Ten years in business and 10 key things I’ve learnt

October 2011

Ten years ago this month I left Argos to set up on my own. I must tell you that the ten years has passed at a scary-fast rate, but no doubt anyone reading this and the wrong side of 40 will say just the same about their last ten years. Also scary, as I recall at the time, was the prospect of leaving a very well-paid and high-profile job without a single name in my consultancy order book. But, thankfully, that didn’t last long and after a slightly shaky first year picking up bits and pieces of work, I didn’t look back.

In that ten years I’ve worked in more sectors than I could ever have imagined at the start of the consultancy journey (ahead of that only retail), including food service, food, leisure, garden, security, tourism and manufacturing. But regardless of sector or individual client, there have been some consistent points of learning which progressively shaped my values and style of operation. So I’ve thought about the top 10 and here they are…

1. Be honest

Corporate life requires a degree of daily bull-shit to survive. And I did my fair-share of that in my 20 years at Argos, and before that at Debenhams and other retailers. But consultancy is a very different matter, and honesty has to be central to success. Don’t have the necessary skills to do a job fully? Tell the client so, but add to that you know a man that can (then get that person to partner you to fully deliver).

2. Be confident

A good friend of mine, Diane Monk, told me when I was having a few doubts about my ability to make it in the world of consultancy and just ahead of leaving Argos, that: “You’ll be fine – it’s all about confidence.” And how right she was, because worse case when you tell the client that no you can’t personally explain all the detail as to why their website doesn’t appear on page one of Google a month after their site launched (but you know a man who can…), then they’ll take it all the better if you don’t fluff your lines and look them straight in the eye as you do so.

3. Never stop asking, reading and learning

There’s probably already a theme emerging here in that, if you badge yourself as a brand and marketing consultant, you can’t possibly know all the answers. And that also applies to the best consultants in the world who no doubt earn many times what I do. However, not knowing all the answers doesn’t mean there’s an excuse for not employing a mind-set which demands continual learning. So that’s just what I do, and never a day goes by (probably literally) where I don’t ask an expert something or read something an expert has written. What on? The list would take 100 or more pages, but digital certainly ensures the process can never stop for all the time I have my business.

4. Skills and knowledge are largely transferable across sectors

My initial consultancy offer was very much focused on retail (as all of my experience up to 10 years ago had been in that sector), but I quickly learnt that marketing skills and knowledge, by and large, are transferable across sectors. The sort of exceptions I’ve encountered are the defence industry (I once tried to get work from a business selling computer systems for missiles to the American military…) and, to some extent, financial services and pharmaceuticals. So I now stay clear of those three, but pretty much everything else is fair game.

5. Keep it simple for the senior sales folk, and then…

look for nearest brick wall to bang head against. Okay that’s a generalisation and I’ve worked with some very good and very smart sales people, but the fact is, and it is a fact, that most senior sales people don’t even get the fundamentals of marketing (and they clearly should). Even worse are those who are also responsible for marketing as well as sales, because the damage they inevitably do to their brand seriously hinders growth and competitive advantage. So what’s the problem? Well my Feb 11 comment spells this out in some detail, but for now it can be summarised as the sales (and ‘marketing’) manager or director requiring a level of focus and thick skin which, seemingly, prevents any ability to understand the concept of marketing strategy (perhaps any strategy…), and instead limits understanding to little more than branded pens and local press ads. What’s the solution? Read and take note of the last paragraph in my Feb 11 comment.

6. Have great partner experts

As you’ll have already gathered (and it is, anyway, obvious), my view is that the successful marketing consultant can’t possibly do it all on their own. So having experts around you in specific and specialised fields – e.g. research, SEO, design etc. – is absolutely essential. This also means the role of the consultant broadens, as rather than simply telling the client what the problem and solution is, the solution is also entirely delivered. Trade show recommended in my marketing strategy presentation? I’ll fully project manage that for you at the NEC with partners I trust and have worked with before.

7. There’s more value delivered if you get on with the client

I rather pride myself on this one and I believe it’s one of the reasons I tend to retain clients for long periods of time. Of course it isn’t always plain sailing and there can be the odd run-in and occasional clash of personality, but making a serious effort to get on well with the client also helps the next point…

8. Diplomacy is good to a point but may prolong a crisis

A fair bit of the consultancy game, certainly in the early days of a project or contract, can revolve around nicely telling the client just what it is they’re doing wrong. However, sometimes, and this is invariably true if the person I’m working with is sales-based, then the time comes when diplomacy needs to be set aside in order to get the message home. This of course isn’t easy and can lead to a souring of relations, but worse than that would be to allow the situation to continue and the client therefore doesn’t get value for money. Only once in my ten years though has a relationship with a client finished early (like ahead of the job being complete) because I needed to lay the facts on the line, which they didn’t like, and in this case after seeing my strategy largely ignored and the client continued to waste money on the wrong marketing mix. So just one out of a hundred or so isn’t bad going in my books.

9. Resist getting grumpy

Discussed this one with my good wife, and she rightly suggested that I simply note that, as far as I’m personally concerned, it remains ‘work in progress’.

10. Over-deliver

I left this one to last because it’s become the single most guiding principle in how I operate. Actually though and to some extent, I think I’ve always instinctively done this from the outset of my career. It means I rarely have tricky conversations with any client around the amount on the invoice, because in most cases the client thinks they’re getting just as good, or better, deal than I am. And long may that continue.

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