Of History, and the Brand Consultants of Today part 2 of 2: the ideal Brand Consultant

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Of History, and the Brand Consultants of Today part 2 of 2: the ideal Brand Consultant

Hello again. A couple of weeks ago, in Part 1, I recounted the history of Corporate Branding, saying that it was relevant because today’s brand professionals are the result of a evo/revolution that started about three decades ago. Here in Part 2, I’ll complete the thoughts: who ‘does Branding today’, and who should be doing it?

It is very different from the past. Before the data-driven branding revolution, (corporate) branding people were a fairly homogeneous bunch – following a few masters who had a brilliant right brain co-existing with a solid left brain (which however didn’t need to be brought to bear that much), an uncommon intelligence, a combination of charisma and professional expertise & experience, a gift for getting Complex become Simple (not simplistic), an intimate, complete, genuine, non-arrogant, unshakable conviction in what they said (these people often walked in a final client presentation with a single recommendation, not ‘an option range’), the capacity to take clients on a dreamy journey, and an enviable ability to present & sell the solution — ‘nail jelly to the wall’, as the saying goes (which is actually much worse than that, considering that in our profession the nail and the hammer too, and sometimes the wall itself, have the consistency of jelly). We were all in awe of these individuals, and spent our days learning from and trying to emulate them.

As Branding and Brand and the world in which they live have become far more complex, today there are a few different types of brand professionals. No one is ‘better’ than the other, and all of them are worthy and necessary in a brand consulting firm – just different minds for different purposes. In this post, please read qualifiers such as ‘by and large’, most often’, etc. in between the lines as by necessity I’ll generalize.

Our industry today is composed of two kinds: those who talk about Branding and those who do the Branding work (and yes, in some infrequent cases the two can be the same person). I call the Talker a Brand Consultant, and the Doer a Brand Strategist (or, in industry parlance, ‘a client guy/gal’).

Within the Talkers, almost all left-brained, there’s two types – depending upon the connection they make between Business and Brand:

  • the Business Talker, business managers (from Business or Management Consulting and the like) who have a superficial understanding of ‘brand’ per se but figured a way to make or sell that connection; great people, and smart enough to do the promoting and the advocating while staying away from actually touching the work; in addition, they usually run the business of the firm, and rightly so; and
  • the Professional Talker, either evolved Corporate Identity or allied fields individuals (advertising, PR, Marketing Communications) or professionals and academics from relevant fields (Behavioral Sciences, Analytics, Consumer Behavior, Organizational Behavior, Psychology, etc.) who actually understand that connection; great people, client-trusted, very articulate, with relevantly valuable perspectives, many of them innovative thinkers with intriguing insights. But some of them at times exhibit the annoying penchant to believe that their Common Sense Thinking (in the form of well-delivered Platitudes) is Genius Expert Insight; clients, the press, and industry outsiders are generally impressed, while Doers just roll their eyes and think “yeah, tell me something I don’t already know”.

Their genuine passion for Branding and Brands ranges from a bit to a lot, and their convictions tend to be dictated/suggested/supported/denied by data and facts and documented trends. And as to the Platitudinal ones, they are unable to state anything that they can’t support with data, and change their opinions too easily upon clients’ pushback.

Within the Doers (whether in Strategy, Verbal ID, or Visual ID), almost all right-brained, there’s two types – depending upon how they balance the Creative vs the Meaning part of their work:

  • the Creative Doer, who does imaginative things because they are … greatly imaginative (then their experienced boss slices&dices their work to render it appropriate); purebreds, great people, if they accept to be guided – as often their work lacks business appropriateness; and
  • the Thinking Doer, who does imaginative things within the confines of what’s strategically needed; rare breed, unique people, and the ones who come up with the essence of the genius solution – but at times with the stubbornly annoying penchant to feel they are the sole Repository of Brilliance that mere mortals just don’t get.

Both have true and genuine passion for Branding and Brands, and their intimate convictions need to be ‘sold’ as they are not necessarily stem from data and may or may not be fully supported/denied by it.

My examination below relates to the Professional Talker and the Thinking Doer, leaving out the other two which are most certainly needed in a firm but not as it relates to this post’s purpose.

Both are indispensable today: without the knowledgeable presence and influence of the left-brained Talkers, who can strategically speak the clients’ language and enter into a relationship of business-based trust, most Doers would be unemployed. And without the brilliantly insightful work of the right-brained Doers, most Talkers would be unable to proofpoint what they say every day. Generally speaking, the two types are not fond of each other: the left-brained Talkers tend to feel that they know stuff, are ‘it’, paint their thing as The Answer, and that what the Doers do is not that difficult after all; and the right-brained Doers tend to think that they do all the work and that all the Talkers do is … talk, failing to realize that the Talkers may very well be the reason of their very own existence. I love and highly respect both kinds, and I’d just say … live happily together and respect one another, as one wouldn’t have a paycheck without the other.

The differences between left- and right-brained brand professionals should be far more recognized than they are – across the continuum, from business development to the extended client relationship. Talkers do it based on Facts Interpreted, while Doers do it based on Dreams Explained. Which perspective is the given prospect more inclined to listen to and connect with, according to who s/he is and thinks? In my opinion, characterial mismatch is one of the biggest reasons for a sales pitch won or lost: some prospects will listen to a Doer and wouldn’t give the time of day to a Talker, or vice versa. There are clients who demand and listen to Numbers, and clients who demand and listen to Ideas – and consulting firms generally pay little attention to the difference nor put a lot of time into finding out who the interlocutor is (beyond title and education & career history), most often letting the lead person be the most senior one they have or whomever is most available within their executive team. And the separation of (brand)church and (brand)state is apparent in and is proven by the vast majority of the proposed Client Team: a Director of Research & Analytics and a Director of Strategy in tight collaboration, plus a Director of Verbal Identity and a Creative Director in as tight a collaboration – accompanied by the promise that they constitute a fully ‘integrated’ team; clients see that all the disciplines are covered by dedicated specialists and don’t give a second thought to it.

