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Having their name engraved on a firm’s shingle is a career pinnacle that many consultants dream about. So once achieved, why leave? Especially if you’re leaving to take a job with a boss and HR manager to answer to, and procedures to file for vacation time.
But that’s a step that Matthew Klink, a California-based Republican consultant, took with his career. In 2011, Klink left a co-ownership stake in a 29-person public affairs firm in Los Angeles and a self-named consultancy for a senior position in Switzerland with Philip Morris International, then a client.
“Matt actually physically left everything and went to work out of the country for a company. Not consulting, but working for someone,” said Nancy Todd, president of the IAPC. “That puts him in a class by [himself].”
American consultants working overseas is nothing new. High-profile media consultants and campaign managers have been doing it for decades. In fact, former Obama campaign manager Jim Messina is currently working in Britain on the effort to prevent the British exit from the European Union. And that’s after he was paid some $532,000 by the Conservative Party for market research during the country’s 2015 election. But Messina isn’t on staff.
Klink’s experience was a departure from that model. For three years, he was director of public affairs at Philip Morris, the multi-national tobacco conglomerate. He’s now back in California and has stood up a new firm. But the perspective of having crossed over from consultant to client was transformative, he told C&E.
“My first week on the job,” he said. “One of my consultants calls me up and says, ‘Tell me what you want to talk about on Monday’s team conference call.’ I said, ‘you tell me what we should be talking about. You’re my consultant.’”
That consultant didn’t last long.
“The monthly retainer had made him a little slow and lazy,” said Klink. “You learn very quickly who are good consultants and who are bad consultants by [how they do simple things] like submit proposals and submit billing. The consultants who were always looking ahead, trying to anticipate and being prepared are a godsend.”
Timing is also a key to a consultant’s success — particularly when the firm is going after a corporate client.
“Thinking outside the box from consultants is appreciated, but there’s a timing for it because if you miss the budget cycle for these large corporations, there probably isn’t money to do something [novel] unless they’re in full-on crisis mode,” said Klink.
As the industry grows increasingly tech-driven, consultants’ pitches are matching that level of sophistication. The problem with that, explained Klink, is that the client really just wants to hear the basics.
“Any time I would hear something like, ‘We have this proprietary algorithm,’ I would think, ‘Oh, gosh, here it comes,’” he said. “Usually it involves a computer thing that the consultants couldn’t accurately explain, but it was going to solve all our problems.
“If I couldn’t explain it to my boss, who had to then go get the money from the upper echelons of the company, it wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “I had to train my consultants to not use all these campaign jargon words. If they can’t break it down quickly, it’s always a tough sell.”
Another observation that Klink made during his time working abroad is that international clients who are considering hiring an American consultant don’t want to hear about what he or she has done inside the United States.
“Democracy is easy in America,” he said. “When you go to Europe, where they’ve got the far left and the far right, these people are really different in how they view the world. In America, we’re varying degrees of center."
Moreover, he said, Canada is a better reference point than talking up stakeholder engagement in rural Montana or California. “If you’ve done a campaign in a riding in Canada, that’s a heck of a lot better than saying you did a campaign in California,” he said.
Now, consultants are reluctant to follow Klink’s model for a number of reasons, but a big one is concern over losing their recognition in the industry because they go unseen at happy hours and dinners in D.C. and around state capitals.
After returning to the states in late 2014, Klink has been on a slow rebuild. In January, he launched a new firm, Ek, Sunkin, Klink & Bai, and is again courting campaign and advocacy clients in California and nationally. The stint abroad has dropped him back into the scramble for clients, but Klink said the experience was worth it.
“To go work all over the world for a very high-profile and somewhat controversial client was just too much of an allure,” he said. “It made me more aware, now that I’m a consultant again, of what corporate America looks for.”