5 unexpected lessons for marketers from Harvard Business School


Last month, I had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to go to the Harvard Business School, and study some of the best run firms in the world in the “Leading Professional Services Firms” course. Between the preparation, classes, discussions, assignments and professional connections - we spent hundreds of hours zooming out of our daily work to focus on the health and future of our firms.  The sheer breadth of experience in the room among my fellow professional firm leaders was overwhelming as well: 

  • There were people from over six continents and over 33 countries.
  • An average experience in their industry of 25+ years.
  • Everyone in the room carrying a “CxO”, “Partner” or “Director” title.
  • Everyone in the room was the top firm in their niche in their country and region. 
  • People managed huge revenues, with some of my peers managing hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Do lessons from other industries apply for marketers?

I went in with a lot of skepticism about whether anything I learnt would be applicable to us. 

  1. Marketing and Advertising are under far more disruption than other industries. The client-agency relationship now has credible alternatives with the client-insource-consultant model instead.
  2. Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines and other Southeast Asian economies are fundamentally different than mature economies.
  3. Our agency professionals and clients are a different beast than those in the west, who are less price and pressure sensitive.

But as I chatted with my peers, and learnt from the experience of tens of thousands of the best professional service firms that have shared their experience with the Harvard crew, my doubts melted away and I realised that there are key ways in which every marketer in South East Asia could take some critical lessons and break new ground. 

Here are five unexpected lessons that I hope will help you rethink the way your agency, brand or marketing organisation will find its future avatar. I found them stark, humbling and ultimately empowering. Whether you’re an agency-side, or a client-side marketer, I hope you can find some valuable lessons here too. 

  1. Marketers are not alone, we have exceptional peers to learn from

The first lesson was the simplest - we marketers often get lost in our world. While brand-side marketers have company from other business disciplines to keep them sane, most agency marketers find themselves labels of “creative”, “media”, “digital”, “PR” and others, and get caught in the challenges of the client-agency relationships. 

But my favourite lesson comes from the simple realisation that marketing and advertising is part of the “professional services” sector. And other service professionals in sister sectors like law, management consulting and auditing have not only gotten decades ahead of marketing in terms of maturity, the clients who work with these firms also tend to do incredible work. The maturity in these engagement models helps keep everyone sharp and at their best. 

According to the Singapore government’s Industry Transformation Map, professional services employ over 230,000 people and the answer to many of our business challenges in revenue, talent, services, finance etc can simply be found by looking sideways. If we’re willing to borrow some life lessons from the best professional service firms in other sectors, we’d benefit tremendously on all sides of the project. 

My take away #1 - find a lawyer, auditor, management consultant, architect at the top of their field and swap notes with them.

That insight will probably be a lot more valuable that other marketers you speak to at the next conference. 

  1. Other *professionals* have pivoted hard, despite far more disruption

It’s clear that marketing is undergoing a heck of a change, thanks to consumer behaviour changes and technological enablements. And most professional service firms are struggling to keep up with this change. To be honest, we hold a lot of self-pity in the marketing and advertising industry for the amount of growing and changing we’re forced to do. 

But after observing our peers from other related professional services sectors, I think we’ve actually got it easy. When I look deep, turns out that management consultants have endured far more change in their billing models than we have. Auditors have dealt with the multiplying effects of globalisation and law changes than we have. Engineers and Architects have dealt with far more drastic changes in the basics of science and energy management. Turns out, everyone in Professional Services is dealing with change. 

The one difference - the mood in other sectors seems to be pretty “no nonsense”. Those industries have often survived for over a century, and they realise that change is incessant and constant. There’s little surprise at the volume of changes coming their way, and they focus a lot more on finding opportunities than they do on complaining about the fatigue of change. 

My take away #2 - accept that change is brutal and incessant.

Scream, shout, cry into a pillow and make your peace with it. Then when you open your eyes, you’ll see that disruption offers the chance for cutting edge work, large scopes of work, high billing rates and extremely high professional satisfaction. 

  1. There is no stress-free, work-life balance in *professional services* 

Compared to other sectors, it seems that the stress levels in all professional services are at insane levels. The lawyer who’s fighting a bankruptcy case sometimes has billions of dollars of assets on the line before the next morning when the judge rules. The architect’s calculation mistakes could cause real lives to be in danger. The powerpoint that the management consultant builds could relaunch or kill a centuries old business. 

Marketers face a lot of pressure as well - but the difference seems to be that we discover this pressure on the job. Most marketers are trained during their education and early years on the fun parts of being a marketer - creativity, innovation, energy. Other professional services firms are prepared for the high stakes before they get on the job. 

We all know that feeling of getting into “tunnel vision” when under pressure - when we're focused on the task at hand, but also start tuning out and ignoring non essential signals. Our peers in law and consulting frequently make world class decisions with incomplete information, tight timelines and rarely have regrets. 

My take away #3 - Stress can be a great teacher, and could be the pressure that turns marketers into diamonds.

But only if we prepare professionals in our industry early and frequently for handling pressure, strategic thinking and decisive decision making. 

  1. We’re exceptional at attracting people, terrible at developing their potential

Marketers, like other professionals, are intelligent, driven and eager to impress. But all such professionals have a weak spot - they tend to overload themselves. The skills of self-assessment, work estimation and time predictions are the blind spots for such professionals. 

So, how is it that lawyers are exceptional at tracking every minute of productivity, while marketers won’t fill out a time sheet even at gunpoint? The secret to that is an entire system of professional management, expectation setting and non stop training in our sister professional service industries. 

Team leads actively embrace the apprenticeship model, and patiently coach their teams for decades to take over their jobs. Essential skills like discipline, communication, productivity are instilled into the official employee engagement programs. And every other peer in those companies seem to demonstrate the same principles, everyday at work. 

In marketing, we tend to have relatively poor models around breaking down jobs into capabilities and skillsets. And training to take employees through their 30-40 year career in the industry is laughably poor. 

My take away #4 - The difference between $1,500/hr work and our $150/hr work is simply the thousands of hours of development.

If you want to have 10X the impact (and compensation), the only way is to deliberately train yourself and your teams to be at the cutting edge of skills. 

  1. The ideal team size for productivity isn’t what you may think it is

During my time at Harvard, I stumbled onto the story of a leading law firm in the US who routinely billed clients US$2-3M for a week’s worth of time. Consistently, deal after deal, they managed to bill and deliver these incredible rates and find new and old clients who were actually thankful for getting the critical work done. 

The kicker - the team that delivered that work was typically just one to three people. Compare that to marketing, where it could be a team of 20-40 people spread across on-shore and off-shore centres trying to deliver that much business. 

My final lesson about the top 10 professional service firms was that almost all of them operated in a “Partner” structure. A single senior professional named Partner was responsible for US$1-5M of revenue per year (Or 10X that much if you’re in the Top 10 in the country). That Partner tended to have a really small team of 2-6 people under them. No more. 

My take away #5 - Small teams of highly trained experts solved the most complex problems.

And they kept getting the chance to solve more problems. If you’ve got large teams, put your teams into a strong leader and a small group that will gel well. If you don’t have much of a team, invest in a small team. Even if the folks are remote, you’ll hit the sweet spot of productivity. 

Marketing is a people based industry, and people need help to be their best

My outlook is now permanently changed.“Professional” fields do have rules and playbooks for success. And having sketched some of them out for both clients and service firms, the core of each of those playbooks are the people at the centre. 

The writer is Rachit Dayal, founder and CEO, Happy Marketer, a Merkle Company.