Insight September 6, 2016

What Does “Strategic Partner” Actually Mean?


By John Hilgart, Senior Strategist

Senior copywriter Brandon Davis recently posted on the benefits of having to think inside the box – of having to keep your creativity constrained to the strategy, objectives, brand voice, target audience, client directives, budget, and other project factors that you can’t change.

Those constraints are what make for a good challenge, and achieving success because of them – or despite them – is what sets a good agency creative department apart.

But being a strategic partner means starting in a different place altogether – with no box at all.

Identifying questions that must be answered – before the big “What should we do?” question can be answered – is the foremost role of a strategist. The answers may open up unforeseen avenues of opportunity or be dead ends, but both of those results contribute to the construction of the right-sized box to contain a successful solution.

To unearth the right questions, you first need to understand the client’s business, products, proprietary advantages, customers, customer touchpoints, culture, and competitive position – as well as the distance between their current situation and their aspirational goals.

That might seem obvious in a scenario in which you’re creating a brand identity or developing a website, but it’s no less important for any project.

For instance, if the client suggests an email campaign:

  • You might immediately realize that there’s no adequate webpage to pay off the proposed email “hook,” meaning that the project is already getting bigger than they expected, but also that an essential need has been identified.
  • You might look at the value proposition, the product complexity, and the quality of the email list and realize that there’s a much better opportunity to use the sales force to connect with the target customers on the subject at hand.
  • If it’s a larger client, and you work with several different contacts in the organization, you might even know more than any of them, individually, where opportunities for collaboration and synergy are coming up on their marketing calendar.
  • And, of course, all the work you’ve done for other clients should give you pause, in case something unorthodox you’ve done in the past might fit perfectly for this project.

In the end, whether there’s an email campaign, something else, or both, your due diligence will have ensured the biggest possible impact and ROI for the effort. Additionally, all that exploration and systematic decision-making constitutes a thorough rationale for the project as executed, which will later become an essential reference point for understanding the campaign metrics when it’s time to pull reports.

Deep knowledge of the client leads to good questions, and good questions generate the insights that will define the optimal course of action. But one more thing is required: A heaping dose of objectivity. You can’t be a strategic partner unless you avoid drinking the Kool-Aid and are willing to share hard truths with the client.

Clients are emphatically relying on you to look at their situation from outside the box that they are in every day at their job. They want fresh eyes and brains to produce fresh perspectives, insights, and paths to success. They want you to design a strategically solid box – and then to hand it to the Brandons in the creative department, who like nothing more than to be creative inside it.