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CWC 14: Scott Monty on building a consultancy to manage digital transformation

Chip and Scott have a conversation about consultancy and collaborative work to manage digital transformation

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The most recent episode of Chats with Chip featured a conversation about consultancy and collaborative work to manage digital transformation with Scott Monty, CEO and co-managing partner of Brain+Trust Partners. Scott has a broad range of experience in the field of digital communication, including working as the head of social media for Ford Motor Company.

Listen to the show on the FIR Podcast Network or read the transcript below.

Unverified Transcript

Please review the audio before quoting to confirm accuracy of this unverified transcript.

Chip Griffin: Hello, everyone. My guest today is Scott Monty. Scott is a long-time communicator and a friend of mine. He is living in the Detroit area now after having worked for Ford as Head of Digital, and he is now one of the partners in Brain+Trust Partners. Welcome, Scott.
Scott Monty: Hey, Chip. Nice to be here.
Chip Griffin: First, just to sort of set the table for the audience, why don’t you tell us a little bit about Brain+Trust and then we’ll start more of a conversation?
Scott Monty: Sure. This is a story that goes back some six, six and a half years. Christopher Barger and I were commiserating over drinks one evening. I was, at the time, at Ford, and Christopher was in a similar position at General Motors. I had known him from our days … Wow, going way back to the Society for New Communications Research, SNCR, an organization I know I’ve seen you at.
Chip Griffin: I remember it quite well, and I nearly got kicked out of one of their events once when I was at the bad kids’ table. I can’t remember if you were at the bad kids’ table with me or not.
Scott Monty: I think that was our table.
Chip Griffin: Yeah. Yeah.
Scott Monty: Christopher had been speaking, and I had been following him and his work at IBM, where he was the blogger-in-chief. Really had established their digital communications program, and he and I occasionally got together to commiserate with each other, lick our wounds, and … Well, he was licking his wounds. I was claiming victory. But we would get together over drinks, and in this particular discussion, we realized that the stuff that we were the most challenged with, the things that we were having the most difficulty with, we didn’t necessarily have agencies that could provide us enough advice. I mean, they knew the ins and outs. They knew some of the tactics, but this was kind of new ground that we were plowing together. In commiserating like that, I said, “What if at some point, someday, we put together some sort of …” At that time I was calling it a “superagency.” A group of people who have had digital experience across a variety of functions within the enterprise, right? People who had done this on the client side, who could actually talk the walk and walk the talk.He said, “Oh, that’s interesting.” I said, “Well, give me your hit list. Who would be some names you would put in there?” Between the two of us, we came up with 10 or 12 names. We wrote them down on a little index card, and I keep like a pocket briefcase of these three by five cards I get, from Levenger by the way. If you check out Levenger.com, they have some excellent writing materials.
Chip Griffin: It is a great store.
Scott Monty: It is, and it’s really interesting because as a digital guy, you would think, “Well, what the hell is he doing with paper in his pocket?” Well, I find that it’s nice to just be able to unwind, unplug, and to jot things down, because the mind, the brain actually works in a way that it remembers things more concisely if you have actually taken the time to write something down, more than you have if you typed it. It’s just that muscle memory makes its way to the brain. Anyway …
Chip Griffin: Absolutely. Let me just weigh in there, because I too am a digital guy who loves paper. For me, to-do lists I write on index cards. I keep a master electronic one, but for my daily list, I will write it on a note card and I always have note cards in my pocket for taking notes, because it’s, I think, a much better way to make note of things.
Scott Monty: Isn’t it a great feeling after you’ve completed that list to be able to rip up that index card and throw it away? You feel like you’ve accomplished something.
Chip Griffin: See, I’m a little more paranoid than you are, and I put it in a shredder, but yes. Same concept.
Scott Monty: Yeah.
Chip Griffin: But then again, I worked in the world of politics.
Scott Monty: That’s true.
Chip Griffin: Shredding comes naturally.
Scott Monty: I can understand. You probably have at least three shredders around your house, as much as other people have bathrooms.
Chip Griffin: I have one within arm’s reach at almost all times.
Scott Monty: I’m surprised you don’t have a pocket shredder. Anyway, we put together this list. We dated it. We signed it, and I tucked it away in my pocket. Didn’t really think anything of it after that. Over the last five or so years, there have come opportunities where I’ve thought of, “Well, what if I went out on my own?” Or, “What if I were able to tag a few other people to come together with me to do something?” The timing was just never right. Wasn’t right for me personally. It wasn’t right for them. The market timing wasn’t there. Well, fast forward to last summer, around May or June or so. I had been out on my own for I guess about a year, and was doing fine, but suddenly I saw a number of other folks who were either on their own also, or were going to be coming out of a corporate or agency assignment that I thought would make really interesting team members.I reached out to Tim Hayden, who had been VP of Marketing at Zignal Labs, and had held some pretty high offices at Edelman, particularly working in mobile and e-commerce. I reached out to Angus Nelson, who worked with Jeremiah Owyang on Crowd Companies, focused a lot on the future of work and the collaborative economy. I reached out to Frank Eliason, who had established digital customer care at Comcast, and who worked the digital customer experience angle at Citi, and headed up their social function for five years. And I reached back out to my old colleague Christopher Barger, who had at that point been agency-side doing global digital work. The thought here was to bring all of these different folks together, and to establish a consultancy that had different areas of practice, or different areas of expertise- marketing, customer experience, communications as our primary focus- that were all centered around digital transformation.

