Keeping Too Much

More wisdom from Marc Maron’s podcast arrived today, this time from Bill Simmons, someone that I have mixed feelings about (best summarized by Deadspin). My personal feelings aside (which are 99% due to me being a Buffalo Bills fan and him being a Patriots apologist), there is no question that the guy is brilliant and was a visionary for sports media.

The insight that Maron unearthed today is about directing a documentary. Simmons said that the number one mistake that documentary directors make is that they keep too much. They fall in love with what they have created and they don’t cut material that doesn’t add to their overall story.

This is directly relevant to life in consulting. Often the work we do culminates in a powerpoint presentation, of which 20 slides are presented to a client, and another 40-300 slides are relegated to the “appendix” (aka slide grave yard). These presentations are usually developed by teams, with individual contributors “owning” certain slides. As the presentation date nears, senior leaders get involved and, more often than not, completely obliterate everything that the team has developed.

This can be frustrating, but it is a very important step. It took me a few years of consulting to learn this, but the goal of any presentation should be to tell a story. Narratives are how we organize our thoughts as humans. No matter who we are, how smart we are, how senior we are, our thoughts are organized in narratives – and that is how we make decisions.

Frequently, someone will put a week’s worth of work into creating a slide that turns out great. It makes sense of complex data, it is visually appealing, and it makes the team look very smart. But when it comes time to review the presentation in its entirety, it doesn’t fit into the story. The mistake I would make early in my career is to force the story to fit around these impressive slides. What I have learned, however, is that nothing is more important than the story. I will never forget the time a very senior person in our organization said, “we create great slides, and fall in love with them, but we have to kill them”.

Which brings us back to Simmons. I can only make assumptions about what it’s like to create a documentary, but I imagine there are parallels to consulting. A documentary typically covers a complex topic, one that requires viewers to understand a backstory. There are generally interviews or first-hand research that needs to be conveyed. Finally, their needs to be some sort of resolution.

This is what consulting is. Clients come to use with their most complicated problems. We often need to help them to define the problem – or at least help them articulate it for their counterparts – in a way that communicates business impact. We need to present findings – often employee interviews or customer data – in a way that makes sense to a broad audience. Then, depending on the scope of the engagement, we need show a path forward for the client. The path forward is really what drives the narrative of any presentation. Anything on a slide – a graphic, text box, sentence or word – that does not add to the story, should be removed.

Fred Wilson expresses a similar thought on his blog today, about entrepreneurs considering alternative formats to pitch decks. His key message is to find the medium that works best for you to convince him to invest in your business. I would argue that the goal is to tell the best story. To help the VC understand who you are, why your business will be successful, and why your team would work well with theirs.

I imagine that it is more difficult for documentarians to know what the narrative is, because they are usually covering a very broad topic (someone’s life, a war, jazz, food, a year, a country, a state, a city) and the narrative can go off in any number of directions. In consulting, we have the benefit of direction from our client – and the ultimate understanding that we are there to help our client save money or make money.

Do You Use Your MBA?

I am often asked if I feel that I use my MBA a lot in my career as a consultant. It’s a difficult question to answer, because MBAs aren’t lawyers or doctors who practice a very specific skill. And there is certainly no license that accompanies our degree. As an MBA, you develop some quantitative skills, which you are likely to use daily if you go into finance.

For those in Marketing or Consulting you are more likely to find value in the frameworks you develop with which to approach problems. These are often developed through the case method, and they are meant to give you a toolset for when you face complex problems. The complicating factor is that when you recall these frameworks, you don’t consciously reach into a toolbox, select a specific tool, and thank one of your professors. You attack each problem in a unique way, and in the end, you really don’t know if your MBA benefited you or not.

This can be a little tough to live with. After all, most of us pay handsomely for our MBAs. I don’t have a great answer for MBAs to help them feel good about their investment. I take solace in the fact that people will seek me out for their difficult problems. I don’t think I could have done this without my MBA. The coursework, interactions with fellow students, and extracurriculars made available to me all contributed to my reputation as a problem solver.

It also really helps to be quantitatively sound. While I am not crunching numbers every day like my financial counterparts might be, I frequently work with “quants” and encounter all kinds of data. The ability to dive into data has proved very beneficial to me.

