What roles do collaboration and social competence play in the success of a project? And what are the most important things to consider when assembling a team? Michel Gabriel, head of client management at MetaDesign Berlin, discusses these and other topics in a conversation with Linus Lütcke.
LL: Michel, you’ve spent the last 18 years in different client consulting roles at creative agencies and brand consultancies. Why did you choose the consulting profession?
MG: Initially I became a brand consultant because I’ve always been fascinated by brands. Already at the early stages of my career, when I worked as communication planner in advertising, I was focusing on the needs of people and the influence of these needs on products, services, and communication. Successively I have learned that there is something underneath: a complex spectrum of topics which to extrapolate is challenging and fun at the same time. In the meantime, I’m particularly interested in the economic dimension of brands. It took me a few years to understand that there is more to brands than the communicative aspect. They can, if they’re developed and managed professionally, be real drivers of added value. Since I look at brands that way, the passion for my work has massively grown.
LL: What are characteristics of a good consultant?
MG: A good consultant is competent, authentic, and, needless to say, empathetic. He has to be highly responsive to his clients’ needs — personally as well as professionally. Only this attitude will enable him to overcome the challenges that the client faces.
Also important: a good consultant always goes the extra mile. It is a matter of applying personal skills for the purpose of the task in an optimal way. And it’s about continual education — be it in terms of a specific industry or target group. We often deal with companies that are undergoing a transformation process, which makes the education aspect even more important. Because only if you constantly evolve and question yourself can you help companies to make progress.
Last but not least, I believe that the ability of consultants to effectively collaborate is essential. In this complex and challenging world, you simply won’t find a task you can resolve only by yourself. Teamwork is key. You need to bring together different competencies and disciplines, internally as well as externally — for example with specialists.
LL: Could you elaborate on this aspect a bit more?
MG: There is this one crucial experience that kind of sticks with me. It somehow made me realize the importance of collaboration and social competence for the success of a project. There was this big cellphone provider that organized a quite unusual kickoff meeting a couple of years ago. They were about to start a major project and invited all respective project leads — from the client’s side as well as from all agencies — to a multiday mountain hike. The circumstances were willfully extreme: a little mountain shelter, one common sleeping area, no running water, no electricity, no mobile reception. The basic idea behind it: if you manage to get along with each other under these challenging circumstances, working together on the upcoming project should be an easy one. And that’s what actually happened. This hike brought us closer together and the project was, especially because of the way the participants collaborated, a great success! Of course, you can’t always go into such investments to guarantee a successful workflow, but you should definitely focus on the parameters that allow good collaboration. Trust is key!
LL: What do you consider when you put together a team?
MG: There are dozens of books that deal with the question of how to assemble the ideal team while taking into account everyone’s personality, complementary competencies, hierarchies, etc. All this is without doubt good to know, but frankly speaking, the daily business eats all these theoretical approaches for breakfast. Since budgets and personnel capacities are usually tight it all comes down to four basic parameters. They might sound trivial, but are important nonetheless.
1- Clarity: Identify the core task and the intended outcome of the project.
2- Leadership: Identify the project lead.
3- Commitment: Create the best possible business and cultural environment.
4-Collaboration: Use design thinking approaches to make progress and to invite potential customers to make your project a great success.
LL: You mentioned the importance of defining clear targets for each project. How do you work this out together with the client?
MG: There is no general answer to this question. Basically, the following applies: the sooner you bond with the client personally, the better you can figure out the actual challenge or the specific motive that might lie underneath. Sometimes the initial client brief turns out to be less relevant, and you come to realize that the problem is quite different than actually assumed. The early stages of a collaboration between principal and agent should always be characterized by an intense exchange. Bluntly said, when I’m building up a trustful client relationship, I would rather hold one meeting more than necessary than miss out on something essential.
What is also beneficial is to spend time on site with the client to breath the same air for a bit. What are the employees talking about? Is there any pressure? If so, why? These kinds of insights can have an enormous impact on the whole process of working efficiently and target-oriented. You need to be aware of the client’s needs and expectations to be able to act accordingly. This is even more important in a field like ours, in which our offer is not a standardized, physical, distinct product such as an automobile or telephone but a highly specialized and individualized service package.
LL: Now we’ve talked a lot about initialization, the early stages of a project. What about long-term relationships with clients? What’s important here?
MG: A trustful relationship and constantly high-quality delivery are key. It is also helpful to follow and at best even plan ahead the developments that will become relevant for your client. We can observe so many rapid developments in technology, consumer behavior, products, services, and market situations with the result that new fields open up constantly.
In a successful long-term client relationship you need to watch out for these trends to come up with solutions for how the client can benefit from them. MetaDesign is able to address a wide scope of professional services to existing and potential clients. And we are in a constant state of flux, too. We’ve evolved from a mere design service provider to an extensive brand strategy and experience firm that drives transformative processes. So, the task for our client management team is to reveal the opportunities of our product portfolio for the benefit of the client.
LL: You said at the beginning that one of the things that you’ve learned in your career is how important the subject matter “brand” potentially is for companies. Do you think that the perception and the significance of branding has changed in general?
MG: I’ve worked a couple of years abroad and can tell you that especially in the Anglo-Saxon world the impact of brands is widely understood. Over the past couple of years the role of brands in German enterprises has evolved to a powerful instrument to drive growth and to bring the business strategy to life. A lot has been going on in this area. You can use, for example, the corporate brand as a tool to engage your staff or dealers. You also can take your brand to extend your business, to add value or to deliver a new service. MetaDesign helps its clients create a coherent experience at all touchpoints — digital, residential, or in person — which is tied to the purpose of a brand. And that’s the new quality of leadership brands nowadays — to drive growth through purpose-driven brand experiences at high-impact touchpoints.
_Michel Gabriel is Head of Clients and member of the Management Board at MetaDesign.
_Linus Lütcke is Marketing Manager at MetaDesign Berlin.