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Life is a series of forks in the road. The same is absolutely true of a career in strategic communications.
Somewhere early in your career, you’ll go from delivering for, to partnering with clients. It becomes your responsibility to use your expertise and experience to recommend and advise, not just deliver.
You start off having to appease clients, coddle them, and not call them out. It’s endemic of the problem in our industry that people are afraid of hard truths and avoid them although that’s where progress is made. Strategy is a lot like therapy in this respect – acceptance that something is wrong is the first stage to fixing it.
Partnering with clients becomes a responsibility in your role, not an extra. This means pushing back on briefs, working proactively, helping them organise themselves, and steering them away from disasters.
As this relationship changes down the road, you find a good partnership with a good client becomes a lot like a relationship with a good friend. You do what you feel is right for them, even when it’s not easy. It’s not just avoiding mistakes either – you don’t let them be mediocre. That’s the cruelest form of kind.
Just like bad friends, bad agencies appease you, avoid conflict, want something from you, and aren’t there in the hard times. Just like good friends, good agencies call you out, have difficult conversations, want the best for you – and really have your back.
There will be points in your career when clients bring you a brief for something that is plain wrong, stupid, or even dangerous. It’s your job as a strategist to have that difficult conversation with them.
They’ll ask you for a solution that doesn’t solve their problem. They’ll come in with a request to treat a symptom, not a cause. They’ll come in with a brief that’s a huge waste of money. They’ll come in with something they really, really shouldn’t do. These are the moments a good strategist shows their value.
This is where you reach a fork in the road…
Time to pick a route.
Fork one is the one we want to take. Take the money, appease the client, keep everyone happy. It’s the path of least resistance. It’s to deliver, and it’s what a lot of agencies do (and make a lot of money doing). The first fork is short term, and the road further down into mediocrity. It’s the low road.
Fork two is the one we need to take. To have a difficult conversation, risk bruised egos, risk losing the brief (and therefore money). It’s to be a true friend, and it’s what not many do, but the ones that do, do the best work in our industry. The second fork is the road to making things better. It’s the high road.
Friends who appease you aren’t real friends, just how agencies that appease you aren’t real partners. Think of the people most important to you. I’d bet it’s not always been smooth, it’s not always been easy, but you’re better for it – both of you are.
We all have a hill to die on. For the strategist, this is the hill.
Throughout your career, picking the hard fork might put you at risk, it might lose you business, it might even get you fired. But it’s how you build the value in what you do, how we make our industry better, and as with everything worth doing in life – the benefits aren’t immediate.
Have courage, trust your gut, and keep your chin up. The hard fork is always worth it in the end.
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