8 for 8: Your strategy is showing (and that’s not a good thing) 

Someone influential once said to me, “David, research is your ‘x’ factor.” I took this to heart and never looked back. From that moment forward I would use information — mostly the ability to find uncommon primary and secondary research — to differentiate myself from the crowd. However, later in life a more seasoned colleague helped me better understand the true nature of my talents.  

I was part of a transition team onboarding a new client to the agency. The client’s business required a new brand positioning to reinforce their market leadership and define the future of their rapidly-changing industry. The team and I worked days and nights conducting interviews, riffling through analyst reports, and unearthing new customer insights. After several weeks, I presented our research to the broader creative and account leadership teams. 

At the time, another client had recently exposed me to a complex methodology developed by a well-known management consulting firm. I used this framework to build the case for the new work. After nearly 45 slides, I noticed that my colleagues from the research team were the only people still engaged. In the same moment, one of the most senior members of the team stopped to comment, “David, I’m going to share something with you that I used to say to copywriters in my days as a creative director–your strategy is showing, and that’s not a good thing.” 

While I cannot remember exactly how the meeting ended, I do remember feeling deflated amid fatigue and exhaustion from several long days of research and presentation prep. Fortunately, one of my good friends and colleagues encouraged me to revisit my work. We both shared a deep commitment to the client’s business and the trust they had bestowed upon us to help guide them into the future. 

As a former public relations guy, I was used to rejection; pitching national media will do that to a person. However, I also knew how to find resilience. 

Later that day, we visited the office of that same senior team member. I pitched him without props or PowerPoint. As I narrated the proposed approach, he sat up and his eyes lit up. A few moments later, the three of us barreled down the elevator with only a legal pad in hand. 

We sat outside as they smoked cigarettes and asked me to recast some of the research in a more simple way. Within an hour, we nailed the basis for the new positioning work on a single sheet of paper. By the end of the night we distilled 45 pages into a simple six-slide setup. 

The client meeting was scheduled for two hours. We presented in less than 15 minutes, yet the meeting lasted almost three hours. With just a few slides and some brief commentary — both scripted and improvised — we delivered on the mark. 

One of my favorite Albert Einstein quotes reads, “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” My strength — a passion for deep and differentiated research — had become my weakness. I had buried the lede. 

Thankfully, two seasoned colleagues helped this Millennial find clarity. As a result, we instilled confidence in both our client and creative teams. They taught me that strategy doesn’t win by being the most rational argument. The best strategies win because they make people feel something good. 

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