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May 28

Our Industry, Our Conversations: Meghan Wilker

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I had the pleasure of speaking with Meghan Wilker of Clockwork Active Media at StepUpachieve, an annual event designed to help high school students prepare for summer employment. It’s put on in collaboration with CoCo, the collaborative coworking space here in Minneapolis, Google for Entrepreneurs and StepUp Minneapolis. Below you’ll find a bit of the awesome conversation we had.

Garrio Harrison: Lets start at the beginning, how did you get started?

Meghan Wilker: This feels hard to answer. Maybe because I’ve had a few “starts.” There are three in particular that had an impact on my career. My first was going to college after high school thinking I’d be an elementary school teacher. For a variety of reasons, I dropped out after less than a year and spent the next couple of years working – primarily at jobs related to working with kids. One of the jobs was at an indoor playground (remember that ‘90s fad?) called Discovery Zone. They promoted me to a Regional Trainer position and I spent about a year and a half traveling around the Midwest opening new locations with a team of 2-3 other people. We’d set up the computer system, train the staff, etc. That job helped me hone my writing, presentation, and training skills, and taught me how — at 18 years old — to get over feeling awkward about leading and managing people who were older than me.

My next “start” was my job at Gage Marketing a few years later. By then, I had started going back to college again in the evenings while I worked full-time during the day. I started in a customer service position and, over the course of three years, worked my way up to Account Executive. Gage essentially put me through college with their tuition reimbursement program, for which I will always be grateful. I learned so much there: that was the first job where I worked closely with programmers (and discovered that I really love working with devs), it was also the first job where I started thinking about improving usability (though I didn’t know that’s what it was called), and writing documentation to help communicate requirements to team members. I also had two bosses there who taught me a lot: one, Marie Jacobsen, showed me the importance of precision and attention to detail and the other, Bob Wilson, was a mentor in how to build strong relationships with clients.

My third “start” was when I shifted from the more traditional agency side to digital, and left Gage for a job with Bitstream Undergound in 2000. There — and at the agencies I worked with subsequently (ideapark, Martin Williams, Colle+McVoy) — I honed my strategy and project management skills. When I joined Clockwork in 2006, I put that variety of experience to work both in managing clients and projects, and managing the company.

Garrio: What is your current role and day to day responsibilities?

Meghan: The short answer is that I’m the CEO’s right-hand man. Where the CEO, Nancy Lyons, sets the company vision, I execute that vision within the organization. I make things happen in an organized and efficient manner. She’s Frodo, I’m Samwise.

Most of what I do isn’t tangible; at the end of the day, I don’t have design or code I can show you. My job is to think strategically, plan carefully, and execute efficiently. It’s about leading teams, coordinating efforts, clear communication, and follow-up. (And email. OMG, SO MUCH EMAIL.)

I’m asking questions like: What’s working? What’s not? What should we do? When should we do it? Who needs to be involved? Who needs to know? How will I know if we’re successful? What’s next? What I do on a given day at the office depends on the answers to those questions. It’s really just a different kind of project management: Clockwork is my client and my project, and my co-workers are my team.

Every day is different and my brain is constantly moving between thinking about people, projects, process, finance, and technology. It’s basically the best job in the world.

Garrio: How has the work agencies are being asked to produce changed?

Meghan: The line between advertising, marketing, public relations, social media, and software development gets blurrier every day. Clients and agencies are in the center of that confusion. I saw this firsthand at the agencies I worked at — and it’s still happening today. Agencies are being asked to produce digital work, and in many cases are leading with digital as a core competency. And when that digital work is banner ads, or a marketing website, things mostly work out okay. But when that work is truly interactive — when credit card transactions are being processed, data is being collected, backend integrations are required — most agencies are not well-suited to create, maintain, and support that kind of work. On the flipside, and because I’m not trying to throw shade at agencies, you don’t want a purely tech-focused firm creating a rock-solid application that doesn’t fit with the client’s brand experience.

In this omnichannel (buzzword alert!) world clients need alignment between marketing, advertising, retail, social media, web experience, customer support, and every other customer touchpoint. Technology evolves faster than people and people evolve faster than organizations. This is a classic example of that: agencies (and clients) need to think differently to get ahead of what is happening with customers and technology. The work that’s produced is changing, and how we produce it needs to change, too.

Garrio: How do agencies have to evolve their project management processes to deliver today’s technology solutions?

Meghan: This is the million dollar question, isn’t it? The bottom line is this: the processes at most agencies aren’t designed to produce really good interactive work. By “most”, I mean 90%. (I made that number up, but I’m confident science will prove me correct.)

The majority of agencies have processes and organizational structures that are designed to produce good creative. Most technology shops’ processes are designed to create good software.

But interactive work — the work that most clients are asking for today, or will be asking for tomorrow — is a little of both. Along with the added complexity of a very wide variety of specialists that should be involved in the work, both within the agency, on the client side, and from other agencies or partners.

That’s why Nancy and I wrote our book. The tightly-integrated work that clients need requires a new way of working, one that involves a lot of collaboration. Not just within agencies, but between agencies and also between agencies and clients. Collaboration is one of those things that everyone thinks they want until they actually start doing it. And then it’s messy and it’s hard and it requires time and difficult conversations and making changes along the way.

This is why the role of project management needs to be seen as a leadership role. It’s not traffic. It’s not about making Gantt charts. It’s about strategic thinking, communication, planning, relationship-building, and leadership. We need to redefine that role — and leadership within agencies need to set the tone, at an organizational level, for what is expected in terms of collaboration and communication. This evolution is essential to long-term partnerships between agencies and clients, but change sucks and no one wants to deal with it. It’s easier in the short term to just keep doing things the old way. But I really believe we are reaching an evolve-or-die moment for agencies that want to produce digital work at any level of useful complexity.

Garrio: What career advice would you give someone interested in the strategic side of marketing and advertising?

Meghan: Strategy is mostly the fine art of asking why*. Most people focus on what. As in, what are we creating for this client, and what are they paying us?

Far fewer people focus on why. Why did the client call us? Why do they exist? Why do their customers buy their widget? Why aren’t they selling more widgets? Why aren’t their widgets better?

The why is the client’s reason for being — and for hiring us. The what is just the thing we want to sell them (or the thing we assumed they wanted to buy). The why should drive the what, but that doesn’t happen often enough.

So if you want to be a strategist, be the person who uncovers the why and connects it to the right what. If you can do it without using buzzy acronyms and you can get things done, you’ll be the kind of strategist who will never be out of a job. You’ll be the person who can ask why, recommend the what AND figure out how.

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*My friend Mahtab Rezai would phrase this as, “What is the objective?” It’s shocking how infrequently that question is asked in business. Try it sometime if you want to experience a record-scratch moment in a meeting.