The Value of a Consultant–3 Lessons I Learned from Al Martin

“A consultant is a person who borrows your watch, tells you what time it is, pockets the watch, and sends you a bill for it.”

Many consultants are brilliant, others not. I have run a consulting business for the past 14 years and am proud of it. I have plenty of watches –two, which one more than I need. But truth be told, there was a time in my youth I too thought that consultants were bull shiters who did very little, “advised” a lot, charged a ton, and were people who couldn’t get a real job.

alThen I met Al Martin, the smartest guy I know. I met Al in 1986 when I was at BBDO.

Here’s some important background to meeting Al.  A couple months earlier I was recruited to become Client Services Director at Cunningham & Walsh, then a big P&G shop. It was an important management job at a major agency. It was a step up and a lot more $ from being a Management Supervisor, which I was at the time at BBDO. I was all of 33 years old, and thought a lot of myself then (less so now—comes with wisdom). However, BBDO laid a pile of moolah on me, made my head spin, and convinced me to stay. I’m really glad I did and it turned out staying was a very wise decision as Cunningham & Walsh was acquired a few months later by the late NW Ayer. We know the end of that story. Glad I didn’t jump ship to join the Titanic.

The price I paid for my brazen attempt to leave the agency was to be “rewarded” by running the US Army pitch. It was my turn to say, yes sir, and just shut up and do the work. Ugh. RFP hell. Toughest RFP I had ever seen. Then I was introduced to Al Martin, one of those consultants I thought so little of. Oye vey. I have to work with this loser, I thought. Worse yet, he proceeded from day one to jump all over me like I was some numskull. “Martinization” he called it. But I quickly realized that Al was smart, reeeeeealy smart, PhD smart from Ohio State. Moreover he knew his stuff and didn’t have his head in the clouds. He had previously been the Director of Accession Policy at the Office of the Secretary of the Defense–Head of Joint recruitment for the military. This was a real job, not a glad handing suit at an ad agency. Al’s M.O. in dealing with agency folk was that you were guilty before you were found innocent. He viewed many account people as lightweight bag carriers and was testing me as he tested us all. He “Martinized” us all to find out the thinkers from the posers. I thankfully passed. Others did too. In my case he quickly realized that when he spoke to Strum that the light was on and what I said and what I did were aligned. But more importantly, I learned something–I realized that a “consultant” could be someone of major intelligence and capability.

I worked with Al on the Army pitch. It was a major RFP magilla at a level I had never seen previously.  Alas BBDO  lost the pitch, but won the Navy account the year after parlaying the knowledge and experience that it gained in the Army pitch. Interestingly Al had a 20 year run as an ongoing consultant to BBDO as their New Business leader and later as a senior leader of their Detroit office which handled Chrysler business, the agency’s biggest account–all as a consultant. Al has become a close friend who I look to for advice. He’s never steered me wrong.

My eyes were now wide open about what a major league consultant could offer, and even though my ad agency career continued nicely in the 90s with a right turn to Philadelphia where I ran two big ad agencies (big for Philly at least), I always appreciated the wisdom a smart consultant like Al could bring.

Fast forward to 1999, I launched the Strum Consulting Group. I was now one of them, but  having been “Martinized” in my youth, and was far better for it.

What did I learn from Al that I apply today:

1. Clients want your wisdom, not just concurrence to their thinking.

In fact, the biggest value a consultant can bring is totally objective, unvarnished thinking. A consultant needs to be fearless and tell the Emperor that he isn’t wearing any clothes. In fact, the Emperor usually appreciates being told and highly respects the person who isn’t trying to curry favor and tells it like it is. I needed to unlearn my account management “make nice/be agreeable” training. While no one likes a jerk, any good consultant has some edge and doesn’t try to merely make nice.

2. A good consultant needs to be strategic and plow through and over all the reasons “why  not”, which every organization has, mostly to their detriment.

Companies often buy their own bs, and reasons why things are the way they are. Nonsense. A smart consultant needs to see the reality and help construct a brighter one and the path to get there. But that’s not all….

3. A good consultant also needs to do, not just recommend.

This is important (at least to me). Many consultants play it short by merely recommending, with little responsibility for execution. I actually enjoy the execution as much as the strategy, because a great idea poorly executed isn’t any better than a lousy idea. Al taught me that a great consultant gets their hands dirty and makes stuff happen. At the time, Al was the hardest working man in the business (next to James Brown). Al remains one of the hardest working people I know.

Having run a consulting business for 14 years, I appreciate there are terrific consultants and weak ones. I also do not begrudge the growing number of pseudo-consultants who are merely on the beach looking for full-time work. The economy has been unkind to many, particularly those 50+ types who got nudged out of senior roles and replaced by a younger, less expensive and more technologically savvy types. The business world is often very cruel. Pseudo-consultants muddy the industry a bit, but I certainly understand why a senior out of work former business leader would want to try to position themselves as a consultant during the transition period.

Yet in the end a top consultant is one that delivers high value in their engagements and really makes a difference. We are viewed as “high priced” but for consultants, the issue is not  ultimately  how much or little one charges. It’s about the value delivered.  As a consultant that’s what I focus on.  Al taught me well. Thanks.

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  1. Caroline says:

    The best advice Big Al’s given me regarding consulting…the consultant’s best tool is a blank piece of paper and a pen.

    LISTENING to the client is key to uncovering their real business problems. Too many consultants, he says, go in knowing they have all they answers before they truly understand the questions.

    He’s a brilliant business man – if I end up being half the consultant he’s been, I’ll call it a success!

    • Lonny Strum says:

      Carrie–Yes I agree he is brilliant. Your dad has set a high bar but you have more direct “Martinization” that the rest of us. Hope all is well.

  2. Caroline Oakes says:

    Very helpful post, thank you, Lonny.

  3. Mark Klapper says:

    Great post. I had the privilege of working with Al on several pitches while I was at Rapp in the late ’90’s. He is a stand up guy – I too learned a lot from him.

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