What I Learned When I Went to Work for My #1 Client

About a year ago, I put my agency Pushing Social on “marketing leave” and joined the team at the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau (DMCVB).

Frankly, I’ve made many career moves but this one was the most terrifying. You see, for the last 25 years I’ve been “The Agency”. I begged for a budget. I convinced, cajoled, and pleaded for approvals. I was the one who got the blame when a campaign flopped. For years, I joked that I would go to the client-side when I retired.

My switch came much earlier than expected.

During a marketing strategy session, the CEO laid out his vision for an integrated marketing group. It took me about 32 seconds to see an opportunity to finally implement the crazy ideas I had been cooking up for years. I asked for the job on the spot. On Monday, June 19, 2017, I put on a tie, fought morning commute traffic, and reported to my cube.

Why would an entrepreneur take what many believe is a step back?

It has to do with being a plumber.

I read a story where a business owner compared marketing “thought leaders” to the folks who staff the plumbing supplies aisle at Home Depot. These employees are helpful but probably not plumbing experts. If they were experts, they would be plumbers. His point stung. For the last five years, I played the thought leader game. I spoke, wrote a book, authored a blog. I ran an agency. I was a bonafide marketing thought leader.

However, I wasn’t a day-to-day marketer.

I discovered that little fact at about 9:30 on Monday morning my first day at the DMCVB.

I learned that catchy memes, frameworks, and high-level methodologies won’t cut it.
  • I have a budget and a CEO looking for a tangible ROI from every line-item.
  • I have a team that needs clear action plans for achieving goals tied to their compensation plan.
  • I have peers that are incredibly good at what they do and are in the habit of (respectfully) calling bullsh*t when they see it.

Simply, I am a plumber and I need to deliver new visitors, marketing qualified leads, page views. and dozens of other KPIs that as a consultant didn’t know existed.

Thought Leadership’s Limited Shelf Life

As a client, I am, for the first time in my career, the consumer of “thought leadership.” Frustratingly, I’ve found most of it to be irrelevant. Why? Because commenting on marketing is much different than doing marketing.

I needed peers who were tackling and solving day-to-day marketing paradoxes. I needed day-to-day professionals who had to solve the rubiks cube of managing budget, resources, customer needs, and stakeholder expectations.

I didn’t need thought leaders. I need “tactical coaches” instead.

Tactical coaches focus on helping me master the skills I need to win — today.

For example:

Thought Leadership: Why Facebook is More Important Than Ever.


Tactical Coaching: How to Use Facebook Groups to Prevent Customer Churn


Thought Leadership: Why Low Budget Content Is Killing Your Brand


Tactical Coaching: How to Create a Virtual Bench of A-List Content Producers

Some would argue that Thought Leadership is for those who question core marketing principles or are skeptical of the latest marketing trends. Perhaps, but clients aren’t clueless. If they seem skeptical, they may be really questioning the thought leader’s relevance and real-world competence.

Believe me, I’ve walked out of many meetings pissed off out at the “dumb client” when the real issue was my inability to present an effective argument.

Being a Marketing Tactician

As I mentioned before — I’m now a marketing tactician. I need to understand how my marketing stack works and why I should use it to solve specific problems.

For example, We asked ourselves, “Why should we care about SnapChat?” While answering this question we discovered that 18–35-year-old curious travelers love to document their adventures on Snapchat and Instagram.

Next, we quickly discovered that SnapChat isn’t your easy-to-use pay-to-play media channel. It forces you to create and promote content at a pace that we weren’t used to. Plus, we were too bogged down in the “meet, review, approve, wait, execute” cycle of day-to-day marketing to make attention-grabbing content.

Of course, there are hundreds of consultants and zillions of SnapChat how-to blogs to reference but that’s not what we needed. Instead, we need to take a step back and learn how to create a content production process un-yoked from redundant bureaucracy. This thinking process requires tactical coaching.

