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Media Operations and Clutch Grand Slams

How an agency responds under pressure and lessons from a future Hall of Famer.

Five years ago I had the fortune of participating in a corporate-sponsored batting practice with Red Sox players at Fenway Park in Boston. My hitting attempts were not impressive and suggestions from the batting coaches didn’t help, but I did come away from the experience with a great business lesson from future Hall of Famer, David Ortiz.

While others were attempting to hit an 85 mph fastball I stood next to Ortiz (known to many as Big Papi), and asked him about his secret to hitting under pressure and his mindset at the plate. Ortiz, is by many accounts, one of the greatest “clutch” hitters of all time, so I was curious about what was running through his mind when he got up to bat in those pressure-packed moments.

Over the years Ortiz has repeatedly succeeded at bat when his team needed him the most, delivering come-from-behind home runs late in the game and when opportunities to win were dwindling. Last night Ortiz did it again: with two outs in the bottom of the eighth, his team down by five runs, Papi hit a grand slam, which ultimately helped his team win the game.

Papi’s “secret” to performing during peak pressure and its relevance to business.

Ortiz told me that when he is successful at the plate his mind is completely clear. Not a thought about the upcoming pitch crosses his consciousness, nor does he think about his stance, the weather, his teammates, his family, the criticality of the situation, prior at bats or anything else. Big Papi doesn’t even hear the crowd.

When he’s not in the zone, Ortiz said, “you name it, I’m thinking about anything that’s irrelevant. When I’m distracted I can sometimes hit the ball ok, but when my head is clear I know for a fact I will do my job.” Ortiz went on to say that, “just thinking about anything is a disaster at the plate. The reason I practice hard is so that I know what to do in the split second when it counts. If I’m not prepared, it’s too late to practice during the game!” He let out a belly laugh, generously posed for a picture and moved on to talk with other fans.

The entire day was memorable, and the lesson Big Papi provided was the invaluable part of experience: there’s no time to prepare in the heat of battle. We need to be tooled and ready well in advance of the big moment, and then completely clear about the actions needed to achieve success. In business, teams under pressure need to focus on the moment, and without distractions that should have been addressed by the organization well in advance of the situation.

Preparation in addition to proactivity

Agencies often speak of needing to be proactive instead of reactive, but like hitting home runs in the clutch, this is easier said than done…especially without a plan and practice. Proactivity is important (great account management is key, for example) but rapid responsiveness is also critical for agency success.

Yet, many agency leaders report that the majority of errors, employee frustration and email confusion are generated as a result of client fire drills, last-minute RFP’s, curve balls thrown by vendors and unusual situations. “We need to communicate better,” is often the proposed solution. Specific recommendations, like emailing the team with increased frequency, or holding more meetings during pressure-filled times, don’t usually improve execution: they contribute to the noise. And, of course, those client fire drills and RFP’s will remain a part of the business forever.

Still, those who say “better communication” is needed are on to something. The “something” is often overlooked, boring and maybe obvious: Documentation about how the agency is supposed to operate, and what to do when exceptions to the rules are needed. Yes, written rules, guidelines and documented expectations that are easily available to everyone and continually updated are critical. Documentation is more than a nice-to-have when time permits, but essential to solid, scalable and low-error execution.

We have policies, procedures and best practices already.

When consulting with agencies, small and large, we hear about policies and procedures from execs and staff, only to learn that these “rules” are either undocumented or in spread disparate folders in a file share or in an email sent years ago by a manager. Nonetheless, seasoned staff and new hires alike are expected to adhere to these rules. Some agencies experiences find temporary inspiration to generate documentation but the effort isn’t sustained and the guides are set aside with the assumption that they are out of date.

The word Documentation can conjure up images of home printer assembly instructions or incomprehensible diagrams to build a gas grill. This is different: documentation in this sense is when an agency codifies its policies, procedures, best practices and also aligns processes to work as intuitively as possible with software and systems.

Here’s an example: “We never send out an order without a MPA”, is an oft-repeated mantra among media buying executives. More than one agency we know had employees sending out MPA’s, firmly believing that under certain circumstances it was acceptable. Neither the policy/exceptions nor an escalation path was documented so employees thought they were acting in the agency and client’s best interest. A clear and well-defined process can solve this problem.

A written set of policies, procedures and best practices (PP&B) for agency operations is essential to minimizing errors and operating efficiently, not to mention, having the guidance on had reduces pressure on employee and makes for easier new employee on boarding.

It takes time to document and align PP&B and make sure that agency software empowers employees to follow the correct processes. Still, documentation and PP&B alignment time spent is dwarfed by the reduction in forensic dissection of “how did this happen” meetings and discussions.

Participation on documentation task force or working with a consultant to sift through the recommendations may lack excitement. I didn’t ask but I bet Big Papi wasn’t always thrilled about the thousands of hours he dedicated to practicing his swing. To others, the assignment may represent an invigorating problem-solving exercise. Not everyone is ready, wiling or able to dig in, roll up the sleeves and contribute to a seemingly mundane but game changing exercise. Identifying the right people to help and turning them into process evangelists is just one suggestion for starting down this rewarding road.

In a future blog entry I’ll provide a formula for capturing current PP&B, documenting proposed changes, and sustaining the effort without an overwhelming investment of resources. The process, while scary to start, is liberating for many organizations and produces noticeable results among employees when they are up at the plate and under pressure, which we know is a lot of the time.

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