently asked me how he could best approach a prospective client about their needs, without seeming like he was trying to be pushy or ‘salesy’. I simply told him to care genuinely for the individual. Once the individual’s success becomes the first priority, and that of their company, the conversation will focus first on them and what they need, rather than trying to sell what we can do for them.

As Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care”.

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