Twenty-two years ago in September of 2000, I formed MJ Lilly Associates to provide independent and highly objective strategic marketing and communications to my clients. It’s by far the longest job I’ve ever had, with lots of ups and a good share of downs.
So, as I celebrate my work anniversary, I’m stealing a page from my Associate, Jake Wengroff, who recently drafted an insightful LinkedIn post on his experience as an independent contractor for the past decade. In looking back over the years, what have I learned? Here are three "lessons" for anyone leading a marketing charge or starting a business:
There is no doubt that marketing has rapidly evolved over the last two+ decades. Depending upon who you ask, marketing is still defined as branding, packaging and advertising to build awareness and create an experience. But increasingly, particularly in B2B circles, it’s immediately equated with digital programs that focus on data and engagement strategies for lead-generation purposes. With the advent of new technologies, marketing has, and needed to, evolve. It now reflects the co-mingling of both art and science.
It's surprising, however, to see how often marketing efforts are developed without the most basic issues addressed. For example, I've seen digital lead-generation campaigns get underway without a clear articulation of the value proposition for the product and service offerings they're to promote. I've seen webpages and landing pages get developed without clearly identifying or understanding the target markets they're to reach. What's shocking is that these marketing mishaps occur at both small and large (more sophisticated) companies.
Regardless of marketing's evolution, it still starts with the fundamentals. From understanding your audience segments and developing resonant messaging to making sure your database is rich and segmented (this is a common marketing black hole), it's essential to focus on the basics. Otherwise, even the most creative and technologically amplified efforts are set up to fail.
Recently, I was chatting with a sage wealth management advisor (I mean you, Bruce Kridler) about the difference between satisfied and loyal clients. As he characterized it, a satisfied client is someone who is happy with the work you’ve done but a loyal client is someone who sees greater value and comes back for more. As I've reminisced about my business experiences, this conversation offered a light bulb moment for me.
There is no doubt that providing good products and meaningful service are the building blocks for success with clients. That's satisfaction. But loyalty is assured from delivering value a notch above. It’s about integrity beyond just the task. It’s about the trust that comes from putting your client's interests above your own. And it's about good old-fashioned relationship building that includes taking an authentic interest in both the work and the people you're working with. This really is the key to meaningful, enduring client relationships.
Over the last 22 years, there were various times when I took on projects outside of my primary focus. This ranged from activities not in my functional comfort zone to working with clients in industries where I had less knowledge than is my preferred norm.
Taking on these assignments was triggered by a variety of factors: I wanted to learn something new; I thought the client's purpose or cause was important; I wanted to help a friend; or frankly, I needed the work. Yet, from moment to moment, I’d question why I’d taken on some of these projects. Then, I’d remember that no work, no assignment is ever in vain.
Early in my career I worked for a New York State Senator and what I learned from those Albany legislative days was used to create a public affairs platform for a financial client years later. I worked with a non-profit on groundbreaking Alzheimer’s research and what I learned about FDA approvals turned out to be invaluable when working with a client looking to secure emergency authorization usage for COVID tests. In the early aughts, I helped a visionary crystalize a financial literacy effort only to recommend it for community banking programs post the 2008 financial crisis. Even helping a friend with a community-based Washington Heights business project translated into a NYC economic development opportunity.
The lesson: what we learn from even the most obscure situations can be used for other client opportunities down the road. We learn and we apply. It’s all good.
On that note, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a few clients and associates who have meant so much to me, both professionally and personally, over these last two decades. So, here’s a shout out, in alphabetical order to Robert Barber, Blake Darcy, Christine Friedlein, Bill Grau, Monica Greenwell, Rita Kardeman, David Langton, Keith Myers, Steve Prostano, Elisa Romm, Joan Spivak, Jake Wengroff and Jane Zennario.
Here’s to more years ahead and new clients and friends along the way. It will be interesting to see what marketing will look like another 10 years from now. Undoubtedly different, but I'm confident these lessons will stand the test of time.