Designing client agencies

23 May 2017 by Steven Giannoulis

As a senior corporate marketer I worked with numerous design and advertising agencies before moving to the agency dark-side. I remember sitting through a number of creative pitches wondering “how will this actually drive the sales I need?” Often it was a case that it would, but the agency just needed to get better at presenting it to me in terms that met our business objectives. The sooner agencies learn to speak the language of business, the sooner they’ll be seen as professional partners and not just suppliers.

In many cases, the agency hadn’t thought beyond the self-perceived brilliance of their big creative idea to what me, or my audiences, actually needed. When I took on the CEO role at Insight, I was keen to use this experience to make us a client-led, rather than design-led, agency.

At first it seems a radical step for a design agency to not drive the business from their core expertise. Reality is that most big industries have already moved from production-led to customer-led. Changing customer expectations and technology have necessitated this. The design industry, as a professional services provider, has been slow to realise the need to change.

We are into the third year of our client-first programme and while we have come a long way we still have further to go to be fully transformed. A philosophical shake-up of this proportion takes time.

The first year was about the basics. For example, making sure we’re asking the right questions at the briefing stage and really hearing, and understanding, what clients want and why. We redesigned our processes to drive our design thinking from tangible audience insights and to put steps in place to check the effectiveness of the work along the way.

We also gave all our client facing teams training on how to listen and read clients, how to get answers to the key questions and also how to sell in ideas (and not just designs) in ways that engage the client need.

In year two we ran ‘what clients want’ sessions where we invited clients to talk to our teams directly about the expectations and frustrations they have with agencies, how they measure value and the challenges they face getting things accomplished within their business. Staff really engaged with this and enjoyed hearing it first-hand.

We also ran basic marketing strategy sessions for staff explaining the business drivers behind client briefs - such as growth, efficiency and risk management – and how each of these influence the channels, messages and design approaches we select.

You can’t be client focused if you don’t know what clients need, want or think. Over the last two years we’ve run an annual client satisfaction monitor to track how well we are meeting client needs but also how the initiatives we are implementing are changing their perceptions. We supplement this with in-depth qualitative interviews to understand the why behind the monitor results and to get ourselves across the business challenges our clients face.

The year ahead has a strong client intimacy theme to it, designed to build a deep understanding of each client and the ways we can better deliver value to them. We’ll use this understanding to proactively address the problems and opportunities they face with tailored thinking and solutions. 

We’ve started and, not surprisingly, we’re finding clients are very receptive to their agency proactively designing solutions that help them achieve their goals.  

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