Why go to the trouble of refreshing a search firm’s brand? Executive search isn’t that complicated, right? You know a guy or gal at a firm? You like them? You hire them? They’re all the same, so it’s easy, right? Not remotely.
There is actually a broad spectrum of approaches and, more critically, results (next time around, ask firms for their completion and retention rates, not to mention whether the new executive actually added value). And, at a time when technology and fragmentation is transforming the executive search industry, and upending how clients view the industry, it’s never been more important to be clear about why your firm’s approach and results are special.
The competitive landscape is interesting… and changing. Our firm, Accelent, focuses on $5 million to $250 million revenue companies in the internet, digital media, SaaS, cyber security, data, and e-commerce spaces, though we also work with mid-sized companies, public and private. As such, we have a fairly consistent group of competitors, including other boutiques and mid-sized firms. However, in recent years, we’ve increasingly competed–and won– against the five global majors. Thus, as size increasingly matters less and fragmentation increases in executive search, a sharply defined brand matters more.
Our competitors brand themselves with a familiar list of attributes: experience, expertise, insight, trustworthiness, and so on. Some take a next step and use attributes like aggressiveness or science or claim to own a domain. The global firms brand themselves as, well, global. They also suggest a Whole Foods quality of having the best of everything, particularly as they offer services beyond search. And everyone, including us, wants to be viewed as the Ultimate Driving Machine of executive search.
Recently, we decided to take a hard look at our brand and went through a process similar to what I’ve experienced before in my career as an operator in companies ranging from the world’s largest to the smallest. Back in the late ‘90s, at CNN, we, the senior execs, met repeatedly in secret and wore t-shirts saying, “We’re Not the Target Audience.” Last year at AmeriCares, a large nonprofit where I’m a board member, we went through a process seeking to find a brand claim that balanced the head and the heart, the organization’s action-oriented legacy and its more sophisticated results-oriented future. At a venture-backed media tech startup where I was CEO, we piled everyone in a room and spent six hours on the whiteboard.
But while the style differed, the questions were always the same: What’s our mission? What’s our claim? Does the product support the claim? What’s the competitive landscape? What do our clients or customers think? And, of course, however small the organization, any brand strategy discussion should be facilitated. Accelent worked with an old friend of the firm and a well-known CEO whisperer.
These discussions are always really hard. Our discussions became most productive when we started talking about why we do the work, and we realized that we each love doing search and we love creating great outcomes for our clients.
But every search firm, true or not, says they create great outcomes. That’s not a brand differentiator. So we returned to discussing the work, itself, and how it’s differentiated. In our case, it’s a methodology designed to ensure a new executive will be successful almost as soon as he/she arrives (heavily inspired by Michael Watkins’ book, The First 90 Days– and I’ll spare you the pitch).
We decided our brand strategy needed to be built on how we work because that’s how we are differentiated and that’s what makes our results claim credible. As a result, aside from a few visual and storyline tweaks, we put aside our brand refresh and are focusing on how to further refine and productize our methodology for our clients. As a result of our methodology, we know specifically what are clients are trying to accomplish in those first 90 days and we know the decisions that will need to be made as well as the disproportionate factors, sacred cows, and other nuances the new executive will need to master. And in the end, what impact this new executive must have on the business.
All of which is to say that the rigor of a brand refresh can yield many productive results. In our case, our brand refresh inspired us to further refine our search methodology and develop a first 90 days integration (aka onboarding) platform for our clients and their new executives.
How do we do that? Become a client and find out.