Our 7 Biggest Mistakes
From risk not taken to strategic decisions, Jeff and Jason go back-and-forth sharing their biggest career and marketing mistakes.
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Jason Mlicki: So Jeff, today we’ve agreed to talk about, we’re going to call it our 10 biggest mistakes, but I don’t know if it will end up being 10 or not. So this may end up getting edited and it will sound differently in the final publication. And my only caveat is you can’t count… You accepting my LinkedIn invitation as your first mistake.
Jeff McKay: What about doing a podcast with you?
Jason Mlicki: Well, see, I was thinking the LinkedIn invitation is really what led you to this moment of doing this podcast. So the reality is, is that the moment you accepted the connection was really when everything went downhill for you. Life-changing moment, right?
Jeff McKay: Listeners, be careful what invitations you accept.
Jason Mlicki: We bound this very broadly purposely, meaning that you asked me when we set this up, and you said, these are marketing mistakes. We already did the brand mistakes one that you talked about. And I said, no, no, no. I think these are just your 10 biggest business mistakes. So they can be broad, they can be narrow, they can be anything you look back on and think, boy, had I known that, I would’ve done that differently, or, boy, I sure learned a lot from that experience, and I just thought I’d be willing to share it.
I don’t know, do you want to go first? You want me to go first? There’s really no apparent order to anything put on here, and I imagine you’re the same. I mean, it’s a little bit all over the place. I think there’s things in here that listeners probably can relate to and have found themselves doing similar things at times.
Jeff McKay: I think you should go first.
Jason Mlicki: Okay. And full disclosure, we haven’t shared any of these, so I have no idea what’s on your list, and you have no idea what’s on my list, at least I would imagine.
So my first one I’m going to say is interesting. I’ve called it hiring a process consultant in lieu of a content consultant. And what I mean by that in the world of consulting firms is that there’s process consultants, consultants that have a very clear process and they take that to firms of all types with limited, maybe limited understanding or knowledge of that industry or that business. And then there’s consultants that are subject matter consultants that have deep categorical expertise, deep industry expertise, deep, sector expertise and they bring that to bear. I have hired both types of those consultants for our agency over the years to help us with different things. And I can say looking back that I always felt like I overpaid for the process consultants, I was paying them a premium to learn about our business. And the best return I ever got on any of those engagements was maybe 2X. And every content consultant I ever hired, the subject matter experts were less expensive and got much greater returns. So we got returns in the ballpark of 25X from those types of engagements. So-
Jeff McKay: Give me an example of a content. I want to make sure I understand what you’re saying. You’re saying that they specialize in your problem or your industry?
Jason Mlicki: Yes, yes. So most content consultants are vertically oriented. Right. So they’re subject matter experts, you’re a content consultant as am I really, I mean we’re subject matter experts on the area of professional services. And that’s the area in which we operate fairly narrowly and our expertise can be brought to bear fairly quickly because of that. Whereas a process consultant has a very known structured process that they use to engage clients, but they work very horizontally and they don’t really have any in-depth knowledge about any one client in terms of their market dynamics particularly. That makes sense?
Jeff McKay: That makes sense. And at least one of us is a content expert.
Jason Mlicki: Say that again?
Jeff McKay: You said both of us were content experts. I was just correcting you.
Jason Mlicki: Oh, I didn’t mean to, I didn’t mean to. Yeah, I think that would be rude. So that’s my first mistake that I look back on. And in fact, over the years, I want to say I hired probably two or three different process consultants. All of them were disappointments. And one of them I hired at the core of the recession and it was a very expensive engagement for us and I do look back and think, boy, had I made the same hire with a subject matter consultant, I would’ve made a smaller investment and I would’ve gotten way further faster then I got on that first deal. So for me, I would be highly unlikely to ever hire a process consultant again. That’s my mistake number one. What’s your mistake? What’s your first?
Jeff McKay: Well, I’m going to jump around my list because I have one somewhat related to what you just threw out. I did not start my career in professional services. I grew up in the auto parts business because it was a family business. After school I got into sales, selling technology and then from there I got into operations. And it wasn’t until probably 10 years after working that I joined a professional services firm and it was fascinating. It was all new and I love to learn, but one of the biggest mistakes that I learned later in my career is that I did not go deep enough into understanding the business of the firm I was at. I had a high level understanding or I went deep only in a couple of areas that may have interested me. So for example, at Andersen, I definitely went deep on the technology consulting side, somewhat on audit and didn’t go very deep on tax at all.
