Dean Barber

Guilt by Suspicion and the Big Hoax

In Uncategorized on March 31, 2013 at 8:00 am

I should not begrudge them. Certainly a bigger me, a better me, would not. But this other me often emerges, viewing the competition with a level of distrust and even contempt.

That is not a commendable attribute. I noticed my Conan the Rotarian tendencies when I was the business editor of The Birmingham News. In the same building, was the newsroom of the now defunct Birmingham Post-Herald. In those days, we had a joint operating agreement (JOA).

Essentially the Post -Herald leased space in our building and the use of our press, and there was some revenue split with the advertising dollars. JOAs were once common in a newspaper industry, which is now a shell of its former self. But there was never a sharing of news, no collaboration with the enemy across the hall.

I didn’t want to just beat the Post-Herald, I wanted to lay waste to all their efforts and aspirations. I was not their friend.

The Post-Herald eventually went belly up, and The News would be gutted (The once largest circulating daily newspaper in Alabama now publishes three days a week). Looking back, I recognize the Post-Herald reporters and editors were not the enemy, but that I created them to be so. I was one crazy dude.

You would think that I would have mellowed, and I have, but I still have these tendencies to create straw dogs to keep me going. The rational side of me (yes, I actually have one) recognizes that even consultants deserve respect and recognition for their good work … if they actually do it.

Guilt by Suspicion

Not long after moving to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, I attended a conference of the Texas Economic Development Council. I was talking to a local economic developer who I had reached out to on LinkedIn but she had not responded. I’ll always remember what she said: “I saw that you were a consultant. But now that I’ve talked with you, I will add you to my network.”

“Well, thanks,” I said.

She was telling me, in essence, that she viewed me with suspicion precisely because I was a consultant.  I understand where she is coming from.  I frequently hear a tone of resentment, if not outright complaints, from end users, especially economic developers, who have paid sometimes big bucks to consultants, only to get questionable products – fat studies and reports, laden with tables and graphs, that actually say very little, or say things that are off the mark. (More call centers, you say?) Too often what is said in 150 pages could have been said in 10 or 15 pages.

The Language of Consultant Speak

True story. When I was an economic developer, I was giving a site selection consultant a familiarization tour. During the course of our travels, he offered a “thematic mapping survey” that would tell me just about everything that I would ever need know about my region.

I remember how button-downed smart he sounded. The language that he used was not plain English, mind you, but it was impressive, if not a bit vague. I now refer to that language as “consultant speak,” designed to impress but not inform.  A few months later, a colleague of that same consultant apologized to me for the $200,000 number thrown my way.

“Well, I did think it was a bit high,” I said.

So I understand the trepidation. Truly I do. If there could be a single consultants’ motto, I think it should be the same as emblazoned on many police department patrol cars – “to protect and serve.”

Having said all that, I do believe in (some) consultants and will turn to them on occasion – people that I know and trust – to add their expertise in a collaborative effort to better serve a client. In a corporate site selection project, for example, I will serve the role as a general contractor and sub out certain functions to other consultants who have specialized knowledge that I do not have. (Anybody who says they know it all, watch out.)

So I will hire a GIS and thematic mapping expert, a logistics and transportation specialist and a tax analyst to better serve a corporate client during the site selection process. Most corporate clients will see and appreciate the logic behind this approach. I will also team up with other consultants on certain ED projects if doing so brings true value.

By turning to others, I am following the advice of a legendary business consultant Peter Drucker, “Do what you do best and outsource the rest.”

Get Off My Lawn

Last week, I got an email from a young economic developer (I am not making this up) with less than two years experience asking how he, too, could become a consultant. I told him that he needed to put some miles on the odometer before considering such a drastic if not stupid move. Then I told him to get off my lawn.

Of course, there are exceptions. Anatalio Ubalde, the CEO of GIS Planning Inc.; ZoomProspector.com; and SizeUp, started consulting in his late 20s. I like him even if he is young, successful and smart.  Now a wizened old man in his early 40s, Anatalio just came out with his second edition of “Economic Development Marketing.” But even he revealed his desperate side by including one of my blogs in his book.

My section in the book is entitled “Local Investment as Marketing and the Myth of Branding.” The original Barberbiz blog was called “Build Your Own Golden Triangle.”  Anatalio agrees with me that there’s a lot of bogus hocus pocus pitched by some consultants all in the name of brand. If you listen to them, they’ll give you a new do and all your dreams will come true just like the preacher said on TV if you just send that check.