How to Find Your Marketing Tactical Coach (MTC)

It’s difficult to find MTCs. They don’t like the limelight and often let others take the credit. But you can spot them by looking for individuals who:
  • Are focused on understanding people, product, and process instead of pitching platforms.
  • Are masters of their craft and spooky good at teaching others how to get results with repeatable skills.
  • Are business generalists — They can draw from management and marketing disciplines to structure relevant strategies.
  • Are comfortable in boardrooms and cubicles

Tactical Coaches may seem like unicorns but they aren’t. You’ll find them on breakout-session panels at your favorite convention. They aren’t flashy keynote speakers instead, they seek out questions and prefer collaborative dialogue.

They are usually the people who don’t do the talking when your consultant comes in for their annual “Here’s what we’ve done so renew our contact” pitch. Ask a tough question about ROI or analytics then focus your attention on the person that the “presenter” turns to.

Tip: Look inside your company for a homegrown MTC:

How to Use Your MTC

Tactical coaches are usually the most productive member of any team. That means they are busy, probably too busy. So you need to be efficient with how you use their skill set and time.

Start here —

Build New Systems

At the DMCVB we rely on a community of talented content creators sourced from Detroit. For years, the content marketing team relied on just five writers to produce over a hundred articles a year. While our writers were excellent, the work was suffering from the lack of new talent and perspectives.

As our resident marketing tactician, I was tasked with building a system that produced quality content at scale. Which meant, we needed to go from using five writers to using thirty or more. Google Spreadsheets were too simple. CoSchedule was great but too complicated. So we built our own system called GigHub.

How we get lots of quality content.

GigHub is essentially a content creator marketplace where writers, photographers, and videographers can review and bid on content assignments, we call ’em Gigs.

  • A thought leader would say “Quality beat quantity”.
  • A marketing tactician says we need both and this is how we can get it.

Low Hanging Fruit

Marketers tend to prefer complicated solutions over simple ones. Deep down, we all believe we will lose our jobs if we make marketing too simple. Going to the Client-Side cured me of this tendency. Now, I’m always looking for Low Hanging Fruit, simple problems that can be solved with decisive action.

I killed our leisure traveler email newsletter just one week after starting at the DMCVB. Why? Email marketing is getting tougher by the day. Email newsletter click rates are approaching banner ad levels #dismal. We still need a way to tell our trendy travelers when we have something new for them — but using an email newsletter was a nonstarter.

We dropped the newsletter and told everyone to join our Facebook group chat. It took 1 hour. We have over 1200 totally engaged Facebook followers. The click-through rates are approaching 50%, open rates are 80% (a text message is almost impossible to ignore!).
  • A thought leader would say “Make your emails more human”
  • A marketing tactician says, drop emails use chat.

Optimize Existing Systems

Tacticians believe that any marketing problem can be solved by optimizing People, Process, or Product. In my experience, poor processes lead to piss-poor performance.

It isn’t sexy but squeezing a 1% efficiency improvement from a critical process could be the difference between hockey-stick growth or stagnation.

For example, most content marketers use an editorial calendar to guide their work. However, many use tools like Excel and Google Sheets to document and track their content’s progress through the editorial process.

I inherited an editorial calendar when I joined the DMCVB. The ideas in the calendar were fine but the content creation and production process were siloed. Our editorial calendar was also difficult to update, a major problem since my plan required a large number of high-quality posts.

We didn’t need a new strategy we needed a new tactic for managing our workflow.

We decided to move the editorial calendar review and approval process to Asana. Asana’s board view option is great for getting a birds-eye view of the stages needed to produce and promote a piece of content.

Using Asana to manage our editorial calendar.

This simple tweak in our editorial approval systems has yielded excellent results trimming weeks off our normal content approval process.

Are You A Marketing Tactician?

Share when you first realized you had more to contribute than just “thought leadership”.
© 2020 Stanford Smith