At Towers Perrin. I loved going deep and understanding the human capital side of people strategy, and leadership and all of that, was not really interested in the actuarial side. And after a while I started to realize that each one of those businesses have very unique models and challenges and the only way you’re really going to add strategic impact is to go deep in understanding those. And that’s a heavy lift and it takes time, but it’s just absolutely necessary because the consultants, the actuaries, the accountants will not respect your opinion unless you understand their business at least as well as as they do. You may not know tax regulations at the same level or have a CPA or something like that, but you have to put some serious effort into that. And I didn’t do that soon enough and I would never do that again. So it kind of reinforces what you were talking around content.
Jason Mlicki: I guess the takeaway of that and that learning for you and for people that are listening is if you’re younger in your career, go deep fast because you’ll regret that you didn’t. That kind of is the gist?
Jeff McKay: Yes. And you want to go deep fast because if you really want to add value to your firm, you need to have a deep understanding of how it works and how it makes money. And that may be true even if you’re a practice leader or partner, get out of your line of business and go understand the dynamics of someone else’s business. You may have some kind of annuity relationship because you’re the auditor for years. That’s a much different relationship than a heavily based project-focused business that has a completely different buyer. So I think it benefits anyone who takes the time to understand the entire business.
Jason Mlicki: I agree. I will give you another one of mine. This is sort of, I guess I’ll call it a macro mistake. It’s a mistake that I fumble into all the time without knowing it and I don’t know if I’ve really fully learned my lesson or not, but I’m going to hope I do. I’ve called it sliding to extremes. And what I mean by that is I look back on my career as an agency leader and I feel like I’ve gone from one extreme to another very quickly, many times and probably gave the organization a little bit of whiplash in the process. And I probably would’ve been better off finding some middle ground and I’ll give some examples.
For years we had what I would call a pure relational outbound business development model. That’s how we acquired new clients, right? And we had a biz dev lead and his or her job was to really network and build relationships at a local level, work in the community and, look for large companies that were looking for agency partners. And, we went quickly and aggressively to a pure content-driven inbound model.
So within probably six months we shed all outbound activities and went straight up to a content-based, let clients come to us model too much too soon and I look back and think where the middle ground of that is really where you need to be. I would say in, and this kind of in the vein of what we talked about a few episodes ago is in that same window we went from being a pure creative agency that was really strong on the design side, really strongly on the creative side, to one that became much more process-oriented, much more MarTech-driven, much more digital. It needed to happen, but we probably went too far. So we ended up going from one extreme to the other, should have been somewhere in the middle.
And I have other kinds of things along those lines that all kind of roll together. But just I have this tendency to, when I see something that I think is sort of the future, so this is what we need to be. I take it to the extreme and I get really aggressive with it. I would have been much better if I said, well, what’s the healthy middle here? What’s the third path? And something that I don’t always do as well as I would like to. I guess in hindsight. So that’s my mistake. Number two, it’s sort of a macro mistake.
Jeff McKay: And how do you manage that today? Are you just more self aware of that tendency or do you say to your teams, hey, if you see me doing this, hit me upside the head and let’s talk about it
Jason Mlicki: More the former, I would say, I mean it’s the, this self-awareness is relatively new in a way. I mean because I’m sort of reflecting on those things now, but yeah, it’s more the former being self aware of it and saying, well wait a minute. Okay, that shiny object over there sounds great, but is that really the right one? And do we want to go there or not? Does that fit with our culture? Does that fit with our business? Does that fit with the value proposition we have for the market and where is the best opportunity for us? And we’ll get to them a little, what are my mistakes later. But I’m a pretty methodical type of person in those ways and that can also be a hindrance. So you have to be, I have to be self-aware of both of those things simultaneously, I guess.
Jeff McKay: That’s a good one.
Jason Mlicki: All right, throw me another. Let’s get into this. Keep them coming. Keep them coming.
