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Wider opening jaws: it’s what clients really want.

26 Mar 2018 by Steven Giannoulis


A hang-up from my client-side days is that I expect my agency to be all about delivering on my goals. After all, business results – not big ideas and clever design - are what I’m paying for. Agency leaders have a responsibility to ensure their teams understand the basics of business so they work on solving the problems that really matter to clients.

We recently launched a series of staff training presentations to ensure all staff have the skills to live our client-first value. The first two sessions were run by actual clients. Now that was cool. The first session focused on the client/agency relationship and what clients value. The importance of strategy, transparency and accountability came through very strongly. The second looked at the client decision-making process from business planning, budgeting, business case development right through to sign-offs and how the effectiveness of our work is measured. 

For the third session, I went back to my uni days to cover the fundamentals of business strategy. Clients often tell us that they want a brochure, a website or something similar without explaining the why. It’s this why that tells us what they really want, how best to approach the challenge and what results we need to deliver.

"The importance of strategy, transparency and accountability came through very strongly"

We started the session with Milton Friedman’s free-market theories and Gordon Gecko’s ‘Greed is Good’ philosophy before easing into triple-bottom line thinking. This sparked lively debate on the real purpose of business, with few siding with a pure capitalist mindset. We have a variety of clients from small, medium and big business, government agencies and NGOs, so the discussion quickly identified that long-term value (both real and perceived) means something different for each of them.

We then focused on profit using the old-fashioned ‘opening the profit-jaws’ analogy to understand the decisions our clients might make around profit. We boiled it down to three basic drivers: (1) make more profit today; (2) make more tomorrow; or (3) create more certainty of making profit. Broadly, all decisions are about more revenue, less costs and/or less risk. Economic theorists are no-doubt horrified by this naivety but simplicity was crucial here.

For revenue, we used the classic pie metaphor to address market share, share of wallet and new market segments. For cost drivers, we first discussed productivity and efficiency and how companies try to do more with less. We then talked quality and how it helps reduce wastage, rework and ultimately cost. We related this back to how we approached our own work.

"We spent time pondering what some of our clients cared about most by considering their value chain, their sustainable advantage and competitive strategies"

And we talked about the reward maximisation vs risk minimisation trade-off companies face, the competitive forces they operate within and the various factors that add to their uncertainty. We considered some of the client briefs we work on and how they drive profit by managing risk.

We spent some time pondering what some of our clients cared about most by considering their value chain, their sustainable advantage and competitive strategies. 

We finished by discussing some of the key work we do – brand, websites, campaigns, staff engagement programmes and annual reports – and how we might approach each one differently if the client driver is revenue, cost or risk management.

To provide effective client solutions agencies need to understand the real business problems they are trying to solve for their clients. Design people don’t naturally take to numbers and business concepts but it’s knowledge that all design agency leaders need to invest in if we are going to elevate our industry from ‘making things pretty’ to true business enablers.

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