Our last meetup happened back in June, right before the (im)famous Spanish summer holidays stormed in. I have to admit I’ve been underestimating it for 3 years now, but finally this year I gave in. Hence the writeup of our conversation around clients comes 3 months late, but just in time to open the new Brand+Bread season (next meetup happens on October 4th, on Client’s Clients → sign up!) Following on from our previous conversation on Culture, this time we approached a rather controversial and sensitive topic in the world of design consultancies — that of the relationship with our clients. To kickstart the debate, we had Elena Espinosa, Programme Director at Saffron, introduce a completely bonkers and totally insightful view on what exactly “the client” is and what shape the relationship with them can take. Around the table — on the marvellous terrace at IED Innovation Lab — we had a small but outspoken crowd: Lionel, The Colossus, Sara, Carlos, Joana, Vera and yours truly.
Before I let you read the takeaways of June’s rosé-fuelled, nerdy soirée, I’d like to share with you Merlin’s take on the connection between brand strategy and organisational culture (he’s a keen brand writer this one, i hope you’re following him!), and some insightful comments from the B+B Instagram account —thank you Snask, Hye, BrandFusion, Alin and Alejandro for taking my social media spamming seriously.
Right. Now back to our conversation about Clients.
To pull our conversation from the deep dark abyss of what is normally a pretty stuffy, sensitive topic, Elena entertained the audience by bringing in three client archetypes — a rather psychological and empathic approach to understanding the relationship with our clients. They represent three different takes on who usually buys branding services and with what intent.
- Riccardo Brandiz — the visionary leader who needs support and validation to bring his ideas to life. For him the thinking is more important than the practical stuff: he looks for new ways of seeing, and wants long term partners to accompany him on the way up.
- Leo De Cabra — the new executive who brings a new perspective in a slightly dusty business and is ambitious to turn everything around and shine. For him both the thinking and the doing are important, but more than everything he needs his work to be in the spotlight. He expects big, exciting and potentially disruptive ideas that will prove the potential he sees in the company. His main objective is to leave his footprint and you’re there to help him do exactly that.
- Gigi — the driven marketeer with clear objectives and the ambition to achieve them. She is rigorous and sharp, and will never let you get away with anything less than what she’s expected to deliver. She is confident in her own thinking and for her the delivery of the work takes precedence. She’ll expect you to provide all the artillery she needs to achieve the objectives you’re working on together.
What’s interesting about Elena’s breakdown of client types is that each of them breeds a different kind of relationship between the client and the agency, which ultimately impacts how the work is done, delivered and implemented. It’s a human approach to understanding the strategic intent behind the challenge you’re tasked with, and how you need to tackle it in order to deliver on your client’s needs and expectations.
As Elena put it, we often tend to only work for the business, not for the people inside the business, although at the end of the day we are (still) people working for and with other people. It’s easy to leave the person behind when we only focus on the company. But to build a successful client relationship, we must bring the person back into our work approach.
What the heck is client centricity anyway?
- Client-centricity is about your approach in working with the client, not about the content of your work, what you deliver to your client. We work for the business with the client.
- The problem tends to be that the two of us — client and agency — use two different languages, so it becomes really difficult to really understand each other. Client centricity means learning the language of my client, so I can 1. understand them and 2. make myself understood to them.
- Many times in our interactions with customers, we need to un-learn what we know so we can learn again, together with them. We tend to take for granted to knowledge we’ve already acquired and think that what we know applies to everyone.
- A role that many times gets confused is that of the project manger. A more practical way of seeing it is as a dictionary that first translates and then develops the common language between client and agency.
What do clients buy?
- Today most clients are looking to move. They need to move/to adapt because of the shifts in the larger context of their business. And most look for someone to move with them, at the same pace as they are.
- We often misunderstand that they want us to do the work for them — or instead of them. It’s always very complicated when someone needs to create someting for someone else. We take it upon ourselves to replace the work of our clients. But it’s never really what is expected of our approach. The real challenge is developing a creative process for our client, in a way that is not detached from them and the way they do things.
- Our distinct language and detached processes means more and more clients either misunderstand what we do, or feel disconnected from the work we provide them with. So it’s only normal that those clients buy the status provided by the brand of the agency, rather than the work the agency does.
What has changed in the client - brand agency relationship?
- What has (actually) changed is how clients connect with the world. All of a sudden they are open to processes and ideas they haven’t been exposed to before.
- The biggest struggle brand agencies have today is measuring the work they do. The larger business context is about growth and impact, so if you can’t measure, you can’t grow.
- Brand practitioners have not been able to measure the results of their work, because we don’t follow up. Measurement is complicated, unless it’s done from within, and more frequently than not, we’ve been external to everything our clients develop.
- Humility is vastly missing on both sides. And the more we’ll be able to grow it, the better our relationships will become.
The impact of our relationships: the agency-client-agency loop
- Our clients (as well as their businesses and their people) are influencing our processes, how we do things and our people just as much as we are influencing theirs.
- The client designs the agency, maybe even more so than the agency designs the client. A successful project means that everyone else will come asking exactly for that thing, particularly because you were successful with it. You need to be careful what you’re going to be successful at.
- Just like in personal relationships, the one with a stronger character, personal style gets to influence the other one to a larger extent.
- That’s why, perhaps, brand agencies should sell themselves more like artists do: for a particular, recognisable style that clients hire them for; rather than for offering a particular type of service. Services can change, while character allows for growth.
If these thoughts left you pondering, I’d like to invite you, dear reader, to join the conversation by writing your own answer to the ideas above. Bring in your own brand perspective — of a strategist, a designer, a marketeer, an end-user, a wild card, a lover or a hater. Publish your point of view on your company’s blog, here on Medium, in a tweet, an instagram photo, in a vlog or in whatever format you’re more comfortable with. We’re using #brandandbread to keep track of them.
Brand+Bread is a thought collective asking (and hopefully sometimes also answering) tough questions about the future of branding. It offers the time and space for conversation and knowledge exchange on the issues facing this discipline, hoping to evolve our thinking and practicing of it.