Jeff McKay: Oh gosh. I wish I had learned this one earlier in my career, particularly as I started climbing up the management ranks and had more executive decision-making responsibility. And the mistake is trying to control complex systems. Professional services firms by their very nature, and we talked about this in the BS of PS podcast that we’ve talked about earlier, are unique as matrix organizations, geographically dispersed, very smart people in them working with very similar types of clients, complex and geographically diverse. You can’t control a system like that. There are like aircraft carriers, there’s so many moving parts in those things that no single person can really kind of manage the things that need to be managed to say control a brand or reputation or how we communicate with the market.
And I don’t know how much political capital and time I wasted trying to do that. In the end I just came to realize that intelligent people prefer to agree rather than obey. And my role in helping firms grow is very much about enablement. And we’ve talked a little bit about this before is you give people the tools they need and then once the tools leave your hands, it’s up to them and you have to trust them. And early in my career I think, well, this is the way it should be and I know best and it was just utter silliness. So that’s a big one.
Jason Mlicki: Well, I’m laughing only because as an agency, we’ve done a lot of brand work over the years. And if I reflect on the way we thought about branding 15 years ago and the work we were doing, and even the work the industry was doing, this is kind of picking on us. But I would say that most of the industry was in this same boat was there was so much time and energy put towards trying to control the brand. I mean it’s so much energy. We’ve talked about this before, building out the perfect messaging strategy or building out the perfect elevator pitch. If I hear one more elevator pitch, I’m going to throw up, I hate elevator pitches. Because they’re ridiculous. You have a writer craft this perfect message, then no one’s ever going to be able to use. And why would they? Why would they, like you said, a very smart, intelligent person, smart and intelligent, in an elevator are going to recite this thing verbatim? That’s not going to happen.
But the one thing I always remember, I used to laugh about this, I used to love to look at brand guidelines because I thought they were really interesting. I remember this one agency at one point came up with this, this model that was kind of interesting where a 70-page brand identity document that has guidelines for how to use the brand. And on every page they would describe the guideline. This is how you have to use it. And at the bottom they had this little slider and the slider was sort of on this continuum of control to flexibility, so this is really important or this is not important.
So I thought, oh that’s really creative. And I started thumbing through the guidelines document. And every single one of them was on the far right control side. I was like, well that doesn’t really help. So it was the perfect example of just how we’re trying to control things that we really can’t, I mean there’s things you have to control and you should and there’s things that you just have to just kind of go with the flow and say, oh well that’s not how I would’ve done it. But that’s okay. It didn’t hurt anything. We got the intent across. That was the goal.
Jeff McKay: I was just in a client meeting this week and we’re working on a go-to market playbook for this firm and one of the practice leaders, when we were going through some of the value proposition and positioning of the firm, I made sure that I said, you will probably never say this stuff verbatim, but it will inform how we communicate to the market. And the practice leader said, well wait a minute, why would we not use that exactly as it’s written? And I had to say, because we don’t want robots out there, clients can see that. And it’s so funny to, having started out that way, I would have loved for that practice leader to just say, got it. We’ll do it. And now I’m saying, no, no, no. Don’t do it. Just move in that general direction. So.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, it’s funny. My epiphany on that little thing actually came out of Obama, believe it or not, and the in the 2008 campaign, I thought he was masterful at kind of keeping this army of people that were out there telling his story, on message. Even though really, there’s no script right? There can’t be a script. How can there be? There’s hundreds of thousands of people out there doing grassroots building and I thought he did it so well. And that was the first I went, I started kind of rethinking our branding advice saying, no, no, no, no. This is not a script, guys. This is a directional thing. So one of the many things I would thank him for, but…
All right, so we have time for a few more. Like I said, we’re not going to get to 10 right now. We are at four, not going to get to 10 even though we said we framed it as 10. So my third one actually kind of goes at odds of what my second one was, which is that I look back and I wasn’t aggressive enough at many opportunities. So while I might’ve slid to the extreme philosophically, I don’t think I was aggressive enough at pursuing the opportunity that I saw in the marketplace, in doing more than I did. And examples I’ll give on that are just, and you’ll laugh at this because we did the episode on marketing technology and I kind of joked how I was in the trough of disillusionment there. I look back and think, boy, I really wish I would’ve committed and invested earlier in MarTech and been more heavily invested in it.
