On a chilly day in March 1996, I reported to my first day of work at a small consultancy in a modest red-brick office building. Nearby were a gym, a Montessori school and an abandoned science lab. The lab had been the center of a notorious Ebola scare a few years earlier, subsequently becoming the subject of a best-selling book and a Hollywood movie.
The pair of Swedes who’d founded the firm were completely indifferent to any bad monkey virus juju. Thomas was the US managing director. He liked to ride his bike to work, a trip of some twenty miles from his home in the Virginia countryside. By the time I knew him, he’d picked up some good ol‘ boy patois (“They messed it up so good,” he once complained of a floor refinishing company) plus a fondness for the Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon, the type of place where folks threw peanut shells on the floor.
Olof, back at the London-area headquarters, was the CEO. He held the patent rights to token ring technology, following—the rumor went—a legal battle with IBM. When he visited the US office, he flew his own plane to Dulles. Every time. In a three-piece suit. (“It was a freak accident,” he said of the TWA flight 800 explosion that summer. “Don’t worry about it.”)
When I arrived, I was a proficient hack of sales proposals and brochureware. When I left, four years later, I was a modern marketer.
In my opinion, small professional services firms are the most formative environment any marketer can have. They edge out product companies for two simple reasons. The first is that leadership is too consumed with client service responsibilities to be able to, or even want to, micromanage the marketing function. The second reason is the lack of a product. Product marketing is almost entirely about features and demos. If neither of those things are available to you, you either get clever or you fail.
Working for a big brand is valuable because you learn a great deal about a broad swath of business. But you don’t learn very much about marketing. Reporting and other administrative tasks consume about 40 percent of your time. The rest is spent doing essentially the same things over and over.
Small firms, on the other hand, expect marketers to handle processes end to end. For example, you might think of an article topic, research it, write it, then pitch it to various publications—or, format and illustrate it, then post it to the website yourself. You might even build the website, after which you’d optimize it, create paid search campaigns around it and analyze the digital trail of activity. You might build a contact list, craft an offer letter, email it and then follow up.
If you can do all this, you’ll always earn a living.
But I also learned some broader truths at this little consultancy. Among them:
Budgets are wasteful. Thomas was opposed to budgets because they’re unresponsive to business need. If an opportunity appears but the budget is insufficient, the opportunity is lost. Budgets also cause a hoarding mentality because they’re typically based on the previous year’s spend. As a result, the incentive is to max out budgets every year whether you need to or not.
Managers are facilitators. Thomas thought of himself as a coach. He approached his position as one of responsibility, not entitlement. “The last thing I want,” he said, “is to be in the way.” And he meant it. He gave credit, accepted blame, made hard decisions, stood up for his people and removed obstacles so they could get their work done.
Sales and marketing are the same. Folks think sales and marketing are different functions because large companies are generally organized around 19th-century industrial production processes. A small business has neither the scale to realize that model’s efficiencies nor the market position to tolerate its inevitable commoditization of output.
At my small firm, sales and marketing (and client service too) were one process. We read the same marketing books and attended the same sales training. We worked together to identify market opportunities, develop a response and generate demand. We did all this because management said to do it, and did it themselves. The things I learned from this experience changed my approach to marketing forever.
One time, I ran into Thomas near his office doorway. His jacket was on. He was heading out to deal with a difficult client, a Fortune 500 company who didn’t want to pay for their data center benchmarking report because they didn’t like the results. As I watched him go, I whistled the theme from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” Thomas smiled.
He really did like cowboys.