Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Do Startups Need Strategists?

Account Planning Group Event Recap


The latest Account Planning Group of Canada event, “Building the Startup Brand – What are the Implications for Strategists?”, left everyone feeling a little needy.

Tension rippled through the room. At the front, our panel of driven startup veterans, screaming for what they truly needed (and DIDN’T need) from agency strategists; in the audience, planners and thinkers bred from the traditional world of advertising and marketing, needing insight into how they could offer value (if any) to the trendy, non-traditional world of startups.

Is it possible, asked APG Event Lead Matt Foulk, for these two very different groups, each with seemingly opposing goals, processes, and approaches, to find a mutual understanding, and even – gasp! – a business understanding?

I needed to know. We needed to know.

Luckily our moderator, angel investor Bill Mohri, helped tease the insights out of Freshbooks CEO Mike McDerment, Hubba CMO Danielle Brown, Freelance Startup CMO Rahul Raj, and Vox Pop Labs COO Andrew Peek.

Here’s what we learned:

The Challenges

Startups operate at light-speed.

Unlike traditional clients who’ve been in business for years and plan their marketing calendars out on a quarterly or campaign basis, startups work at light-speed, focused on solving daily problems, developing their business in short sprints, and constantly changing priorities based on ongoing learning. They can’t wait for a strategist and their agency team to get their head around a client brief and work through the problem in stages – they need a point-of-view on a particular business problem, and they need it now.

Startups pay their partners differently.

This was a dead horse that was frequently beat over the course of the night: startups can’t pay for agency strategists according to traditional, retainer-based models. Because financing and money is always top of mind, and often planned as future revenue, paying directly for strategic services isn’t very palatable. Instead, startups want partners who are willing to be paid based on results, in equity, or at reduced rates in order to build a relationship with a future winner.

Startups have different priorities.

Funded by investors and with a limited runway to build a viable business model and deliver results, startups prioritize direct means of incremental business growth. Revenue supersedes all, and positioning may simply be “too far ahead” for a business that’s still trying to find its market, as Andrew Peek explained. And because marketing, strategic planning, and long-term brand positioning often don’t deliver the direct kind of growth and traction that a sales team or business model shift can, it’s often the last thing on a startup’s mind.

The Opportunities

Strategists can become more agile.

In startup terms, agency strategists can add value by becoming more “agile”, flexible in how they work with clients and how they expect to be paid. Agile planning means being able to quickly parachute into a startup when the need is there, work with them to solve their immediate problem, and then get out. No client briefs, just problem solving. And for payment, it means a more flexible freelance-like structure, being willing to get paid only if your work drives results, or making an investment by accepting reduced rates or payment in equity.

(In fact, YOU can learn to be more agile at the APG’s upcoming Agile Planning course! Details here.)

Strategists can focus on driving business growth.

Growth is what startups need, so this is what strategists should focus on delivering. This requires a shift in mindset from purely brand-driven ideals to making strategic conversion their priority: examining the business, market, consumer, and competition and finding immediate ways for the startup to grow. As Rahul Raj asked: “What’s the clearest, fastest path to business growth?” In truth, these kinds of strategists are already working with startups, they simply call themselves “Growth Hackers”. Is it time for the advent of Growth Strategists?

Strategists can bring clarity to the craziness.

Another opportunity to add value includes a key role that strategists already play: simplifying, distilling, and articulating business, marketing, and branding propositions. As many of the startups that night described, their focus on solving day-to-day problems and driving growth leaves them little time to actually agree on and articulate what their startup does. Danielle Brown described her realization that everyone at Hubba had a different opinion of what the startup did! Strategists can be that outside and objective source of clarity.

So, DO startups need strategists?

Yes, but not in the same way traditional clients do. By becoming more agile, focusing on driving business growth, and bringing clarity to the craziness, strategists can indeed add value to startups.

And with that, everyone took a collective breath.

Until the next APG event!

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