We were into Salesforce in 2008. We were into HubSpot by 2009 I mean, we should have invested very aggressively in those technologies in hindsight. And I kind of knew it, but I just, I can’t, I’ll be honest, I don’t think I had the risk tolerance to do it, to really invest in the people, invest in the infrastructure that we needed to really go get it. And so I look back and wish that when I saw those opportunities and I knew that they were right in front of me, that I would have had the courage to be more aggressive than I was.
Jeff McKay: I mean, that is so human. How many times have people on their death beds when asked, what’s their biggest regret? They never seem to regret the things that they did. They regret the risks not taken because they come to appreciate that even if you risk and fail, you can recover and get up and get going again. And that applies to business opportunities. It applies to career opportunities, to personal relationships. We always think, oh gosh, what if I fail or what if I leave or do something like that. You’re going to be okay. Just get the mindset, you’re going to be okay. Take the risk, take the risk. Yeah, that’s a good one.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah. And I have a list of those, like I’m sure everyone does and I only shared a couple, but there’s more in that list where my, I’ll use the word prudence. You won’t like the way I use it, but I was just overly prudent. I mean I was overly cautious about an opportunity that I saw and it was very clear to me. But for whatever reason I just couldn’t wrap my head around how to go get it or take the risk to do it. So that’s a big one for me. All right. We’ve got time for one more. So this will be, we’ll have a total of six. So this is your third and final. So this better be a good one. I mean this better be a really, really good one. And it can’t be doing this podcast because we already said that doesn’t count.
Jeff McKay: Not being able to identify Gandhi moments.
Jason Mlicki: That’s a pretty big one, right?
Jeff McKay: Yeah, yeah. Gandhi moments. This is an expression that the CMO at Arthur Andersen taught me. He was an old salty dog partner, great guy. Wicked smart. When my young idealistic self would approach him and say, hey, we’ve got to do it this way, or this is the way, getting back to controlling complex systems. He shared that these are Gandhi moments and I’m like, what’s a Gandhi moment? He goes, Jeff, it’s important and you’re right, we should do that, but I’m not willing to die for it. In other words, he was not going to starve himself, so to speak, like Gandhi over one of these situations or idealistic perspectives that I had.
And I loved the way he articulated that and it’s, you need to pick your fights wisely. And early on in my career I just think I picked too many wrong fights either because I was idealistic or because I wanted to be in control or I was insecure or whatever the case may be, but I’ve come to appreciate that the best leaders know how to pick good fights and when to fight and when not to fight. And like you just said on your last one, there’s a whole list of those that go underneath this. But I wish I had learned that lesson much earlier and didn’t make that mistake so often. So being able to identify the Gandhi moments.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah. It’s interesting because that’s almost the inverse of what I just said. It’s looking back at the risk not taken. The choices not pursued. And this is looking back at the moments where you say, boy was that worth the political capital I spent to try to do that? Almost the risk that I did take that I regret that I took, well that leaves us in a conundrum. Right? We look back and on our mistakes and we say, boy, we have mistakes that are ones where we didn’t do the things, we’d regretted we didn’t take the risks. And then we have, we regret that we did, so. So it makes you realize how in a way that my notion of the sliding to extremes and that notion of the middle path is so critical that notion of, okay, there’s usually a third way and we just don’t always see it.
Jeff McKay: Yeah, and I would say an additional, and probably even more important aspect of that is that you’re going to make mistakes. It’s, and that may be in a positive way or in the negative way. It may be taking a risk or not taking a risk, whatever the case may be. The whole point is, are you learning from the mistakes that you’ve made? Right? You talk about yours and you share them and as a result, your behavior, your approaches have changed. When people don’t identify their mistakes or they identify them, but they don’t learn or change anything. It’s when you run into problems. But in my experience, I might even add this to my list of mistakes, is not making enough mistakes, right? Of trying and failing and just going because I can get stuck in analysis paralysis. Should I do it? Should I not do it? Here are the benefits. Here are the weaknesses. Yeah, just go sometimes. I mean business life is just moving too quickly and sometimes you just got to go.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah. I honestly can’t think of wiser words to end on than that. So I’m going to wrap it. I am going to say thank you. I appreciate you being willing to be vulnerable with me in this moment and share the things that we got wrong, and I know I have more on my list. I know you do as well. So if this is well received, maybe we’ll come back to it another time, but other than that I’ll talk to you next week.
Jeff McKay: See you buddy.
Jason Mlicki: See you.