Product, Uncertainty, Future: you may well think there’s nothing especially new here. I agree. The most successful agencies have been working with their clients on the basis described above for years. Think of this more as a simple reminder, a three-point agency manifesto designed to help avoid the sort of all-too-common mistakes that come from the obsessive, myopic pursuit of ‘Trust and Transparency’.
In fact, get this ‘Cycle of Truth’ spinning effectively and a natural, unforced ‘transparent trust’ between agencies and clients will follow. A nuclear fusion-esque release of good energy, a genuine, unforced belief in what you do. A business partnership based on what really matters.
Trust and transparency. Er, so what?
Recently, the apparent holy grail of ‘trust and transparency’ has been driving the narrative around agency/client relationship goals. Superficially at least, it certainly seems sensible. But for agencies what does it actually mean? Is it even always desirable or realistic? Has the end driven the means to such an extent that we’ve lost track of what really matters?
Paul Cope, Managing Director of The Creative Lab, peels back the layers to suggest a different view for a new decade.
Trust: defined as a firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Transparency: ‘operating in a way that creates openness between business associates or partners’. Mmm, just imagine…
But Trust – deep, genuine, reciprocated Trust – takes time, by definition. So what happens between appointments and when trust, you know, happens? What behaviours need to be employed and resource deployed to ensure Trust is earned? Which relationship tactics should be prioritized at the expense of other important stuff? How will you even know when you’ve nailed it? Or is it all just a distraction?
And is Transparency – complete, whiter-than-white, open-book honesty, the type that Saracens rugby club can only dream of – really always necessary or helpful? Who decides when information becomes too much information and actually a bit of a drain on everyone’s valuable time? Who chooses what’s in the client’s interest and what is simply part of the agency’s everyday operational machinery?
Agency culture and client procurement will always play a necessary role in answering some of these questions. Indeed, a clear understanding and appreciation of each other’s skills are essential and transparency of certain business areas (media inventory, campaign results, conflicts of interest, and so on) is non-negotiable, but does this have to be the mundane, all-consuming zero-sum game it so often is?
Furthermore, while agency margins continue to come under intense pressure, disciplines and media fragment exponentially and one-off project briefs now commonplace, is the relentless focus on Trust and Transparency even all that relevant anymore?
Don’t get me wrong – close, secure, long-term agency/client relationships will always be the ideal outcome. Mutual business growth often depends on it, the pitch process is, by common consent, broken and the burgeoning in-house agency model is built on its principles, but it seems to me that a simpler, more operationally relevant approach could be ready to have its moment…
The ‘Cycle of Truth’
To work properly, any business relationship should, of course, be rooted in Truth. A mutual understanding based on honesty, and this approach is no different.
The ‘Cycle of Truth’ can be split into three equally important, interdependent building blocks…
1. Product maximisation
Your Product is the bedrock of everything you do. It’s what clients buy, it’s page one of your creds, it informs your process, the springboard for all your success (or lack of it), the heartbeat of your culture. It’s your expertise, the reason you exist, why you get out of bed in the morning… you get the idea. It’s really, really important.
Product varies by company, of course, and its specifics will often change over time, but it’s always useful and always at the front and centre of your business. For creative agencies, for example, Products should be rooted in insightful strategy and remarkable creative ideas and execution. That’s it. As one of the more inspiring creative directors I’ve worked with once told me: “Never forget that after everything else is done after all the chat has ended and disputes resolved, the thing that’s left out there for everyone to see and judge is the work and how it performed.” Amen to that. Anything else is mostly just waffle that only serves to obfuscate.
The majority of your effort, resource, and marketing should always go into making your product as good as possible, and be constantly monitored for evidence it’s losing relevance and therefore reviewed and adjusted. Price your Product fairly, and protect, nurture and celebrate it – and the people who deliver it – at all costs.
2. Uncertainty minimisation
People rarely lose their job for not taking a risk and living to fight another day, and the risk-averse nature of brand management is handy for agencies to keep in mind. Now I’m certainly not suggesting playing it safe, being predictable, or underestimating the benefits of ‘failing harder’, but I am recommending a commitment to a deep understanding of each opportunity and its relevant influences (cultural, economic, competitive, and so on), as well as a focus on converting activation to sales. Minimising Uncertainty, in other words.
Data – and where it’s sourced, how it’s mined, and the insights derived from it – is key to this. Gut feel just won’t cut it. Instinct might be edgy and exciting but it’s absolutely useless for minimising Uncertainty. As well as conducting the appropriate knowledge-gathering before your Product kicks in, other essential aspects of this process are: setting clear, realistic KPIs (hard and soft, and getting them agreed by and shared with all those involved), accurately measuring what you do, benchmarking its effectiveness and plugging all the learned data back into your process for next time.
Shortcutting any of this, tempting though it might be, is almost always counter-productive and will certainly compromise your ability to maximise your Product (see point 1 above).
3. Future scoping
This is a tricky one and rarely gets the attention it deserves, particularly if the agency has only been hired for a one-off project. Who cares if what we do now doesn’t necessarily contribute to some future brand position or consumer perception as long as it works, right? Wrong. Everything matters always.
The uncomfortable truth is that brands in 2020 are, to a profound degree, open-source – defined and evolved as much by how people use, share and talk about them as the positioning designed by a few ‘experts’ in a meeting room with scattered beanbags and a quirky name. You need to understand both sides intimately (see point 2 above). Get it right and it might just move the brand towards being more than just a thing that does some vaguely useful stuff. It could mean something to people, become part of their world, deliver an addictive moment of comfortable certainty and yet be joyously new and a little bit thrilling. In short, it’ll give the brand a chance to talk to people again in the future, to carry on the conversation. Get it wrong and some people will quietly hate you, others will destroy you mercilessly on social media, and a few more will never buy you again. Whatever the detail of the outcome, it’ll make any effort at future conversation at best awkward and at worst a colossal waste of time and money.
One thing we can be sure of about the future is that it never quite pans out how we expect or want it to. Influences are constantly in flux and mostly out of our control. The only meaningful option is to talk to people, watch them, ask them questions, include them in what you do, keep them involved: get comfy democratising properly if you want to stay one step ahead.
The ‘Cycle of Truth’