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Challenging Assumptions

This article contains some pre-publication statistics from Up to the Light’s 2022 ‘What Clients Think’ report, which will be published in March and launched during a DBA webinar at 3pm on 24 March 2022. 

Why do design agencies still talk about ‘account managers’, a descriptor lifted from the advertising industry? Why do we refer to ‘credentials presentations’ when clients no longer have time to window shop and credentials are now on every agency website?

Many of our processes, approaches, terminology and what we hold to be the case, are worthy of being questioned and challenged. This exposes weaknesses that can then be sharpened and improved for the benefit of both agency and clients.

There are lots of these ingrained assumptions, large and small, once we start to question. With this in mind, let’s challenge 5 typical agency claims that trip easily off the tongue: 

1. 'Our strategic thinking'

‘Strategy’ is one of those catch all words which means different things to different people. Is it about understanding competitive context and developing consumer insights? Is strategy the ability to provide thought and rationale behind a creative recommendation or is this just sound design thinking and what every good agency should do? 32% of clients believe that strategy happens pre-brief and anything post brief is just a form of implementation. In other words, it’s much bigger picture. Then there are clients who consider strategy to be financially based. 

So, when an agency claims to be ‘strategic’, it really doesn’t tell the client an awful lot and tends to raise more questions than answers. It’s important, therefore, to define what strategy means at your agency and then the specific services around that. Let’s not assume that strategy means the same thing to everyone. Make it concrete not just a ubiquitous word with multiple and sometimes vague meanings. 

2. 'We work in partnership with our clients'

It’s easy to overestimate the strength of your client relationships. We asked clients whether they see their design agency as a partner, supplier or a bit of both. Agencies are often slightly disappointed by the answers. In fact, only 55% of clients see their design agency as a partner. Perhaps this figure isn’t too bad, given that design is largely project based. However, it represents a 10% reduction on last year’s figure, reflecting the way in which the pandemic has made close client/agency relationships more challenging to achieve. 

Client loyalty is hard won and being seen as a true partner by your clients is about more than answering the brief and doing good work. Time and time again, it’s the level of agency proactivity that propels the client/agency relationship from good supplier to excellent partner. 

3. 'We're very proactive'

There are two basic types of agency proactivity – within the project and outside the project. Proactivity within the project arises chiefly from an agency’s enthusiasm and interest, so is more naturally applied. Proactivity outside the project, however, needs to be planned for. Unless an agency has a well-defined, structured and collective approach to client development, higher level proactivity tends not to happen, or at least not in any consistent way. By ‘higher level’, I mean spotting opportunities and thinking strategically about the client’s wider business. This is the art of creating value for both agency and client, building trust and loyalty. Are your client development plans too general and not action orientated enough? Are they embedded in your agency’s approach, or do they slip amid day-to-day pressures? Consider the possibility of a mismatch between how proactive you think you are versus the client’s perception. 

4. 'We have a collaborative approach'

Every agency seems to pride themselves on a collaborative approach. In fact, ‘collaborative’ is one of the most used words on agency websites. However, the evidence from clients partly refutes this claim. 36% of clients believe that design agencies ‘could work more collaboratively’. 

Why the discrepancy? The answer lies in the ‘big reveal’ model that so many agencies are wedded to. A preferable situation, from a client’s viewpoint, would be to compare notes through the process via interim meetings where early creative thoughts and ideas could be shared. Ideas could be health checked and discussed. Potential creative blind alleys could be avoided. The client would feel reassured and part of the process, and more confident that everything was on the right track. For the client, this is true collaboration and removes the nervousness around a ‘big reveal’ presentation. 

5. 'We take time to really understand our client's brand'

58% of clients told us that their biggest challenge lay within their own organisation. In other words, it’s an inward-looking challenge, not an external brand focused one. The types of things mentioned are convoluted approval processes, the difficulties of convincing internal stakeholders, organisational restructuring, lack of internal cohesion or persuading top management about value and ROI. There is surely a lesson here that it’s not all about brand understanding, vital though that is. We should be asking more questions about the client’s organisation because it may well be the biggest thing on your client’s mind. 

About: Jonathan Kirk, Up to the Light

Jonathan advises a wide range of agencies on all aspects of business improvement and growth, challenging some of the ingrained assumptions that exist in our industry and providing effective, insight-led advice.

Every year Jonathan and his team at Up to the Light Ltd. interview hundreds of clients on behalf of design agencies and publish the influential ‘What Clients Think’ report, in association with the DBA. This is a fascinating snapshot of the client/agency relationship. The 2022 Report will be published in March 2022. 

Jonathan is an accredited member of the DBA Experts Register. Find out more and get in touch with Jonathan here. 

Image credits: 

Jon Tyson | Unsplash

Jason Leung | Unsplash


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