This is a guest blog post by IMC 638 instructor, Mike Fulton.
Ideas are the lifeblood of our business.
I learned in my first year at an emerging Washington, D.C. public and government relations shop that ideas generated from credible, insightful information and translated into creative, measureable strategy separated the pretenders from the ladder climbers. That is still the case!
I was fortunate 25 years ago when I made the transition from Capitol Hill public servant to communications and lobbying. My first boss, Dan McGinn, president of what was then Ryan-McGinn, Inc. in Arlington, VA — set the tone at our firm and was masterful at conceptualizing tangible, strategic tactics to advance our clients’ diverse priorities. I wanted not only to be like him, but also to continually impress him with my ideas for our clients and new business pursuits.
One day our hard-working chief handed out T-shirts at an energizing company retreat with the words “The Idea Factory” emblazoned on the front. Below the title was a graphic featuring a large golden light bulb being pulled out of a factory by many smaller light bulbs, excited by their collaboration. Our company logo was featured on the large light bulb.
Thank goodness, in all of those years and several agencies later, I continue to strive to offer my clients and new business prospects the “big idea” that will help catapult their organizations forward. Every consultant – from the CEO to junior account executives – should be constantly focused on connecting the dots for their clients and generating ideas that inspire, persuade and build lasting relationships.
Key Tenets of Generating and Sharing Ideas
- Know your client, their people, culture and industry as well as or better than they do themselves.
- Follow multiple sources that impact their industry and business, particularly in the areas of emphasis of your policy, media, events, marketing, advertising or fundraising scope of work.
- Meet with or talk to experts and key influencers in your clients’ field(s).
- Visit the clients’ offices, business locations and meet with as many people as you possibly can.
- Listen more initially and resist the urge to offer off-the-cuff feedback on client issues. Clients love when consultants listen well and act when they are informed and certain. Do not take copious notes when handling crisis scenarios; your notes may not initially be protected by attorney-client privilege.
- Do not always wait for regularly scheduled client meetings or conference calls to share “breaking information” that could assist them or change current strategy.
- Always be thinking of other services or products in which you could interest your clients. Do not wait until contracts are completed to pitch your ideas or share meaningful information.
- Offer context on your information and ideas as well as the timeline, responsibilities and estimated costs required. Stress win-win partnerships and resource sharing.
- Try to anticipate how your ideas or information will be received by the client and be prepared to leap into action (more research and/or actual implementation).
- Make proactive information gathering and idea generation a part of your personal and corporate culture.
Scenarios when the “big idea,” strategic thinking or research made a difference
When the pressure was on: A global corporate client with multiple, complex products and solutions needed it to be boiled down to a simple every-day concept that anyone could understand. A brainstorming session on a federal holiday led to the winning theme, which landed our agency a $7 million annual account.
When extra time was spent researching contents of a report: A $10 million project was identified in one of the 13 federal appropriations bills. We had a client that wanted a similar project and had a need for a PET scanning center, so we pitched it with a key Senator who made it happen.
When a tactic revealed more than we were counting on: A national survey was conducted as a means for offering a transportation center client “news” to announce at an upcoming event, and responses to some of the other questions posed convinced the client to broaden its membership and goals.
When listening paid dividends: We pitched a statewide community college system for a comprehensive marketing campaign and, because we listened carefully, we heard the chancellor begging for help on a smaller but more important communications and fundraising priority. Doing a great job on that project got us closer to winning the statewide campaign.
When partnerships were forged: Leveraging a Congressionally-authorized Veterans History Project and bringing in college journalism and oral history students to assist, we created an award-winning “Take a Veteran to School Day” campaign for the cable industry that we also replicated in another state. Partnerships can amplify a campaign, and building on existing successful programs can build instant credibility.
Following these key principles and adding your brand value to them may help you retain some clients beyond the original contract, gain repeat business from decision-makers, and maintain trusted relationships for decades. I continue to
work with some people I first met while working in Congress three decades ago.
I can truly say that my first job after Capitol Hill was working at the IDEA FACTORY, and I am glad I did!
C. Michael Fulton is director of public affairs and advocacy for the Washington, D.C. office of the Asher Agency. Mike teaches public affairs in the WVU Reed College of Media’s Integrated Marketing Communications program. He is active in both the Association of Government Relations Professionals and Public Relations Society of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, LinkedIn or @hillrat1156.