So yes, I believe that I use my MBA. I think that it is worth it. I will KNOW that it is worth it once I have my loans paid off.

Final Four on Cable

I was surprised on Saturday night to find that the Final Four was airing on TBS, rather than CBS as it has for most of my life. As a cord cutter with access to a login to get me TBS, this did not prevent me from watching the Final Four. I imagine that it did for many in the cord cutting generation, especially those for whom the Final Four is not particularly important.

I suspect that this recent channel switch is driven by cable companies. They either believe that the Final Four is a big enough event that people would find a way to watch on TBS; or cable companies are trying to migrate tent-pole events to cable stations, in an effort to stem the tide of cord cutting. After all, we are already accustomed to the NCAA Championship in football being aired on ESPN, why not have a similar arrangement with basketball?

I understand the motivations of TBS and its fellow basic cable friends. They need these kinds of events to ensure they solidify a place in our lives. They seem to be throwing enough money at the NCAA to let them air one of its pinnacle events on a station that not all that many of us pay for anymore.

This is very shortsighted from the NCAA’s standpoint. While CBS/TBS is probably paying them handsomely today, they risk losing an entire generation of fans. Surely, many Villanova students asked their parents for a log in on Saturday night, but what about the casual sports fans? Young people have plenty of entertainment options today – especially on a Saturday night – and it is likely that for many casual fans and non-fans, the Final Four will stop being a part of their lives. The ratings were unsurprisingly down from the 2017 Final Four, which aired on CBS. This is despite a Final Four consisting of a remarkable cinderella story featuring Loyola Chicago and Sister Jean, two number one seeds, and one of the largest and most loyal fan bases in Michigan.

The network executives that decided to air the games on TBS are probably ok with the drop off in ratings. It likely fits their broader strategy of TBS emerging as a place for quality sporting events to live. However, the NCAA needs to make sure they are not hurting their brand. For Americans over the age of 25, the Final Four is undoubtedly must-see television. March Madness is an American holiday on par with Thanksgiving. This used to be true of the World Series, now the average baseball fan is 53 years old. That is not a lucrative advertising market, and is further compounded by a decrease in interest of children to play baseball. The NCAA has enough problems on their plate, they don’t need to further complicate matters by ostracizing younger generations by airing the Final Four on a network none of them subscribe to.

Specialize

Digital marketing is often talked about in general terms. I hear young people describe their career goals as wanting to become a “digital marketer”. They have identified a growing field to join, which is good, but this is far too general. What do you see yourself doing, I will ask? On a given day, in a given moment? Are you pushing out an email? Are you sending a tweet? Analyzing web traffic? Designing a mobile app?

The thing about digital marketing is, everyone gets it at about 10,000 feet. However, when you start to zoom in, it can be difficult to get everything at 1,000 feet. It is nearly impossible to get everything, or even more than two or three things at 100 feet. An optimization expert probably can’t design an effective email campaign. A social media strategist would probably struggle to build actionable segments in a database. Each of these things requires a different skill set, and requires that successful individuals spend a lot of time developing their expertise. It simply isn’t reasonable for someone to be an expert in all areas of digital marketing.

Depending on your level of experience, you may not need to have a specialized skill set just yet. However, I have found that it is beneficial to have a specialized area of interest that you can speak to intelligently. There are plenty of areas worth specializing in that don’t require many extra years of advanced education. You can specialize in a function (email or analytics) or specialize in a specific tool (Google Analytics or Adobe Campaign). The specialization doesn’t necessarily require a certification (but those help). It is important that you quickly acquire relevant experience that you can speak to. What’s the best way to get this experience? See above comment about certifications.

I fall into the category of a generalist. If I’m trying to sound important, I’ll call myself a Digital Strategist.  If I could do it all over again, I’d probably have at least one specialty that I could fall back on. While I have managed to succeed as a generalist, certain doors within the consulting world have remained closed to me.  Being a generalist requires you to be develop a reputation for having “softer” skills, such as problem solving, industry expertise, quantitative skills, business acumen…and it helps if you can bundle more than one of these. It does offer some flexibility – I don’t have to worry about a tool or technology falling out of favor. But I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been asked if I have experience with email, asset management, analytics, or lead tracking tools. This specialized experience would have opened doors for me, leading to even more valuable experience.