So many companies are dealing with digital transformation, however they define it, and that’s a term we really didn’t want to own, but the market has really dictated it. That this is what people are asking for. Our philosophy is that it can’t be done in silos. It can’t be done with just marketing, just communications, just customer experience. All of these things need to be tightly integrated and there has to be an exchange of data, there has to be a paring down of systems, and there has to be a more strategic approach to how people are addressing digital transformation.

Chip Griffin: I agree, and to me, I think one of the interesting things that you’ve really hit on here is something that I think tends to be lacking in the world of communications. You know, most communicators, whether they’re marketing side, PR side, tend to be fairly siloed both in their worldview and in their expertise. One of the things that I always encourage communicators is that they need to learn more about the business side, not necessarily just of their own operation, but just generally. You need to be able to understand things like a PNL. You need to be able to understand concepts like balance sheets and cash flows, but you need to understand overall business strategy as well, right? Because communications, as you’ve noted, is just one piece of that. Particularly as we’re going through this digital transformation that you speak of, it’s increasingly important for people to have … Not necessarily expertise in all of those areas, but at least enough of an understanding that they know how to tie it into what they’re working with day to day.
Scott Monty: I think that’s exactly it, Chip. All of this comes with a view of something beyond the tactic you’re working on, and too often, I was actually contacted just a couple of days ago by an agency that wants to do an in-service about strategic thinking, because too often, people simply gravitate to the tactic that either is the flavor of the week, that a client has specifically requested, or that they seem to have some personal jones for. That’s not strategy. It’s not strategic. It doesn’t address the broader issues here, and our approach is a very consultative one. I think there’s nothing stopping agencies and communicators from taking that consultative approach, which really comes down … My three year old has nailed it. She absolutely has this strategic approach nailed. I say, “Grace, we need to get going.” “Why?” “Well, because we’re going to be late if we …” “Why?” Right? Constantly drilling down and wanting to know why. Now, hers obviously is not as thoughtful, but if only more communicators asked why, and understood the consequences, the cascade of things that might happen in a business scenario if a certain action were taken, and all of the groups that are going to be impacted. It’s not just about getting a headline. It’s not just about adding to your clip sheet. It’s not just about accomplishing some PR-related goal. It really needs to be about business goals.
Chip Griffin: Right, and it needs to have a full appreciation of all the risks and rewards of whatever it is that you’re undertaking. I mean, I think we’ve seen a few situations here just in the past couple of weeks with some companies that have put together some, I don’t know, questionable ad campaigns, shall we say, where it’s one of those things where if they had only stepped back and taken a look at it from 30,000 feet as opposed to with a magnifying glass, they might have realized the mistake that they were making.
Scott Monty: Here’s the thing, though, and this isn’t just beholden to communicators. Because I was giving a speech a couple of weeks ago, and I stumbled across an example or a phrase that the audience really responded well to. I was looking at the human tendency toward narcissism, and when you look at the implosion or explosion of selfies as a way of taking photos, which by the way, I’m horrible at taking selfies, and it’s probably because I don’t take very many of them. I am not well-practiced in the art of selfie.
Chip Griffin: Maybe it’s the subject of the photo.
Scott Monty: Well, that could very well be. Yeah. There are only certain angles that work well for me, and I can’t get them with a selfie. There was this statistic last year, and I don’t know how accurate this is. You could debate it, but it proved a point. The statistic was in the previous year, there were more deaths attributable to selfies than there were to shark attacks. Then I showed an image of a guy taking a selfie with a shark in the background. But the point is, this is human nature. We are entirely self-focused, and when you look at the way brands approach things, whether it’s from marketing or communications, it’s always, “We are pleased. Let us tell you about ourselves.” It’s a very narcissistic approach, which you could argue, “Well, of course it is. That’s what they’re in the business of promoting.”Well, however, if you tried to approach it with the mindset of a consumer, with the mindset of the audience you’re trying to affect, and the challenges that they’re up against every day, and how you fit into their day, it’s going to be much, much more impressive. The phrase I used in this speech was, “Look, unless you are Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts, people don’t wake up first thing in the morning thinking about your brand.” As communicators, as brand managers, of course we do. That’s our passion. That’s what we do every day, but that’s not the way it works outside of our little narrow field of view.
