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Protecting Our Clients' Investment With More Dialog

[lead]There’s a fine line in the agency world between taking orders and providing sound, strategic advice on how to expedite a project be it digital, print, or video. In a perfect world, the orders coming down would be 100% in lockstep with the path agencies put forward. This world isn’t perfect and neither is this process.[/lead]
We’re oftentimes not hired to behave like monkeys banging on keyboards. Our clients expect our expertise in the digital arena to cascade to their goals. In fact, it’s our responsibility to a paying client to simply not take orders but offer a roadmap that sows seeds and reaps success. Earning trust certainly occurs at the moment a contract is signed. But trust is built with each and every successive step that takes place. While our clients have trusted us with money, it’s up to us to continue to earn their trust in running the strategy and expedition of the project as a whole. That takes time and each and every meeting, phone call, or email is an opportunity to continue building that incredibly important element of trust. Lacking that trust, or worse, losing it all together, will conclude in an avalanche of dissatisfaction and a feeling from the client that they simply aren’t being heard.

Let’s be honest. Not all ideas are created equally and not all ideas are actionable – from our end or our clients’ end. A bad idea coming from a paying client can feel like you’re caught in an inherent conflict of interest. Do I do what the client wants or do I deliver what the client needs?

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses. – Henry Ford

It’s ultimately up to us to appropriately educate and set expectations around confrontation. We never turn down or dismiss client ideas on the grounds of being meritless, no matter how true that may be. A conversation backed by data where available will create the opportunity for more dialog. Our view on handling these situations is pragmatic and effective: The 3rd No Policy. Every employee here is expected to go to bat for ideas that we all agree are beneficial while also educating on ideas that aren’t. This conversation can often take place like this (although not in rapid succession):

Client: We’d really love to have a cat singing Gilligan’s Island on the homepage so visitors can see that we’re a fun and whimsy group.

O3: That’s an interesting idea, but we don’t believe it’s what your clients are looking for. In fact, here’s a study on why cat videos have reached a saturation point. We can be fun and whimsy without the cat aboard the S.S. Minnow.

Client: That makes sense, but we really want the cat video. Can you make that happen?

O3: We’ve sourced a study that autoplaying video on a website leads to visitor attrition. Again, we believe this particular route is not a route you want to take.

Client: We get it, but can we please have the cat video?

O3: Of course, we can place the cat video.

While this example is extreme, and we’ve never quite had a request as outlandish as this, it’s a good way to see how we think through this process. On the 3rd no, we’ve appropriately educated the client on why we think the idea is bad and offered alternatives along the way. They ultimately are the paying client and there’s a healthy amount of respect that goes into a cashed check. There’s also a fiduciary responsibility that we owe to our client to ensure we place appropriate hurdles and safeguards throughout our process to ensure we don’t lead a client down the path of self-sabotage. Once we’ve fulfilled that responsibility, the client ultimately gets what the client wants.

Our clients are often so inside-the-box that they can’t see the forest because of the trees. It’s our charter to pull them outside the box while simultaneously allowing the client to pull us inside-the-box. The second part is important. Assuming we know everything after meeting a new client is a mistake that happens all too often in the agency world. We have to get inside-the-box enough to think like the target audience. That takes time, planning, strategy, and research. Without it, we’ll be batting blind while casually throwing around recommendations that are as meritless, but perhaps not as ridiculous, as the cat / Gilligan’s Island video from above.

As odd as it sounds, each project we take isn’t “ours”. It’s also not our client’s. It’s about the eyes on the other end of the screen. This project is for them. Think like them. Act like them. Behave like them.

Meeting a client’s wants as opposed to meeting their needs has sunk mighty ships. Tech giant Lycos is non-existent today in large part because of this philosophical approach. In fact and as of writing this, the word Lycos is adorned with the squiggly red lines indicating a typo in my editor.

Most may recall the search wars of the late 90s featuring Yahoo!, Lycos, Infoseek, and AltaVista along with an abundance of others. Lycos was the fastest company in history to go public. The sky was their limit as they battled Yahoo! for pole position amongst its other competitors. As they begun to monetize the search game with display ads, they delivered what advertisers wanted: big, bright, bold, flashing, eye-catching ads. Lycos itself was being run by former players in the advertising industry. They knew what advertisers wanted and would in turn pay for.

Engineers at Lycos ran usability studies and found that people innately distinguished between the left side of the screen and the right side of the screen. Those flashing yellow ads for Geocities were clearly ads. They weren’t looking for a Geocities account but were instead looking for tour dates for that new young singer named Britney Spears. The casual browser wouldn’t even pay attention to the advertising section. With advice ahead of its time, engineers at Lycos insisted that they should adopt a policy where ads looked remarkably similar to the search results. Management scoffed and said that advertisers would never pay for it. Management may have been right, but failure to make this move would prove costly.

Enter Google, todays lovable search giant turned active verb. They were the new kid on the block with a different approach to advertising: only sell what the advertisers need and only offer one product to that end. It worked. As Google shot up in popularity, in large part due to their technologically superior product, they also reaped the reward of being on of the most attractive ways to advertise online. For additional reading on the Search Wars, take a peek at The Internet Is My Religion by Jim Gilliam, former developer for Lycos.

While much more complex, delivering what the client needs instead of catering to their wants is what has made Google a household name worldwide. The lesson that can be derived and adopted in the agency space is actually quite simple. Good ideas require validation. Bad ideas require more.

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