Help Wanted

Making the Most of Consultant Expertise

By Andrea Jarrell


To borrow from the film Casablanca, hiring a consultant could be the start of a beautiful partnership. Making the right consultant match can advance your program, your institution, your team's knowledge, and the careers of everyone involved. But hiring and working with a consultant can be more challenging than it used to be. The new importance of branding combined with the influence of technology on communications strategy often make consulting projects more complex than they were even five years ago.
Compounding the situation is the tough economy. As institutions struggle to do more with less, advancement professionals are now looking to work with consulting partners in both the short and long term.


So before you walk off into the sunset with a new consultant, here's some advice for selecting and cultivating valuable outside talent.


When do you need a consultant?

Four factors generally cause institutions to seek outside expertise: scope, know-how, objectivity, and politics. The first two are fairly obvious: Is the job simply too big for campus professionals to handle in addition to their regular responsibilities? Is the expertise required to accomplish your goals lacking on campus? If the answer is yes to one or both of these questions, you need help from a consultant.
Even if you have the time and expertise on campus to handle the proposed project, you may need the objectivity of outside counsel to ensure success. Andrew Careaga, director of communications at Missouri University of Science and Technology, whose institution underwent a name change with the help of a consulting firm, says, "Especially with controversial issues, such as our name change, there's always the danger that constituents—faculty, alumni, students, or others—will suspect that internal research was not objective, or that the surveys were skewed to reach the conclusion you wanted."


Branding changes everything


An emphasis on institution-wide branding raises the stakes of advancement consulting projects. Whereas a development or communications office used to autonomously hire consultants to produce case statements, viewbooks, and websites, today such projects fall within the larger context of the overall institutional brand.


Brand initiatives often start in the president's office or with the board of trustees. Then it's up to an institution's communications chief to involve the right stakeholders on campus, from admissions, development, and IT to athletics and the campus bookstore. Even if your institution has already established brand guidelines, an effective consultant will need to work within the big-picture brand.


"With more colleges and universities embracing the importance of institutional branding, our firm is increasingly engaged in these ‘macro' initiatives," says Dan Kehn, executive vice president of Creative Communication Associates in New York. "In the last year alone, we've seen about a 30 percent increase in RFPs [request for proposals] in general, with the majority of them focused on institutional brand."


Kehn says initial brand work is followed by specific projects such as television ads and print and online communications, which once constituted the majority of the firm's work.


The right campus players


Nanci Tessier, vice president for enrollment management at the University of Richmond in Virginia, says one of the biggest pitfalls in managing a major consulting project is not knowing who you have to involve on campus. "Figure this out from the beginning, and determine how you have to get input and when to do it," she advises. For example, know if and when your president wants to be involved.


Support from campus leaders and stakeholders at the project's outset not only smoothes the approval process, but it can also help determine strategic and creative options. When the College of William & Mary in Virginia began working on a website redesign, the college's provost set the tone by announcing to campus stakeholders that the primary audience for the website would be prospective students.


"That changed everything for us," says Susan Evans, director of creative services at the college. "It allowed us to move in directions we could not have considered if the primary audience had been the on-campus community."


Tessier recommends creating a team of people that will select consultants and serve as a small oversight committee on the project. Designate an ultimate decision maker and ensure that the person has the authority to make final decisions.


Look before you RFP


Start down your consultant hiring path by researching potential partners and asking respected colleagues for their thoughts—who do they recommend, what have they learned in the process, what do they know now that they wished they had known when they started their project?


Before issuing an RFP, Kehn suggests inviting your top choices to your campus for an informal conversation. "Use this opportunity to share more information with them about your project, your institution's specific challenges, the key players involved, and some sense of your timeline and budget," he says.


Ask firms to review their work and talk you through a recent project so you can better assess how a partnership with them might work. These conversations will not only help you narrow down prospective partners but will also clarify what to include in an RFP.


"I think institutions take a shot in the dark sometimes when they hire consultants, rather than trying to figure out what they want ahead of time," Evans says. "Writing our RFP became much more than satisfying a requirement for our procurement office. We needed to agree on the project goals and measures of success up front. The RFP resulted in concrete project goals, so we were much more successful during the selection phase."


Partners vs. vendors


Rather than hiring an outsider to complete a one-off project, you can get more from your consulting budget and add to your team's knowledge base by seeking a partner rather than a vendor.


Technology offers so many options for communications and business practices that it is less possible for consultants to offer a one-size-fits-all product or solution. Instead, call on them to share best practices and collective wisdom.


Evans says she looks for consultants with whom the college can work shoulder-to-shoulder. She observes the way they solve problems and asks why they make the decisions they do. "We want to be able to sustain and build on projects moving forward rather than being tied to a consultant for everything," she says. "In this economy, I don't know many programs that can sustain the constant cha-ching of that."


1 + 1 = more

Partnering with consultants is an interesting balance between the consultant's knowledge and yours. "If you select a consultant who is open to soaking up the unique culture of your institution, the ideas, copy, and creative will be custom-made for your school," says Evans. "In the best of circumstances, when you develop an outstanding partnership with a consultant, 1 + 1 equals more than 2."


That certainly describes the 30-year partnership of Odie LeFever, director of advancement marketing at Pennsylvania's George School, and designer Tony Rutka, principal of Rutka Weadock. Their collaboration has produced numerous awards, including prizes for the school's admissions materials and the new website. The secret to their success?


"As a school, we know who we are, and Tony gets that," says LeFever. "We test our ideas with our community, and that allows us to be authentic. The deepening knowledge that comes with long collaboration makes us brave and able to take risks, going beyond what other schools might feel comfortable doing."


LeFever says one of the most important questions she asks herself before hiring a consultant or firm is if she likes working with them. Sounds like good advice for the start of your own beautiful partnership.


This is from the September 2010 edition of CURRENTS