For the past 11 years, Robin Weintraub has run her own successful strategic consulting practice, catering to Fortune 2000, mid-size and start-up companies. She has 20 years of client, agency and consulting experience, including Prodigy, HBO, Bronner (now Digitas), Goodman&Company and G2, where she started their strategic planning department.
She caused a stir earlier this year when she sent an email titled “Want to Visit Costa Rica in Exchange for Marketing / PR Services?” Robin is always doing something surprising, fascinating and enviable! In this case, she was helping a boutique ecolodge develop its marketing channel strategy.
JS: Let’s start with your definition of a strategist and what deliverables they’re responsible for.
RW: It depends on the context. Planning at an ad agency is different from planning you do as a strategist in a consulting firm or corporate environment. In the advertising context, you’re thinking about how to develop marketing communications which will connect with consumers. Advertising planners focus on primary research and consumer insights.
I think a strategic consultant must have a more rigorous view. You need to step away from tactics and think about what will be best for business in the broader context. For example: What’s the framework for going to market? Where does the brand fit? Who are the target customers? What’s the buying process? Who participates in the sales process, and what are their information needs? Are there partnership opportunities? Etc.
The two main contributions of a strategist are to identify the business objectives and define the roadmap for achieving them. Deliverables may include: Go-to-market strategy, acquisition or CRM strategy, segmentation, customer experience maps, customer insights, competitive analysis, value proposition, messaging, etc.
JS: What sort of business challenges are you commonly asked to solve?
RW: Usually there’s never a lack of ideas, but there’s always a lack of resources. So companies constantly struggle with prioritization and alignment of resources, e.g. Of these 30 things, what are the 10 that are most critical? I’m asked to come up with the criteria for evaluating whether something is priority. Often this leads to decisions and investments that drive business over the next 1-2 years. So, beyond the short-term goal of making numbers, I’m providing recommendations on how to move the business forward.
JS: What are the critical educational and professional inputs for developing strong strategic planning skills? What advice would you give to people interested in the discipline?
RW: There are two excellent entry points:
- Competitive Analyst, which requires you to accumulate and synthesize lots of disparate information inputs to come up with a POV. It teaches you how to draw conclusions in an imperfect world, because you need to 1) find information, 2) reconcile conflicting data, and 3) determine how you deal with knowledge gaps. The real skill set of an analyst is in the ability to create insights from information, which allows you to make recommendations that are not obvious. It’s a skill that takes years to hone, and benefits from lots of good mentors.
- Researcher, which teaches you what the right questions are to ask, and how to interpret results. As a planner, I’ll hire researchers to help me craft the screener, discussion guide and survey instruments. I rely on them to come up with the tactical construction and format, to ensure that questions are not asked in leading way, and will yield the data we’re looking for.
JS: When you hire strategic planners, what qualities do you look for?
RW: I have really clear criteria when I interviews strategic planners. I want to hire smart, engaging people who are good collaborators.
1. Intellectual curiosity. I look for people that are always asking why, who don’t take things at face value. They’re inquisitive: What if you looked at it this way? They think about opportunities and possibilities, not limitations.
2. Ability to recognize trends. It’s not enough to point out data. Good planners can weave together information from many different places and come up with big ideas.
3. Creative thinkers. Marketing especially calls for planners that are both creative and analytical. Often they’re working with incomplete info, and need the creative ability to fill in gaps. They have to be comfortable with amorphous constructs. You can’t just give data back. You have to solve the business challenge.
4. Interesting lives and hobbies. They approach life in inquisitive way. They tend to grab life and grab business the same way – by asking What’s the potential?
5. Articulate communicators. Excellent writing and presentation skills. You have to be able to write something that’s bullet-proof. You must be able to coherently make your point. You don’t want your audience to have to work. There are times when I spend an hour trying to get a sentence right. You must be precise with language and provide support points.
6. Package ideas in visually compelling format. Gone are the days where you can have pages and pages of text. You have to be able to present info in a graphical format, so that a simple visual conveys the idea.
7. Fast thinkers. Planners are constantly asked for their POV, often before they’re able to form their thoughts. You need to think on your feet; otherwise you’ll lose the confidence of your peers and employers very quickly.
8. Overnight experts. When I was working at a direct marketing firm, one of my most successful hires knew nothing about direct marketing. I told her she needed to become an expert in direct marketing to get the job, and she came back in a couple weeks and nailed the interview. In her case, it wasn’t about the skills, but the ability to learn. Planners have to become experts in subjects they know nothing about, and learn new things with excitement.
JS: What are some of the early influences and experiences have been invaluable to your development as a strategist?
RW: Honestly, I’ve bootstrapped most of career. I look for varied experiences. Each job I’ve taken on has been a huge challenge.
At HBO, my boss had very clear way of doing competitive analysis, so I learned how to reconcile conflicting info. I was asked to write and make a lot of presentations for senior executives, and as a result I ended up in the boardroom a lot. Here I was presenting ideas to some of the biggest cable operators in the country! That was some of the best training ground.
Prodigy was incredibly entrepreneurial environment. A small team of us were charged with turning the company around and taking it public. And we did it very successfully.
I cherry-picked my peer group in each situation. My goal was always to surround myself with smart people, who I could learn something from. I’ve learned a lot from my peers and from my clients. When you collaborate with best-of-breed people, you learn good stuff and you advance your own skills. The key is to set the bar very high wherever you are.