The ingredients of a good client-agency relationship, part 1

So, I’m doing an exploration into how we might design for better client-agency relationships in the strategic design industry. More on why here.
What is that buzzword I am using here? “Strategic design is the application of future-oriented design principles in order to increase an organisation’s innovative and competitive qualities.” This includes fields such as Service Design, Experience Design, Design Thinking, etc. (source: Wikipedia. Yes. I’ve tried to look up academic sources, which I will probably need, but none was as simple and clear as the wiki definition. Sigh.)

Due diligence: numbers and name dropping

So by this point, I’ve interviewed Design Leads and Client Relationship people from 11 agencies and 5 clients, and did 3 analogous expert interviews.
(I should really stop interviewing people now, but this is my favourite part. I’m considering taking up ‘talking to smart people’ as a hobby.)

…and I’ve only properly downloaded half of it yet

Just so I have it collected in one place (which I’ll need for my paper), for the record, these are the people who have been kind enough to give me an hour of their lives (strictly in chronological order):

From agencies:

part of the Berlin-London Grand Tour

Overall I feel it’s a nice broad range from very product driven to very strategic agencies, from ones who only work for short, 4–5 day sprints with their clients to ones whose projects can last up to two years, and from ones who continuously keep their clients in the loop but like to do the work themselves to those who co-locate and live and breathe together. It was also interesting to hear that many agencies are actually now thinking about designing or refreshing their own client-journeys, so this topic seems to be timely and relevant.

From clients:

  • Anonymous, running a large family business in Australia
  • Gonzalo from Intercorp in Peru
  • Cate from Public Health England
  • Wendy from Sky
  • Robert from Porsche

As you can see I have talked to a lot less clients than agencies. This was an interesting experience, and definitely a limitation on the research that I have to acknowledge. In the beginning I knew it will be easier to get in touch with agencies (because of Hyper), but I assumed I can just ask agencies to connect me to one of their clients to also interview. Wrong. Some had NDA’s, some said from the get-go that it would be tricky, some asked but it didn’t work out in the end. Interestingly, 2 of the clients I did get to speak to in the end actually went over from the agency side, and 2 are IDEO U alumni. Which makes the sample skewed, but is also an interesting and important trend to keep in mind.

I believe more side-switching would actually make the relationships even smoother, because as I’ve heard from the people who worked on both sides, they are implementing things they know will make things easier from their agency experience, but they also had some realisations being on the client side that they wish they knew before. (again, will elaborate in a later post).

And the 3 wild cards:

  • Lili, a couple’s therapist: because who would know more about how to build a strong relationship
  • Marton, who works in sales at a high-end wine shop: because as one of my interviewees said ‘design is a servant profession’, you can only reach your results through your clients. Also, similarly to design, high-end wine is a little bit of a ‘black box’ to most customers
  • Dia, a mediator: because she’s like a couple’s therapist for companies

It was interesting to see how these professionals approach their own clients, and what patterns they see in their day to day work. Loads of parallels, and spoiler alert: it all comes down to being human.

As I did more and more interviews I saw my choice to focus on strategic design agencies and their clients confirmed. This is a business in which the majority of the work is project-based (after all, most companies don’t develop new services and products on an ongoing basis), which means that new client-agency relationships form much more frequently than elsewhere.
At the same time, as I mentioned in my previous post, the success of a project is heavily dependent on the quality of that relationship. The bottom line is, if they want to be successful, agencies and clients have to get really good at building good relationships fast.

A little about the process: I first interviewed 5 of the agencies, 2 clients and the analogous interviews, downloaded and synthesised the material, created clustered themes of my findings and even created some initial concepts.

This allowed me to already ask people what they think about the themes and concepts in the second round, talking to a further 6 agencies and 3 clients (most of which happened in a one-week extravaganza travelling to Berlin and London, non-stop interviewing while not looking for Harry Potter) I will share these clusters next in this post, and the initial concepts in a following one.

Processing the stuff

As I mentioned before, I’ve only properly downloaded a little over half of the interviews as of now (it takes a lot of time to do it right), but in this first part I’d like to share the initial synthesis I did after the first 10 interviews (5 agencies, 2 clients, 3 analogous).

At the first go, I ended up with the following clusters:

clusters of insights and quotes after first 7 interviews
  1. Creating one team out of the ‘two sides’ — human relationships
    Thoughts and quotes that came under here were emphasising the importance of building relationships before the actual work starts, and how agencies should onboard clients the same as teammates. (Interesting side-note: while this notion was echoed in the majority of interviews, the concepts that built on this got mixed feedback, many saying they would do this internally, but probably not with the client — so the level of ‘onboarding’ can differ greatly by agency, but also by perceived type of client). The quote that brings it all together for me is how a lead strategist put down his dilemma:

”How do we break down that client-agency relationship that often has a lot of stigma attached to it?”

One pointer to this came from talking to the couple’s therapist, who said that accepting and reacting positively to each others’ vulnerabilities brings us closer. It was interesting that, in a totally separate interview, a design consultant said that he is showing himself to be very vulnerable in the beginning on purpose. As I wrote this down I just now remembered, the mediator also mentioned that she’s trying to create a trusted environment by just being her ‘human’ self: e.g. saying how tired she is at that moment, almost role-modelling to her clients that it is OK to be yourself and say what you think and feel. Which brings me directly to the next cluster (yes, they’re all connected :-o)

2. Open and honest communications, creating a ‘safe space’

A seemingly innocent statement I’ve heard multiple times is ‘When things go wrong, it’s often just miscommunication’. I said seemingly innocent, because, when you think about it, this means that practically, if we could ‘fix’ communications, we could avoid the majority of the problems. Doesn’t that seem simple? (cue, Trump joke)

To make things even more complicated, there are a couple of different aspects that make up this cluster, including

“There’s a business etiquette around how people should behave and speak — and it gets in the way.”

