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Strands of Genius : Tom Critchlow + CES 2023 What's Next for Brands
featuring: an interview with our guest editor and a research report
Welcome to the Bonus edition of Strands of Genius! On Fridays, we’ll be publishing interviews from our guest editors, and sharing a research report. Thanks for being along for the ride. Oh and by the way, you look great today :)
:: STEAL THIS THINKING | RESEARCH REPORT ::
CES gives us a glimpse into the future of tech ... It’s an eclectic mix of near-term consumer tech and speculative sci-fi concepts that signal where the world is heading.
:: DIVE IN | THE INTERVIEW ::
TOM CRITCHLOW, INDEPENDENT CONSULTANT & FOUNDER SEO MBA
>> Tom Critchlow guest curated Strands on May 11th, 2023. Read it here.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and what keeps you busy. How did you end up doing what you’re doing today?
I got my professional start in the SEO industry, then worked at Google in the Creative Lab around 2012-14. For the last 9 years I've been a self-employed independent consultant. I work with a lot of digital content businesses and often work very closely with executive teams on interesting challenges related to budgets, people, org design and strategy.
More recently I launched the SEO MBA, a platform to teach SEO professionals how to communicate the value of their work to the c-suite and win more senior roles.
Working in SEO early in my career was life changing - two things it taught me that I've oriented my entire career around:
Firstly, just giving recommendations to clients doesn't mean anything. The SEO industry loves to create "audits" and "SEO reports" that are monstrous documents - they're long, full of jargon and don't relate to business impact! I quickly realized that my work only matters if it has an actual impact with a client - and that's led me to focus on business strategy, communication, client relations and more. It's also why I try and produce the shortest possible client deliverable whenever I can!
Secondly, the SEO industry is full of bloggers. Because there wasn't (and still isn't) much formal education in the SEO space everyone shared their ideas on forums and blogs. This instinct for networked writing has led to keeping my own blog for over a decade - opening up opportunities, finding clients and even helping make internet friends.
What excites you most about what you do?
Being a strategy consultant means I get to see a ton of interesting challenges - every client is a new business, industry, challenge to dive into that I've probably not seen before. It keeps the work fresh and stimulating and allows me to learn new things all the time.
Being an independent means I get to be in control of my own work/life balance. With two small kids at home it helps make sure I can be around to help out, get plenty of time with them and more. But it also means that if I want to learn a new skill or read some academic papers or do some blogging I can carve out time to do it that doesn't have to be "nights and weekends"
What beliefs define your approach to work? How would you define your leadership style?
I think deliverables are BS :) This is quite a counter-position to take in a world of creative pitch decks and consulting pitch decks that are long, polished and beautiful. But as a solo practitioner I like to think less like an agency and more like an executive - less "here's a full strategy" and more "how do we move this project forward, what's the next most useful thing"
I was inspired by a wonky architecture group called the Helsinki Design Lab when they wrote about "strategy and stewardship" as the way to get big complex architecture and urban planning projects completed. Strategy alone is not enough - you also need to deeply consider how it's going to manifest, and then stick around for the implementation because there's no way your pristine strategy is going to survive contact with the real world unscathed.
As for my leadership style, I'd say.... subversive?! As a consultant, I'm an outsider to my client's organizations so I often adopt the archetype of the fool - injecting an element of surprise into clients organizations and trying to help those in power see things through fresh eyes.
What has been the most rewarding project you’ve worked on and why?
Running the SEO MBA is deeply rewarding - unlike client work where the goal is to impact businesses, the SEO MBA is an online course designed to impact individuals - to help people feel more confident, do better work and advance in their careers. Ultimately I find this kind of work very rewarding.
We are big believers in diversity -- Not only because we believe in equality, but because we also think it’s better for business. The Black Lives Matter movement has shaped industry conversations around both global injustice, and also lack of representation in our industry. How do you frame these kinds of conversations, both internally and with clients? Is there an emphasis on action, or are the conversations really more about communication?
As a white male consultant I try and be extremely conscious and aware of the impact I'm having inside client organizations. Consultants have a bad habit of coming into organizations and telling people what to do straight away - and that's even worse if you're a white male!
So I try and make sure I'm putting in the work to listen, understand and observe the people inside my client's organization that are actually *doing* the work and have deeper context than I do for what's actually going on.
Then, when I'm assembling strategies, recommendations and projects I always work hard to ensure that the people inside the client's organization are getting credit and respect for their ideas - typically my work isn't "new" ideas it's just a reframe or new perspective on ideas that already exist so you have to be really careful not to take credit (even accidentally!) for other people's work.
Switching gears a bit, how do you find time to balance personal interests with your career? Do you believe work/life balance is possible? Anything you’ve implemented that you recommend that others try?
I wrote a blog post called The Jigsaw of Independence all about this topic! Ultimately working for myself allows me a kind of freedom over my time that allows me plenty of work/life balance - but it also comes with some dangers around not just chasing client work for the sake of it but finding ways to work on projects that are valuable, rewarding and meaningful.
My best advice is that often, when you think you need more time, what you really need is more energy - and that we don't pay enough attention to which parts of our work give us energy and which parts of our work drain us. In each case, for a rounded fulfilled career you need a mixture of different things that you draw energy and meaning from - it can't just be one thing. So try and be explicit about what you need, what lights you up and then design a life around that.
What’s your media diet? Where do you find inspiration?
I love following weird internet people like:
Some fave business-style writing:
What’s the best piece of advice/knowledge you’ve stolen, and who/where’d you steal it from?
The idea of strategy and stewardship has deeply influenced my consulting practice - I lifted it from the Helsinki Design Lab.
And the quote "only let clients in the strategy door" which I got from David Baker.
What's your favorite color?
Green. Always green. A kind of soul-affirming, neon, bright, funky, uplifting GREEN. It's the color of happiness. Only the deepest, most sun-drenched forest can give you the kind of green that my soul thrives on and I try to get there regularly.
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It's called Genius Steals because we believe ideas are new combinations and that nothing can come from nothing. But copying is lazy. We believe the best way to innovate is to look at the best of that which came before and combine those elements into new solutions.
Co-Founders Faris & Rosie are award-winning strategists and creative directors, writers, consultants and public speakers who have been living on the road/runway since March 2013, working with companies all over the world. Our Director of Operations is nomadic like us, our accounting team is based in Tennessee where our company is registered, our admin extraordinaire is based in Playa del Carmen, and our collaborators are all over the world. Being nomadic allows us to go wherever clients need us to be, and to be inspired by the world in between.
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