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Dear 1999 Me: Stopping to Think Is Never the Wrong Move!

– Article by Hugh Scholey, Managing Director of Big Red Oak


Clients are always asking for our advice at Big Red Oak. It’s a good thing, since we tell them we’re experts who understand communications and marketing.

The day a client stops seeking advice is a terrible one, because it means your thoughts and ideas aren’t valued. I’ve been there, early in my career; and it’s an awful feeling to realize you aren’t trusted.

There are thousands of reasons a client stops trusting. I’ve worked in marketing communications consulting for more than 20 years, and I’ve seen agency-client breakups occur in every way imaginable. I’ve been fired by clients and I’ve fired clients. Not often, but it happens.

I wish someone had told me one important truth back in my younger days that could have prevented some of my breakups:  As a consultant, it’s okay to change your mind. In fact, it’s more than okay. I’d argue you’re obliged to change your mind and advice as a situation changes.

It happened just this week. I was in a kickoff call with global executives and team members from a client, explaining a strategy and plan, when important new information was provided. I’m quick on my feet in meetings but processing and planning still takes time, so I asked for a moment to think. Silence ensued. I used to fear silence in a meeting, but don’t anymore.

After a minute I told the group we needed to change course – the strategy, the plan, and the tactics. What had been prepared and thought-out was no longer the best way to accomplish our client’s goals.

Then I did one of the other most important things anyone can do, and explained my thinking. I’m sure my co-workers are sick of hearing the expression “connect the dots” from me because I use it every day in planning. If you are confident in your thinking and advice, you should know all your key strategic points. More than that, you should be able to articulate how those points relate to and influence one another.

When this new information was presented in the meeting, it changed key points; and those points didn’t relate or influence one another in a way that aligned to the plan I’d prepared. So I explained to the client how the dots would have connected in the original plan, and then I explained why, given the new information, the dots didn’t connect as well as they should.

The original strategy wasn’t wrong, but the information it was built on was now wrong.

Here’s the truth: a younger, less experienced me would have been afraid to halt a meeting and change my mind in front of the client. Honestly, I’m not sure I’d have even realized all the implications of the new information in the moment. Even if I did, I may have proceeded with the meeting and initial proposed strategy, and worried about the new information later. And if I had handled the situation that way, it would have been a disservice and a reason for a client to lose trust.

Clients need advisors who will always put their best interests first. If it means changing your mind in front of global executives, so be it. In this week’s situation, the client was appreciative of the awareness and new thinking in real time, and the fact that it was explained in a candid manner.

Stopping to think isn’t a weakness. Nor is explaining your thinking. It’s vital that clients know they can trust us, especially when situations change rapidly or plans aren’t going as expected.