Within this context, the work’s outcome gets its primary colors from either the senior executive in charge of the project and of the Project Team (with whichever background s/he has – today, typically left-brained), or by the collective mind of the strategy+creative team, or by the Verbal Identity professional who takes the data from the left-brains and puts it in inspiring words. If it’s the senior executive, this person will be the decision-maker, and so it very often becomes rank-down opinion; if it’s the team’s collective mind, as everyone will need to agree, there’s always a degree of compromise – maybe an intelligent and sensible one, but still a compromise; and if it’s the Verbal Identity professional, which is happening more and more in the past few years, it’s … hit and miss: conceptually it’s a fair idea – give the facts and the direction it suggests to people who can dreamily verbalize it – and I have a great deal of respect for them, but only a handful of them are Thinking Doers (Paola, Jason, Jonathan, Ed, that’s you), many are only creative writers, none of them is really a strategy expert, and all too often teams as well as clients fall in love with the inspired verbalizations and gloss over their strategic appropriateness and/or implications. And overall, the work’s key recommendations are (a limited number of) options – a ‘range’ typically. While it’s a logical approach (I myself had created a good and repeatable framework) that facilitates development, let’s recognize that it’s a convenient way for us not to stick our necks too far out and read the meeting room for cues about what the client would buy. We are so good at it: we present and rationalize options, present pros and cons, and then shepherd the intelligent discussions that follows, wherever they may lead, to a final decision. And, thankfully, oh so rarely we hear a client say: “thank you, very well examined; before I give you my opinion, and given that I pay you a lot of money, can you tell me which option is the best for me?”.

The interaction of left and right brains within a brand consulting firm, while it’s currently being managed, needs to be optimized – as while they can and do collaborate they can’t truly and intimately communicate. As the respected science writer Cal Zimmer states, “The pop psychology notion of a left brain and a right brain doesn’t capture their intimate working relationship. Today, neuroscientists know that the two sides of the brain collaborate to perform a broad variety of tasks and that the two hemispheres communicate through the Corpus Callosum – a wide, flat bundle of neural fibers that connects the left and right cerebral hemispheres and facilitates interhemispheric communication.”

If that’s true, then the ideal Brand Professional would be either …

– a person whose left and right brains work seamlessly, simultaneously, and at equal capacity; I do not believe this person can exist (sorry WhitneyV, I just don’t – and I’ve never met such a person); or

– a Corpus Callosum-ed professional animal that sits at the table between the left and right brains – “a great synthesizer” as Eric Wedemeyer has smartly commented on part 1 of this post: a person who understands facts as well as ideas, balancing and melding the two or choosing one vs the other according to the challenge and the type of client at hand; these persons do exist, but they are not given a formally-stated middle-of-the-table seat; or

– a real partnership between the two professionals heading their respective Leftbrain and Rightbrain teams, which hinges of course on each party’s full understanding and appreciation of the other’s world. But as that is not usually the case, these people end up agreeing (that is, as I said, compromise). Such true partnership is not easy to achieve, and in my career I’ve seen it so very rarely (and I myself didn’t find it possible more often than I’d like to admit). And even when this magical union occurs, often it collapses not because of the parties’ egos, as one might suspect, but under the weight of assuming final responsibility for the project’s success or failure.

As I see it, the Ideal Brand Professional – the Holy Grail of the brand consulting industry – should be a Corpus Callosum – a person …

  • respectful of data but not driven, governed, or impeded by it
  • respectful of and able to recognize the value of an idea, or of its kernel
  • able to sit in the middle of, and being respected by, a Director of Research & Analytics, a Director of Strategy, a Director of Verbal Identity, and a Creative Director
  • because of the three points above, and with the power of his/her officially stated function, able to optimally bridge the facts and the dreams
  • able to think holistically, without being shackled down by details
  • with a feel for human/consumer behavior and an understanding of how that can be molded, or as Edward Saenz in his response to Part 1 said “non-linear thinkers … observers of human behavior (who) consciously and unconsciously assimilate what drives people to do what they do.
  • with a creative and flexible mind
  • with an intimate appreciation of the function of Branding
  • with a full understanding of the factual workings of the implemented brand (that is, not just ‘the brand’ as shown in an executive recommendation PPT deck)

and all of this …

  • contextualized, on any given day, within the characteristics and dynamics of the given client’s business, company, industry, and decision-maker in the room.

Experience and Seniority? Important, but not critically so if it’s not there yet: let this person run the show, with a senior executive working behind him/her guiding and adjusting as needed.

These individuals exists, I’ve met some and recognized quite a promising few in my career. But growing them and getting them to perform would require a significant evolution of how they are identified and trained, of how the work is carried out, and of whom ultimately controls it.

My suggestion? The creation of CCCOs (Chief Corpus Callosum Officers) (naming experts, please help me come up with a better title) – who will then also have the function to grow that breed over time. THAT should be the next first-step evolution in how the work is done within our offices: the hiring process will be more focused, teams will work more harmoniously, the development process will improve, the solutions will be richer, and the resulting firm-wide mindset will be the basis for our profession in the future. (hmmm, “The Future of our Profession” – good subject for another post.)

Jeff – should we merge our two posts into the definitive Ideal Brand Professional description? We can then license it to every consulting firm and every recruiter at, say, $50 a pop – and finally spend our days playing golf, skiing, hiking, and writing. (oh wait, forgot, you’re already doing all that).