The late Steve Jobs once quoted Henry Ford who said “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” regardless of whether or not Henry Ford really uttered those words, the point is, and to quote Jobs once more “customers don’t know what they want until you have shown it to them.”

In the client servicing industry, I think this couldn’t be any truer. At the same time, it’s important to note that this isn’t license to tell a client “NO!” or to treat them with condescension. Instead, it means that the duties of marketers in agencies and consultancies is to show clients what their businesses need, even if it’s something they don’t agree with or know about. Drawing from my own experience, I think this boils down to three main points:

Agencies and consultancies are there to do the brain work:
If brands were interested in having ‘doers’, where they need to relay specific instructions on how things should be done, they could easily hire an army of interns and juniors to do that. But the point of hiring a consultancy is that the expertise they bring, the creativity and in-depth industry knowledge. Always remember that brands hire agencies so that you challenge their views, play devil’s advocate while also keeping them updated with the latest developments in your field. There is no use in hiring a ‘yes person’ as a consultant.

Agencies and consultancies are there to serve as the brands’ ‘fresh pair of eyes’
As a person who worked with a major brand in the Middle East for over four years, it is surely easy to get stuck in the same rhythm of corporate culture. Therefore, it is actually the agency’s role to bring in ‘disruptive innovation‘, and the first step to be able to do this in a constructive way is to actually understand the rules and then know when to break them. This means fully integrating with the brand’s goals, objectives, strategic direction, values and culture, and then knowing what sort of fresh, new concept could come in to serve all of those things but probably didn’t pop into the minds of Brand Managers, Digital Strategists, etc. because they are consumed with the day-to-day operations…which brings me to my third point…

…Agencies and consultancies need to think in-house, but act outsourced
Most brands are reluctant to outsource creative work to agencies, and especially in social media, because they feel that no agency will be able to live and breathe the brand like they do. This is a perfectly valid argument, but the value of recruiting an agency is the knowledge they bring to the table, not necessarily because agences are smarter than brands (that’s far from the truth), but because the environment they work in harbors creativity, because it is their bread and butter, and because they see the brand in a new light. They are able to innovate in a more seamless manner.

At the end of the day, agencies need to do what’s best for their clients. Even if it means making unpopular decisions or having to spend a few extra hours in preparing a presentation that aims to convince the client of a concept, agencies need to put the clients’ best interests at heart. On the same note, clients and brands need to have a little of faith in agencies and their capabilities – you might not get what you thought of seeing, but if an agency brought you what you already thought of, isn’t it kind of pointless to pay thousands of dollars for them ;-).

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Basheer says:

    Thanks for a good, and succinct article, Feras. You mention that “clients and brands need to have a little of faith in agencies and their capabilities.” This is, I believe, the main reason why clients do not allow agencies the freedom they wish to possess while working on projects. There are several reasons for the brands to deal with agencies with such mistrust. I will play devil’s advocate and mention a few that come to mind, as I genuinely believe that agencies are to share the blame.

    – People tend to know about everything, so we’re always right /end sarcasm. So, in the particular case of a big brand coming along, there’s always a sense of superiority that, inevitably, suffuses into all aspects of a business relationship, and this, naturally, includes marketing and advertising, leading to restricting the agency to doing what the client wants.

    – The advertising industry practices have forced brands into being mistrusting, most probably due to mediocre work of most agencies – including quality of work, respecting deadlines, perceived expertise (bullshitting a client goes only so far until they figure you out), unavailability of quantifiable results, and to be frank, the willingness and readiness of agencies to do what the client wants! Seldom does an agency provide a truly better solution than one a client proposes, and explain it from a professional perspective (business and marketing at the very least). It’s usually just a chat with no documentation, evidence, or professional advice. So to the client, working with an agency is like having a tool that would interpret their ideas, or worse; hiring an agency only because there is a marketing budget that needs to be spent.

    – As you mention, clients do not know what they want at a tactical level. They need results and solutions and it’s the agency’s job to help them achieve these. But how will an agency convince a client that what they did/will do would be optimal for them? Should they just take their word for it? Of course not. Agencies, by nature of the industry, tend to ignore quantifiable evidence, and tend to value personal feedback and opinions, and it’s the agency’s duty to provide the numbers of previous and similar cases at the very least. The absence of hard evidence leads to an endless loop that pushes clients into believing that they are, at the very least, on par with the agency, as they lack the evidence to support the claim of “Hey, trust us. We know what we’re doing.”