Chip Griffin: If we’re all narcissists, at least to some degree, how does that work pulling together what I would call an all-star consultancy from day one? By that I mean, typically consultancies, whether they’re communications or otherwise, grow because one individual goes out on their own, picks up some clients, adds some employees, kind of grows, maybe adds another personality somewhere along the line. But you’ve sort of gone straight to the, “Let’s pull the all-stars together,” and you’ve got an excellent team of all A players, big kahunas, people who are used to being forces in their own right. How does that work, bringing that together, and from a business perspective, how has that dynamic played out? Because certainly I’ve seen other cases where similar things have been tried, and they’ve gone up in flames.
Scott Monty: You’re not talking about Crayon, are you?
Chip Griffin: I was not mentioning any specific examples, Scott.
Scott Monty: That’s ancient history, now, anyway. Nobody listening now remembers Crayon, I’m sure. Well, I think the difference with us is, and we’ve all known each other for years. There is not an ego among us. I mean, from the Freudian perspective there are egos, but there’s not big “get out of the room” egos. We are all … I’m trying to think of the best way to say this without sounding too full of myself. We are humble folk. We don’t think that every word that we say, people must hang on. We realize that we have considerable market experience, and that other people have told us that. I’m a big believer in, “You are not an expert.” You can’t be an expert by self-proclamation. It has to be granted upon you by your peers. I think each one of us has gotten to some level of success and been recognized by our peers as such.Here’s the difference, because when we started approaching clients and getting some assignments … Remember, I was on my own before bringing these folks together. My wife looked at me and goes, “You know, that contract you just pulled down, that could have been entirely yours instead of having to split it five ways.” Part of me says, “Yeah, maybe.” However, would it have been as likely that I could have closed that deal had I not had the fire power that the assembled group had? I don’t think I could have. I think when people see the interchange between us, when they see the exchange of ideas, when they see our expertise going across a number of fields, I think that’s a lot more valuable to them than any one of us would have been on our own.
Chip Griffin: Which is the same concept that you see in startups, right? Where all too often I see founders who are unwilling to give up any equity in whatever it is, whether it’s to an investor or an employee, or a peer, because they don’t want to dilute their own ownership stake. I think the same thing is true here. You need to look at it as the sum of the parts, whether it’s financial or human capital being brought to the table, and certainly it seems that you’ve managed to assemble some really first-class human capital that I would tend to agree with you will generally help you make more sales, and so therefore the “rising tide lifts all boats” theory kicks in.
Scott Monty: Yeah, absolutely. We’ve been equally as picayune with our advisory board, too. A couple of weeks ago we finally announced that our advisory board was in place. It actually technically had been in place for months earlier, but we had to get through all the legal wranglings and all the rest. But we had some names, one of which at least will be familiar to your listeners. Jenny Dietrich is on our advisory board, bringing obviously a wealth of digital and communications experience to us. We’ve got Stefani Pampani, who founded Clever, which is an influencer marketing group that’s been around since, boy, 2009. They actually, they literally wrote the book on influencer marketing. Influencer Marketing for Dummies. We’ve got Rick Reed, who’s on the IT team at General Motors, so when we’re talking about systems integration, there’s an institutional gut check that we’ve got there with Rick. Then we’ve got Lisa Joy Rosner, who herself was just an all-star CMO in the tech space, in Silicon Valley. We’ve got some really top-notch minds that are guiding us through where we need to go.
Chip Griffin: As you bring all these minds together, I mean, is your model more that of what I would call a management consultancy, where you sort of help people think things through and put together plans? Or are you sort of more the agency type where you’re actually implementing the advice that you give?