I don’t know how many hours, days I have spent with corporate executives in search of better fit places. Our conversions centered around the conditions and assets (or the lack of) that we had either witnessed with our own eyes or have been provided with credible documentation and deemed true. Brand never entered into the discussion. Not once.

What Brand Will Never Do

Let’s face it, no promise of brand will bring down the homicide rate in Detroit or increase high school graduations rates in Nevada.  It is not your brand that is offering 3-D printing or a robotics programs at your local community college. Brand will not mean whether you have fully-served, shovel-ready industrial sites. Rather, it’s you getting off your duff and doing something about it.

“The idea that you can hire some consultant and be rebranded, that is a hoax,” said Ubalde. “That’s just someone wanting to make money off an economic development organization. There are a lot of snake oil salesmen out there.”

Shout it from the mountain, brother. Tell it like it is.

Here’s the deal: Now you can talk the talk or walk the walk. The truth is that your brand matters not to me or my client. We are looking for what is, not the promise or the claim of what is. We are looking for reality, assets on the ground that can be leveraged for purposes of establishing and sustaining profitable business operations for the long term.

Now many factors are involved in determining that optimal location, and they vary according to the specific needs of a company, but your brand surely is not one of them. As far as I am concerned, it’s just white noise.

Last week, a city in Canada, a place that I have been to several times and liked very much, “launched”  its new economic development brand.” The mayor said this, and I am not making this up. “The new marketing strategy rebrands and repositions xxxxx Economic Development brand as a forward-thinking, creative, dynamic catalyst for business success. The new brand identity will drive our business development tactics in the coming years.”

If you are going to put out a press release on your rebrand, what else are you supposed to say? By the language used, you have to wonder if this was a community of backward dullards before.  There will be a print campaign that will highlight this city’s “unique potential of raw human energy.” Sounds like a great location for mixed martial arts.

Look folks, you can spend your money on the packaged blah blah or you can spend your money on actually fixing things, investing in yourself and getting things done. By the way, do you mind driving me out to your tech school so that I learn more about your robotics program?

Here are two links where you can buy Anatalio’s book, which I would recommend:

http://www.amazon.com/Economic-Development-Marketing-Anatalio-Ubalde/dp/0692018778/

http://www.iedconline.org/book-store/economic-development-tools-and-trends/economic-development-marketing-2nd-edition

Have a Happy Easter and I’ll see you down the road.

Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a site selection and economic development consulting firm in Plano, Texas — www.barberadvisors.com He can be reached at 972-767-9518 or at dbarber@barberadvisors.com

If you work for a company seeking site selection consulting or an economic development organization in need of counsel, ask for our separate brochures (pdfs) outlining how we can help. All requests for information will be considered confidential.

© Unauthorized use of this blog is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Dean Barber and Barberbiz with specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  1. Dean – Bravo! Excellent piece. I must confess that I was headhunted for the ED Director’s job at the city in question and would not have hired an advertising company to do an economic development strategy had I been engaged…
    When your only tool is a hammer – advertising – all your problems – strategy – look like nails.
    It gets even worse – some consulting firms who produce these $200k strategies that require five years of establishing linkages, committees and protocols and having consultations with all stakeholders before doing anything – also work to get themselves in high positions in the economic development associations which present the economic development awards that go to… You got it. Wins the hearts and minds of civic politicians.
    Companies locate facilities because they need to, they’re not amateurs. There are no best kept secrets. They will hire consultants to fill in gaps that don’t warrant full time staff – due diligence, workforce studies, non-direct costs, incentives, etc.

  2. Dean – thank you for the post. My only follow up comment would be to just posit that site selection consulting to corporate clients lasts only as long as one delivers valuable quality solutions to their arguably discerning clients, managing both their expectations and process well. I too have read the three volume, largely boilerplate, swot analysis of community y, Community y, falling into the category of buyer be very very wary, if these exercises meet their expectations then…it may fall into the category is what it is, no less frustrating…

  3. In the final analysis, the point of economic development practice and consulting is to make the lives of the people in a community better — to improve employment, income, skill, and quality of life. By focusing on these objectives in our work, we can do well by doing good. But if we don’t do real good, we probably will not do well — and we certainly shouldn’t.

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