Act 1: Our Hero Has all the Answers

Posted by: in Insights on February 12, 2014

Perfection is tough. Being the smartest guy in the room… always nailing it just right… never choosing the wrong path.

Fortunately for me, I am not a victim of the affliction-of-perfection. While I have gotten a number of things right over the years in my personal and professional life, I have also had a few nice-sized screw up’s. They have been painful and annoying, but I usually learned the most from these mistakes. So, in the hope of squeezing a bit more value from these blunders, I share a few of them with you. I hope they help you avoid, “stepping in it”, “missing it”, or just plain getting smacked in the face with whatever “it” may be for you.

About a dozen years ago, when I was first developing the corporate social responsibility (CSR) practice at my old firm, one of the first big assignments I secured was with one of the world’s largest coffee roasters. At the time, our client and three other multi-national companies each controlled about 15% each of the world’s coffee market. So my client, let’s call them BIG COFFEE, was a significant presence in the market.

This was at a time when CSR was still a relatively new business concept. Companies were starting to recognize that CSR was becoming increasingly important AND they realized they had very little internal knowledge about many of the specific CSR issues related to their business.  Specifically, BIG COFFEE was one of the world’s largest purchasers of coffee; and BIG COFFEE, along with the other big global coffee roasters, were under lots of pressure to purchase “fair trade” coffee which certified that farmers were paid a fair price for the coffee they grew. (Interesting fact: at the time I was working for BIG COFFEE in the early 2000’s and they were purchasing about 15% of the world’s coffee, Starbucks purchased only about 3% of total global supply)

My team and I knew a lot about Fair Trade. We knew about the issues; the most influential advocacy groups and activists; and we knew that the issue was only going to become increasingly important to consumers. How lucky for BIG COFFEE to have such a smart agency as its partner!

All we (the agency) had to do was tell BIG COFFEE exactly what they needed to do in terms of communications, engagement, even business strategy. It was so simple. They just needed to listen to us and do what we said…

There was a lot of pressure within BIG COFFEE to “do something” about the coffee issue. The company HQ building was being targeted by protesters riding on donkey’s and dressed like Juan Valdez; the CEO was getting direct criticism from NGOs; and the brands were starting to hear from consumers about the issue. Myself and my team saw many areas where BIG COFFEE could avoid risks as well as create opportunities. We developed messages and plans, conducted research, identified important KOLs and partners. Then we started to tell our clients what they should do.

…Go back and read that last sentence. We started to “tell” our clients what they should do.

We definitely had a lot of subject-matter expertise and we worked incredibly hard and long hours to develop high-quality plans, strategies and content. And everything we did was for the best interest of the client. But one thing we did not do enough of was to listen and observe – to truly understand how the client was experiencing the situation.

BIG COFFEE knew it had to “do something”. But getting things done in a large organization is difficult and can be slow. In addition, this particular issue was not a traditional crisis, like a food recall. This issue was causing the company, and our clients, to ask some pretty big questions: “What is BIG COFFEE’s responsibility to coffee farmers?” “Is our company currently acting in an irresponsible way?” “How will this issue change our company?” “How will this issue change my own job?”

We (the agency) and the team leader (me) were so excited about telling our clients about “the solutions” we had developed that we were not paying careful attention to how the client was approaching and thinking about the actual problem.

As the client said to my boss, “Everything Chris was telling us was correct. He just doesn’t understand how we work and think”. And after that, I was no longer working on the account.

Over the next few years, I watched as the client started to implement many of the specific recommendations that we provided to them in those early days. It was bitter-sweet. I was personally pleased and proud to see our recommendations become reality. But it was difficult to see them happen without us. It was a hard, but memorable way, to learn that listening to and observing your client is as important as looking ahead and telling them what they should do.

By: Chris Deri

Chris Deri is the President of WCG. Prior to joining WCG, Chris served as Burson-Marsteller’s Chief Executive & Market Leader for the firm’s operations across its five offices in Mainland China. Chris oversaw the firm’s client service and delivery across China in corporate communications, brand marketing, digital & social media, crisis & Issues, and public affairs. Prior to that, Deri spent a decade at Edelman, where he incubated, led and grew the global CSR & sustainability practice to 110 practitioners in 15 offices around the world.

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