Scott Monty: Our sweet spot is really advice, counsel, and strategic planning. From that perspective, it really inhabits more of the management consultancy model. When we thought about where we were going to place ourselves with respect to the competition, we recognized that there was a gap. There are lots of agencies out there, and there are lots of big, high-end management consulting firms, but there’s a big white space in between of folks that could occupy both spaces. What we’ve found is that while clients do need advice, they do need strategy, and they need it in let’s say a more cost-effective way than the traditional big consulting firms give them. After you’ve delivered that strategy, they usually are looking for somebody to help implement it, to go ahead and do the execution.We realized that there’s an opportunity for us there to tap into each of our networks and to put together a Brain+Trust Advisors Network of freelancers, maybe folks that are moonlighting, folks that would eventually like to get into this field, and it gives us kind of a flexible workforce, it allows us to test out people to see how well they work with the Brain+Trust team, and it gives us a pipeline into potential full-time hires down the road.
Chip Griffin: As you’ve sort of started building out this model, you’ve now got experience with what I would call the consultancy model. You’ve got experience with having been out on your own. You’ve had experience as a senior executive with a very strong agency. You’ve been in the Fortune 500 world. You’ve done a little bit of everything. What advice would you have to other people as it comes to the business side of communications? Are there lessons that you’ve learned from all of that that you think are worth our listeners taking advantage of? I’m sure you have plenty, so I’m asking you really to pick one or two.
Scott Monty: Well, I’ll give you the one that just comes to mind based on your very kind description of my experience. That is, whatever you do, whether you’re in-house, whether you are agency, whether you’re a solopreneur, you need to find what works for you, because there’s no lack of business models out there. There’s no lack of ways of doing this, and I’m sure that’s going to continue to be the case into the foreseeable future. I really enjoyed my time at Ford, but after leaving, I really reflected on it and I realized that the reason I enjoyed it the most is because … It’s not because I felt at home in a corporate setting. Maybe from a dress code policy, I did, but I think the bureaucracy really began to wear on me at the end of my tenure there.That was one of the reasons I wanted to get out. Because in my earlier days, and again, hindsight is 20-20, I didn’t realize how good I had it. I was basically given the opportunity to be very entrepreneurial with essentially a corporate safety net. It was that entrepreneurial side that I really missed as things began to get more corporate, more bureaucratic. That’s when I realized, “I need to be out on my own. I need to be doing something that I can control, that allows me the full flexibility of doing what I need to do, doing what I want to do, doing what I think the market requires.” I went out and created it. Yeah, it took a little bit of courage. It took a little bit of capital, but I had gotten to a point in my life and in my career when I said, “You know, if I don’t do it now, I’m never going to do it, so let’s just pull the rip cord.”
Chip Griffin: Do you find that clients are receptive to sort of the combined approach that you all are bringing to the table? I mean, obviously you’re generating business, so on one level they are, but I guess what I mean is, are they taking your advice? I’ve been a consultant long enough to know that you can do quite well as a consultant, even if your client never listens to you. In fact, if you look at the political world, some of the campaign consultants over the years who have made the most money are actually the ones who have lost the most races, which is mind-boggling. But in any case, my question is, do you think that the kinds of clients that you’re dealing with- which I assume would largely fall into the large corporate category- I mean, I assume you’re not for the most part consulting with small businesses, given the firepower you’re bringing to the table. Do they understand that they need to take a more integrated look at things?
Scott Monty: Well, I think that’s the very reason they’re seeking us out. It almost becomes a clearing house. In other words, they’re screened before they get to us. We’ve got people that realize they have a problem, and as we all know, that’s the first step in overcoming anything, is admitting you have a problem.
Chip Griffin: I could fill an entire day with just admitting all the problems that I have. In fact, maybe that will be my next podcast series.
Scott Monty: There you go.
Chip Griffin: I’ll simply sit down and talk about all my problems.
Scott Monty: “On the Couch with Chip.”
Chip Griffin: Yeah.
