How to dig deep with your clients without going native.

Get this. A couple of months ago a client of ours came to us with an amazing idea. We were about half way through a super challenging (but super rewarding) strategic gig—helping them figure out what their customers actually wanted from them and how to do a better job delivering it. And as our recommendations started getting more and more traction, we’d found ourselves getting called into more and more meetings with bigger and bigger teams of people, facilitating deeper and deeper conversations about how different divisions could or should think, feel, and act differently.

Turns out, people across the org had been getting glimmerings of our discovery work, and they’d suddenly started clamoring for more. Everybody wanted to know what this shiny new thing was and how they could use it. They were hungry to understand how to apply new thinking to their everyday work. And they started booking meetings with us left and right. Where once we were the ones scrambling to get invited to exec staff sessions, now we were getting pulled into them back-to-back, usually at the last minute. Now we were the ones in demand. And there was too much demand to handle.

Then, one afternoon, while shooting the breeze with our client lead outside the CEOs conference room/office, the idea of embedding with them bubbled up, seemingly out of nowhere. What if we just rolled up our sleeves, hunkered down, and got busy in the trenches with them for the whole second half of our engagement? Interesting, we thought. A little terrifying. But kinda cool. We could be insiders with an outsider perspective—seeing our client’s world (with all of its internal politics and cultural intricacies) more intimately. Warts and all.

Sure, we said. How’s about office hours two days a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays from 12:00 to 5:00? And cocktails, of course, on an as-needed basis. People could book time with us to talk about anything—their feelings, new product ideas, new approaches to content marketing, new ways of showing up in the digital space, you name it. All we had to do was keep our wits about us, get flexible about solving problems in real time, and stay focused on the task at hand—delivering real value to the (occasionally aggrieved) customers we’d met way back during our discovery phase.

In the end, it was a great experience. One we (and they) came away seeing the power (and potential pitfalls) of. And in the course of thinking though how to permanently integrate it into our practice, we’ve jotted down a few notes about what went right, and how we (or our fellow agency types) can do it better in the future.

This bit’s critical. When we first started showing up at HQ, it was catch-as-catch-can for space to spread out. We were having meetings in the cafe, snagging spaces next to the ping pong tables, co-opting whiteboards outside the product team’s space—living like itinerant creatives, basically. So we asked around and got one of the project managers on the brand team to books us our very own set of conference rooms every Tues and Thurs. All we had to do is show up on time (if you didn’t sign in by noon, you lost the room for the rest of the day) and set up shop. And then people could book time and just swing by knowing we’d be there, like Lucy at her advice stand.

The Doctor is IN

It took us way, way too long to notice that all of our initial meetings were getting booked for an hour each, back-to-back. Which was cool for big sessions with larger teams, but totally useless for more focused working meetings with smaller teams. If there’d been a way to put some sort of governor on our Google calendar and only allow people to book in 15 minute increments, we’d have done it. In the end, we tried to get folks in the habit of trying to stick to 30 mins max. And it kinda worked. Looking back, being more strict about time, being more disciplined about agendas, and running things more methodically is something that would’ve been immensely valuable. Duh.

This was a tough one. Having each been on the client side before, we knew the comfort and camaraderie that the corporate environment can foster when things are really humming. And it was cool, coming from the agency side, to have folks take us in as one of their own. Being known, feeling trusted, and not sticking out like a bunch of over-payed consultants has its benefits. You can speak truth to power. You can ask hard questions. You can confess to not knowing the answer right off the bat. You can be vulnerable, take big risks, and tap into the urgency of shared struggle. BUT, you can get too comfortable, too. It’s way too easy to get sucked into office politics—to get played by teams looking to one-up each other, to start slowing down to match your peers’ pace, and stop questioning why things that should be easy to fix are seemingly impossible to deal with. Important lesson: don’t go native. Do your best to blend in, but don’t get too comfortable. Keep some distance. And give you and your team some safe space to explore outside the confines of the client’s stomping grounds.

This is that truth to power bit—something we could always be better at. In this particular instance, we could’ve done a better job of wrangling one of the internal teams we’d been asked to adopt and direct. Long story short, the team was a bit in the weeds. And they’d been tasked with building one of the higher profile manifestations of the new brand strategy. Failure wasn’t an option. But the team wasn’t really set up for success. And suddenly it was on us to help them get it together. In retrospect, we realize now that we weren’t really the right people to make that happen. We didn’t have the authority or the will, really. We should’ve been clearer (with ourselves and with our clients) that we were there as advisors, and collaborators, not leaders. If they wanted us to manage the project and the team, we should have called it a separate engagement and embedded even more deeply. We should’ve demanded the authority necessary to properly rally the troops. Lesson learned: we got one tick too close. Office hours, done right, are all about guiding and advising. Nudging, not directing.

Easier than it sounds, right? But SO important. It’s very tempting to come in, suss out the task at hand, and jump into fix-it mode. Since we’re a small shop that’s used to making quick, decisive decisions, we needed to learn to cool our jets a bit and remember that we were there to spark a bunch of little transformations across a large, sometimes slow moving organization. And that kind of thing never happens overnight. It’s all baby steps. But at the same time, we wouldn’t have been doing our jobs properly if we weren’t helping people craft small but successful deliverables that demonstrate the new strategic vision in action. The takeaway: be patient, stay curious. Ask more questions, give fewer answers. Keep pushing, keep working it. But don’t take things over. Don’t get restless. Don’t get frustrated. Remember that the only way things are going to really, really land, is if everyone who’s part of the solution feels invested enough to take ownership — to feel like it was theirs to begin with.

This is sorta two-fold. One, keep your eyes on the bigger prize of bringing the new vision to life. Don’t get mired in the minutiae (like meetings to schedule meetings about project plans that will require further meetings to finalize) that can derail internal teams. Always remember to help people connect the next small action (the thing in front of them) to the larger goal. That’s what makes it work. And, two, don’t forget to stay in biz-dev mode between office hours. Embedding with a client for a serious chunk of time has a huge upside—for them especially. But it can have a downside too—for you if you’re not careful. You can, as we did on our first long-term embed, come out the other side without enough other work on the docket. Not that this is a surprise for anyone on the agency side. It’s always tough to stay in the now and look for what’s next. But it’s doubly important, the deeper you go with your clients, to always be closing. However rewarding it is to see the fruits of your (and your clients’) labor begin to mature, it’s super critical to step back and remember to keep a few irons in the fire, too.

So, bottom line: keep digging, keep your wits about you, stay flexible, and keep your focus on the task at hand: helping your clients build the muscle memory required to consistently rock their customers’ world.

Oh, and avoid the temptation of the snack bar. Two Kind bars and a snack size bag of Cheez-Its does not a lunch make.

Founder, Principal & Creative Director @sequitur