Agency owners often mention that Client Strategist is the hardest of the six Agency Roles to develop internally. That makes sense; people either “have it” or they don’t. Agencies often have to hire strategists externally. This is expensive and risky, compared to promotion-from-within. Unfortunately, internal hiring has its own risks.
The Problem with Hiring Strategists Externally
When you hire externally, you’re taking a risk—because you can’t always tell if a strategist is truly competent. You might not realize they’ve “tricked” you until several months—or even a year—later, after they’ve worked on multiple clients. (Using a vetting process like Extreme Referencing in your hiring can help reduce or avoid this problem.)
In this case, external hiring can hurt morale for current team members, who often believe they could do the strategist job if you just gave them a chance. But you might be concerned that they can’t level-up fast enough… and thus, you risk losing them.
Not ideal, right? Fortunately, you have options. And the sooner you figure this out, the sooner the agency owners can take client strategy off their plates.
Can You Train Your Current Employees to Do Client Strategy?
The question is… can you teach employees how to do Client Strategy work?
Yes, if (no pun intended) you’re strategic about it. Consider an apprenticeship model, where people learn and practice… and gradually move up the strategist hierarchy as they prove themselves along the way.
Finding Promising Internal Candidates
Your ideal future-strategist candidate(s) likely know a wide range of things today. They’re good at their current role, but they also tend to think outside their role, too. And they’re creative problem-solvers, with excellent client skills… and they like helping clients solve problems.
It’s important that your Client Strategist candidates like clients. After all, Strategists are highly client-facing. And ultimately, a Strategist’s job is to help clients maximize the ROI of their budget at the agency (and sometimes beyond the agency).
The future Strategist might currently be in an Account Management role (where they know at least a little about a lot) or someone who has worked across more than one Subject Matter Expert (SME) role. For instance, they might know SEO and PPC, or they’re a copywriter who helps plan broader social media campaigns.
Client Strategist Ramp-Up Plan: Steps for Promotion from Within
Here’s what a Client Strategist ramp-up plan might look like; your specific ramp-up plan will be more granular:
- Read deliverables created by your Client Strategists.
- Observe client strategy meetings (or watch videos of past meetings).
- Shadow meetings where a Client Strategist presents recommendations to clients.
- Gather research data from clients.
- Highlight notable items in the data that clients share.
- Analyze the client data, to identify patterns.
- Recommend tweaks to the existing strategy that informs an ongoing retainer.
- Recommend a draft strategy (for a new client) to a seasoned strategist, based on the data analysis.
- Create a full-length deliverable with strategy recommendations. (Depending on your agency, this might be a written document, a presentation, or something else.)
- Shadow a meeting where a seasoned Strategist presents the results, and references them as the supporting Strategist.
- Present strategy recommendations to a client (with a senior strategist monitoring).
- Present strategy recommendations (solo) to clients.
As you can see, that’s a lot of steps. But each builds on the last, and moves people toward becoming an increasingly-competent Strategist.
Don’t skip the new-hire ramp-up plan! Your internal hire knows your agency, but they’re new to the Strategist role. Speaking of that…
Growing a Strategist Won’t Happen Overnight
Depending on how many strategy projects you’re doing (and their prior level of experience), it could take several years for people to work their way up.
Some people will need multiple tries to meet your standards. And some people may never make the cut—but that doesn’t mean you should give up. Just be sure you’re setting reasonable expectations and giving people the feedback they need to continue growing.
If someone isn’t right for the strategist “track,” consider helping them see the benefits of going to a better-suited role.
Manage Their Expectations About Timeline
You may find that some Strategists want to move up faster than you believe they’re competent. In those cases, they may leave to join another agency—especially if the other agency will grant them a “strategist” title sooner.
You can reduce this risk by managing expectations. If someone thinks it will take 2-3 years and they get there in 2.5 years, they’re happy. It if takes 2.5 years but they expected to “earn” the role in 6 months… they’re not happy.
Either way, be sure you’re providing the support—including training, coaching, and on-the-job experience—to help people succeed.
Connect Your New Strategists to Resources
You and your Strategists don’t have to go at it alone. I suggest exploring communities and training programs for Strategists. For instance, they might join the Bureau of Digital to connect with others doing agency strategy work. They might also check out Sweathead, which has training and community for agency Strategists; I don’t known the specifics of their paid programs, but their free content has been pretty good. There are also specific frameworks like StoryBrand and They Ask, You Answer. And Hyper Island has various training options.
You don’t have to rely exclusively on external hires to find your future Client Strategists. You can develop them internally, using a graduated step-by-step program and an apprenticeship model. As long as you’re strategic (no pun intended) and patient—and offer solid compensation and growth opportunities—you can develop your Strategist candidates from within.
In order for this approach to work, you must make sure your expectations are realistic and clear. Understand that it may take multiple tries for some people to become adept at the role, and have a plan in place to help them get there.
With the right guidance (on your part) and skills and mindset (on their part), at least a portion of your current employees can grow to become your future Strategists. Good luck!
Question: How do you approach growing your agency’s Strategists internally?