    – A bad economy might have compelled agencies to charge much lower prices with time. Naturally, the economy affects most brands as well, leading them to make budget cuts. These budget cuts would, in turn, lead these brands to work with increasingly desperate agencies, who are willing to work for very low prices (relevant to the real value of their work). And that, with time, leads to even less satisfactory work, because of the demotivation that comes along with it, and due to the agencies having weaker resources, particularly in the client servicing department, which should be the main source of actually convincing clients that the agency will do a professional job, regardless of what the client may think during the process of creating the actual work. The concept of consultancy is mostly lost on agencies.

    – Again, bad economy (from a different angle): Charging less means having to have more clients. Bad clients outnumber good clients, so you’re probably going to end up having to deal with many more bad clients in order to keep income at a stable level. That means a more stressful workplace and a heavier workload, which inevitably leads to careening through projects, with much less focus on the clients that actually matter the most, leading to lower quality work, which in turn leads to mistrust. See how all things are connected?

    – Lack of training at agencies and short-sighted strategies, especially when it comes to research, client servicing, and consulting.

    All in all, you don’t go to Gordon Ramsey and tell him how to cook a dish. You just ask him to make you something good, and you trust that your taste buds will be satisfied. I believe most agencies have not really earned that trust, and should not expect to be given it by justifiably doubting clients.

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Author Feras Hilal

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Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Basheer says:

    Thanks for a good, and succinct article, Feras. You mention that “clients and brands need to have a little of faith in agencies and their capabilities.” This is, I believe, the main reason why clients do not allow agencies the freedom they wish to possess while working on projects. There are several reasons for the brands to deal with agencies with such mistrust. I will play devil’s advocate and mention a few that come to mind, as I genuinely believe that agencies are to share the blame.

    – People tend to know about everything, so we’re always right /end sarcasm. So, in the particular case of a big brand coming along, there’s always a sense of superiority that, inevitably, suffuses into all aspects of a business relationship, and this, naturally, includes marketing and advertising, leading to restricting the agency to doing what the client wants.

    – The advertising industry practices have forced brands into being mistrusting, most probably due to mediocre work of most agencies – including quality of work, respecting deadlines, perceived expertise (bullshitting a client goes only so far until they figure you out), unavailability of quantifiable results, and to be frank, the willingness and readiness of agencies to do what the client wants! Seldom does an agency provide a truly better solution than one a client proposes, and explain it from a professional perspective (business and marketing at the very least). It’s usually just a chat with no documentation, evidence, or professional advice. So to the client, working with an agency is like having a tool that would interpret their ideas, or worse; hiring an agency only because there is a marketing budget that needs to be spent.

    – As you mention, clients do not know what they want at a tactical level. They need results and solutions and it’s the agency’s job to help them achieve these. But how will an agency convince a client that what they did/will do would be optimal for them? Should they just take their word for it? Of course not. Agencies, by nature of the industry, tend to ignore quantifiable evidence, and tend to value personal feedback and opinions, and it’s the agency’s duty to provide the numbers of previous and similar cases at the very least. The absence of hard evidence leads to an endless loop that pushes clients into believing that they are, at the very least, on par with the agency, as they lack the evidence to support the claim of “Hey, trust us. We know what we’re doing.”

    – A bad economy might have compelled agencies to charge much lower prices with time. Naturally, the economy affects most brands as well, leading them to make budget cuts. These budget cuts would, in turn, lead these brands to work with increasingly desperate agencies, who are willing to work for very low prices (relevant to the real value of their work). And that, with time, leads to even less satisfactory work, because of the demotivation that comes along with it, and due to the agencies having weaker resources, particularly in the client servicing department, which should be the main source of actually convincing clients that the agency will do a professional job, regardless of what the client may think during the process of creating the actual work. The concept of consultancy is mostly lost on agencies.

    – Again, bad economy (from a different angle): Charging less means having to have more clients. Bad clients outnumber good clients, so you’re probably going to end up having to deal with many more bad clients in order to keep income at a stable level. That means a more stressful workplace and a heavier workload, which inevitably leads to careening through projects, with much less focus on the clients that actually matter the most, leading to lower quality work, which in turn leads to mistrust. See how all things are connected?

    – Lack of training at agencies and short-sighted strategies, especially when it comes to research, client servicing, and consulting.

    All in all, you don’t go to Gordon Ramsey and tell him how to cook a dish. You just ask him to make you something good, and you trust that your taste buds will be satisfied. I believe most agencies have not really earned that trust, and should not expect to be given it by justifiably doubting clients.

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