Scott Monty: These folks realize that they need help. They just don’t know how to go about it. I just had a call last night with someone who is in kind of a municipal, pseudo-utility type organization, and she’s got a staff of 140 people, and needs to do a massive re-org. She’s been at the company for eight months, has known this has been a priority, but just hasn’t been able to either get out of her own way to do it, or doesn’t have the expertise it takes to do the assessment, so she comes to us. Great. Now, we hope that in crafting a plan- and we’re going to do it with her, we’re not just going to deliver something up- that she will heed that advice and go a certain way. If she doesn’t, you know what? That’s fine. Having been on the inside of corporations, as we all have, we understand the political challenges, the just associated bureaucracy and corporate challenges that folks will come up against. We realize it isn’t a perfect model, but we can provide empathy to people and say, “Look, we can either help you navigate this, or help you figure out a way to deal with what the consequences are if they don’t necessarily go your way.”
Chip Griffin: I guess I would wrap up by asking you to air your dirty laundry. Maybe not directly, but as you look at the structure of your organization at Brain+Trust, again, it is different from the traditional way that consultancies grow, where you’ve got the founder who sort of exerts total control. In this case, you’ve got … It appears at least from the outside to be more of a collaborative organizational structure, and I’m curious how you go through sort of the big decision making process. Is it truly just consensus, or is there some … How do you deal with it so that it doesn’t just become a free-for-all, and that you’re able to make decisions like, “Is this a client we actually want to work for?” “What are we going to spend money on promotionally?” Or whatever. There are any number of decisions that any business has to make. Have you guys structured yourself such that there is a final decision maker on most things, or is it truly by consensus, or vote? I’m curious how you deal with that, with all the personalities you’ve got.
Scott Monty: Yeah. We have five partners, who all have an equity stake in the business. We give everybody an opportunity to voice an opinion about opportunities, new clients that are coming in, or maybe verticals that we want to pursue. We discuss that as a group. Ultimately, though, the running of the business really happens between Tim Hayden and me. His title is President. My title is CEO, and then we both hold the title Co-Managing Partner. We’re the ones that are really running the business, dealing with the lawyers, thinking about a vision for where we want to go, and then we take that to the rest of the team, and make sure that they’re on board with it too, and take their input and feedback if they disagree in some way. Ultimately, it’s Tim and I that are really kind of driving the bus.
Chip Griffin: Even with the team of all-stars, you’ve found sort of your captains, if you will, in order to try to make sure that it’s functional and doesn’t just become one of these, to use the term again, free-for-alls, like I have seen in some other businesses over the course of my career?
Scott Monty: Yeah. I really think you have to. The other thing, too, is in addition to assigning roles, and even though we’re all partners, we do have … We’ve recognized strengths that each one of us has, and we kind of assign roles based on that. But even in doing that, we looked at, where was our previous expertise? Tim had run a number of startups before, and he’s from Texas, so he said, “You know, I’ve been on this rodeo.” We wanted to tap into that experience and really use his leadership to help us avoid any mistakes that were made in the past. The team named me CEO probably just because I had the idea to bring the group together, I guess. I don’t necessarily feel like I’m any more qualified than the rest, but it’s about maintaining that vision and looking for where we’re going next, and we kind of carved these roles out and made sure that everybody understands what their swim lane is.
Chip Griffin: And you’re probably the best dressed, too, right? So that goes well with the CEO title. I mean, I know I’m always the best dressed guy in the room as a CEO. For those who know me, they know that’s not actually true. That style is not nearly my specialty, but in any case … Well, Scott, I appreciate you taking the time to come on the show and talk about your experience with Brain+Trust, and I think it should be illuminating to a lot of the listeners who probably haven’t thought as much about the business side of communications and consulting. I think it’s an important area for us all to think about, even if we’re not necessarily entrepreneurs like you and I are, but we’re really more just on the communication side of the fence, because it all does tie together just as you talked about in the digital transformation piece at the start of the show.
Scott Monty: Love it. Appreciate the opportunity, Chip.
Chip Griffin: Scott, where can people find you online if they’re interested in more information?
Scott Monty: You can find Brain+Trust at BrainTrust.partners. Information about us there, and then you’ve got all the links off to our individual places of internet habitation.
Chip Griffin: Fantastic. Well, thanks again for joining me, Scott, and thank you everyone for listening.

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