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Dance and advance: Messaging tips to enhance collaboration

The tale goes that during the First World War, the General at the Western Front sent a message to High Command: ‘We’re going to advance, send us reinforcements.’

The message delivered was…‘We’re going to a dance, send us three and fourpence.’

Just as with this scenario, the message we think we’re communicating in client-agency meetings, is not always the message that gets received.

I have been an independent design management consultant since 2005. In that time, I have been involved in several hundred pitches across all market sectors, business sizes and design specialisms. It has been both insightful and stimulating to be the independent in the room whilst clients present their businesses and designers their creds, portfolios and approaches.

It is surprising to see how many times the actual presentation differs from what has been said to me previously. Not necessarily from the perspective of major changes in approach, but certainly attitudes, opinions and impressions, or the weighting applied to the importance of creative/business processes within the portfolio projects presented.

I’ve seen this lack of clarity and inconsistent messaging lead to assumptions being made and a misalignment of expectations between the commissioning client and the design provider occurring. This might result in the agency failing to land the job, or if they do secure it, issues can potentially crop up further down the line.

Focusing your approach

The new client/agency relationship has three phases of engagement prior to acceptance, each of which needs careful management:

  1. First awareness/contact to creds pitch
  2. Creds presentation and follow up discussions on the day
  3. Proposal – project approach and costings

These very early stages of the relationship have a disproportionate alignment effect on the later stages – a small error or misunderstanding here can make a huge difference. With that in mind, here are five things that can be done to improve the effectiveness of your messaging to enhance, not diminish, collaboration:

1. Choose vocabulary wisely to instil confidence, not confuse

janko-ferlic-sfl_qonmy00-unsplash-copyJargon can be helpful, in very small doses, to prove awareness and understanding of a niche, or experience of a particular technical function, process or customer requirement. Unfortunately, and particularly when used excessively, it can be excluding, confusing and a huge barrier to successful collaboration.

Whilst you should be mindful of over-using jargon, it can be a good idea to reference particular phrases, standards or legislation to establish credibility and background knowledge. This can demonstrate to the other party your own specific and relevant experience, whilst recognition of the language their business/customers prefer and use will show awareness of their organisation and market. However, awareness is very different to expertise. Don’t allude to being an expert on something unless you are. Someone in the room will be (and will understand that you’re not) and this will undermine you.

2. Be self-aware and tailor your approach to build credibility

pina-messina-xfcqv_xznnu-unsplashThe credibility we have as individuals and professionals is as fundamental in building respect and gaining airtime as the credibility of our service/offer. Dress, courtesy, language and attitude all play a massive part in forming a credible first impression – and all can be controlled and tuned to a particular set of circumstances or requirements.

Be aware of the other party’s attitudes and also crucially be self-aware – especially when it comes to appropriateness, which is one of the foundations of credibility. Some clients are looking for extrovert creativity, some are frightened by it. Some agencies like a direct client with strong opinions, some are intimidated by them. Experienced commissioners need managing differently to first time buyers of design. Talking directly to a designer requires a different approach than to a marketer, or finance person. One approach does not fit all – even within a particular sector.

An exploratory/introduction call is a great way to set up the meeting, both from an agenda and timings perspective, but also as an opportunity to judge character and personality. Speak directly to the lead person and note their attitude and approach; tailor your approach to match it – or at least complement it.

3. Demonstrate clear ‘value for money’

The perception of value for money often depends upon one’s perspective and whether you are buying or selling! In my experience, the most likely misunderstanding on value for money arises in what constitutes research in the design process.

erik-eastman-7jsrjzjsvy4-unsplash-copyThere needs to be clarity about what is being undertaken and charged for, the reasoning behind it and of course, agreement. Without clarity, clients sometimes fear agencies might be trying to charge to research the business for their own background information. They need to be confident that any agreed research will uncover knowledge (about market, customers, competitors etc) they don’t already have.

On the other side of the coin, agencies operate on a time recovery system and do not want to be putting hours of background research into the project without being able to charge for it. Often clients say we can provide the market and competitor information for you – but is it complete, objective and detailed? Does it cover all that’s needed?

To navigate this, within the initial introductory conversation ask questions about existing research or knowledge and then judge your approach from there. Alternatively, put an option in your proposal for the cost and type of research activity, complete with the implications on the outcomes of not undertaking it.

4. Illustrate how the creative activity will support the business activity


Design is all about change; managed change to shape identified improvements. Pinpointing exactly what needs to change, why and how is a key skill of the designer. This needs to be simply and compellingly communicated.

The best way to do this is to ensure your creds pitch clearly demonstrates this in past work – including the before and after – with consequent ROI figures. Illustrating the process you’ll use to identify the issue and solve it (such as the Design Council’s Double Diamond model), will help mitigate some of the perceived ‘risks’ and ‘unknowns’ in the eyes of clients. (It will also support the research issue identified earlier.)

Interrogate why the brief for the project is being set in the first place? What are the business outcomes identified and what is the rationale behind this approach to achieve them? The agreed creative brief must also include the business improvement required and some metrics about what a successful outcome will look like for the financials of the project. Document and benchmark the change, such that the design effectiveness of the outcomes can be measured. This will build a body of evidence clearly demonstrating the value added.

5. Collaborate and challenge, but don’t dictate

charles-at5vupoi8vc-unsplashIn this complex and fast-moving world we all need to be collaborators. All collaborators need to trust and respect each other – both personally and professionally. Collaborating however does not mean telling others what to do – especially when outside of our own specialisms.

We need to listen, examine and test what is being suggested. Just as creatives resent clients telling them what to do, so too do business owners and directors – often with MBAs – when creatives start trying to reshape their business model. If you, or a member of your team have the required business skills and experience then be clear about that from day one. If not, then rigorously query and examine business and creative approaches, outcomes and strategies – but strongly resist dictating – whether you are client or creative.

A piece of business advice that has stuck with me as a junior designer from the 1980’s was given by my first MD. It was that business needs to be mutually beneficial to all parties – otherwise it’s a mugging.

The same thinking applies to those early agency-client interactions; if we are mindful of the other party’s language and style and take into account not just what they want to hear but how they need to hear it, then the chances of engagement and successful collaboration will be hugely improved. And that three and fourpence might be needed for a celebratory dance after all.

About: Andy Cripps, Design Management Specialist and DBA Expert

Andy uses design-based approaches to grow businesses of all types. He does this by better connecting them to existing, lapsed or potential customers through strategic direction and management of creativity, creative activities, processes and people.

Andy is the Entrepreneur Director for the Bridging the Gap programme at Brunel University which provides support for early stage entrepreneurs. He is also an accredited member of the DBA Experts Register.

Image credits:

Unsplash: Dolo Iglesias | Janko Ferlič | Pina Messina | Erik Eastman | Kyle Hinkson | Charles Deluvio | Andy Cripps 


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