This post is inspired by all the people I've been meeting lately who are really smart and creative, doing very big things at agencies and on the client-side at some pretty impressive companies here in St. Louis.
I had a conversation at a REBUS event last night regarding what makes up a strong interactive strategy leader (online marketing, digital, interactive...interchangeable terms in my opinion, depending on who you're talking to). So to be a strong leader on either the client or agency side, in a role in which you are asked to be able to add value and contribute to a company's growth in a creative, measurable and tangible way, you must have these certain, expected abilities -- if you have them, you're likely to go much farther than others within an organization and in your online marketing career. So what are these characteristics?
Here are three simple traits I am able to list as critical, from my own perspective. Obviously there are more, so if you have additional ideas/suggestions, please post a reply below.
- Strategic thinking
Every single day, if you are lucky enough to be presented with new clients, new projects, new campaigns, new needs or opportunities, you should be able think on your feet. Ask the right questions. Get curious. Make mental or physical notes as you go. Scribble and sketch. Brainstorm. Research. All of this will lead you to, either personally or as a strong contributor with a team, formulate a strategy that looks honestly and deeply at the problems or opportunities at hand and then generate solutions or a series of tactics that will capitalize on those opportunities and lead to growth. These ideas must be sound because the client or your boss can see a return on the investment of implementing these tactics. You can illustrate (either through a business plan that is documented or a presentation or just your ability to talk through it) the results expected. You have thought through each potential pit-fall, you have solved each problem, and you have developed a strategy that is more creative or effective than other agencies or individuals would be able to do in the given situation.
"A strategic thinker has a mental model of the complete end-to-end system of value creation, his or her role within it, and an understanding of the competencies it contains."
- Liedtka, J.M. (1998), “Linking Strategic Thinking with Strategic Planning”
- A respect and understanding of IT as well as marketing and how they come together.
You do not have to have been a developer (although development experience may help), but having the ability to work well with IT specialists who code either Web sites or applications or manage databases - you name it - will make you much more valuable. More and more these days, interactive projects require a technical implementation, and then you're faced with more challenges within organizations, such as release cycles, quality departments, compliance and legal processes -- all the things that combine to create red tape. If you are the type of person who can cut that red tape with a big pair of scissors that we'll call "calm and assertive" (a la Cesar Millan's 'Dog Whisperer'), and deliver a respectful curiosity and patient understanding to each individual you need to work with to get things done, you're going to go far. You need to understand the basics of platforms, coding languages, databases and servers. If marketing wants a project done next week, but IT says it can't be done for 3 months, you can play the role of the negotiator if you can talk the talk. Find opportunities to make things more efficient or to shorten the speed to release by working well with IT professionals. Even if the tech-jargon is too much for you, make friends with developers - play nice. Make sure they know you respect and admire the work they do, and they will respect you too. At the same time, you should be managing the expectations of the business owner (marketing, for example) up front. By doing this, you will find you can under-promise and over-deliver more often.
- Natural, personal interest and curiosity in emerging technologies and industry trends.
If you don't find yourself online when you don't have to be, subscribing to TechCrunch, tweeting at least 3 - 10 times per week or more, subscribing to RSS feeds, or you're the type of person who says "I don't get Facebook", you're not going to be very good at this part. In fact, if you're definitely sure you are the "I just don't get this Facebook thing" kind of person, you should get out of online marketing today - right now. The fact of the matter is that if you are a marketing professional, the new marketing is online. It's similar to the evolution of music (being distributed online), e-commerce (all products available online, not just brick-and-mortar anymore for a long time now), news (distributed online as subscriptions to paper-and-ink plummet) and just about everything else. It doesn't mean that offline is dead, of course. It just means that you have to evolve along with emerging technologies and try to stay ahead of the curve as much as you possibly can in an era in which everything is happening faster than ever before.
If you respect that a lot of extremely creative, dynamic, compelling and effective marketing happens online - and a hell of a lot of it - and you force yourself to sign up for a Twitter account and start posting on Facebook walls so that you will "get it", then good job. At least you're trying. And here's why this post is about "traits" and I didn't call them "skills" because traits are often those things which happen natually or are innate in you, while skills can be honed and developed: If you're like me and you got excited at the news that Facebook acquired FriendFeed this week and you already knew what FriendFeed is because you've been using it for a while now, then you're going to be the type of person a client is going to be thrilled to be able to turn to when they realize they need to be "tweeting". Obviously it goes far beyond just knowing that you "need to be on Twitter" or "should have some sort of company presence on Facebook" - you have to know how to use social media to drive business growth, get leads, get sales, enhance customer loyalty - you name it. And yes, it really is possible - but that's another blog post for another day.
Regardless, whether it's social media (such a big, all encompassing term as it is) or the latest and greatest in web site user experience, design (Flash, CSS, etc.) techniques, webinars, podcasts, e-books, online video, or even SMS (texting), you should care. You should be subscribing to magazines and feeds online so that you can be alerted to news in the industry as it happens and read long, well-thought-out analyses of changes in the market. Get yourself invested in the future of the industry that you're making a career in, and if you love doing it naturally, follow me on Twitter and let's get to know one another!