Meaning, people are ‘too polite’, so to speak, and it hinders the work.
If everyone just said what they meant, things would move along a lot better. Another aspect of this is

“People will say what they think the other person wants to hear.”

At the beginning of a new relationship everyone wants to seem like the person the other wants to date (and then they end up with a 2nd degree burn).

Agencies tend to promise what they think the client wants (exceptions are the ones I’ve talked to, of course — but really, many were particular about this), and not necessarily what they believe is the right thing to do — but then they try to do that anyway. And clients don’t want to seem too ‘picky’ in the beginning, sot hey might go along with some things they will just reject later, rendering large quantities of work useless.

A third aspect is:

“Something that happens a lot in these environments is that you pretend that you understand when you don’t necessarily understand. Just because you don’t want your CEO to think you don’t.”

As the next cluster will point out, strategic design and its toolbox is often something new to the clients. But as this quote so succinctly puts it, and the high-end wine shop sales person less so,

“People don’t like to seem stupid.”

So more often than not, they won’t ask when something is unclear to them. They just wait and hope it will clear up as they go.

The bottom line is, if we could create a culture around open and honest communication, a ‘safe space’ where people don’t feel like they have to dress up or hold back what they think, the relationships would be a lot smoother. Actually, if you look at the picture of the clusters, you can see I’ve tried to put in some arrows to show connections between them, and to me it all seemed like in the end, everything comes down to this: open and honest communications. (This might change in my second round of synthesis though. Or not. To be honest, I don’t know. See what I did there?)

3. The ambiguity and uncomfortable way of working
Strategic design’s processes are non-linear and often use exploratory tools. This can be very uncomfortable for those who are not used to working this way. (Even to those who are, we just embrace the discomfort:)) There is no one right solution to a design problem, so, especially in the beginning, it often feels like we’re just feeling our way through the proverbial ‘fog’. It’s no coincidence that one of the most popular representations of the design process is the ‘squiggle’:

This is what design feels like — the ‘Squiggle’ by Damien Newman

Add to this an entire set of new vocabulary (double diamond, safaris, journey maps, downloading, synthesis, ‘how might we’s, blueprints, etc.),

“Sometimes we talk about our work in a really abstract way.”

and the fact that, if you’re doing it right, you often don’t know at the beginning of a project where you will end up,

“If you’re doing user research you’ve got to build in capacity to learn and react.” The project might change scope or direction.

and you can see why this can feel all mushy for people dedicating large budgets to it.

“It’s a bit of a black hole. You don’t know what you’re signing up for.” (a client)

This cluster includes thoughts about how we might alleviate that uncertainty (many agencies try to prepare their clients by explaining how they can expect to feel, or even do prep workshops to show the ways of working in advance). It also includes the question of how we can build in the flexibility to react to new information, while businesses prefer predictable projects.

The hard part about his, of course, is that in the end, it’s all about trust. And that is something that cannot be accelerated. Trust is built upon repeated instances of delivering on what you promise. So we just have to get an advance on it somehow. Openness and honesty might help:)

4. Understanding and empathy for the other company’s culture and ways of working

“People are often unaware that you see a different ‘white’ than I do.” (mediator)

This cluster’s core is around the fact that all company cultures and ways of workings are different, and client and agency-side work is fundamentally different. And even without being aware, we often just assume that some things are the same, because we don’t even think about the option that it could be different.

Agencies tend to have a relatively flatter structure, while client-side there might be layers of approvals and politics until a decision goes through. Many agencies are used to working longer hours, while their client counterparts don’t find it natural to be contacted outside of office hours. They have to present and defend their work differently within their organisations. They have different factors that can upend a project. It is crucial to understand each other, so we can set up a way of working that is productive and plugs in nicely on both ends to the organisations. It also helps create deliverables that makes sense and makes people’s jobs easier — because these are the things that help deliver projects from concepts to reality.

“We want to understand their way of working and how we can fit into that.”

On the other hand, some companies actually help clients change some parts of their structure or processes to make it easier for transformational projects to go through.

In either case, putting in the time and effort at the beginning to understand each other pays off in heaps throughout the project. Otherwise we still learn these things, but through mistakes rather than discovery. Which brings me to the last cluster on the picture:

5. Problem management

“There is no such thing as a perfect project.”

Again, just from the nature of strategic design projects, their unpredictability and ambiguity, there will always be something that feels off, or is actually off.

  • We might learn in research that our concept doesn’t work (which is actually great, that’s what research is for, so we don’t waste money on building the wrong thing).
  • We might go off timing because we realised there’s a more promising direction, or because something is more technically challenging than we initially thought
  • There might be tensions in the team because of miscommunication
  • It might seem impossible to recruit the right interviewees if they’re a special target audience
  • Key people might be pulled off the project
  • Earthquakes
  • A million other things…

Still, at the beginning of a new project, everyone wears their rosy glasses, and kind of pretends that everything will be all right. Yes, it might feel uncomfortable, but it will be fine. And then when something does go wrong, we often don’t know how to handle it. The problem is often not the problem itself, but how we go about handling it. Can we be solution-focused rather than blame-focused? It’s a key element for successful projects.

“the best projects have been the ones that had problems, but everyone was open enough to negotiate solutions around them.”

To make sure we handle things right it’s also pretty important to know ourselves as people, and how we react. As the couple’s therapist explains, there are primary and secondary feelings. E.g. a secondary feeling can be anger, but its primary feeling might be fear of being abandoned, or not feeling important enough (and its corporate counterparts:)).

Foreseeing potential roadblocks and either removing them from the way, or creating processes to deal with them can be a strategy (but I might be going into concepts too much now, that will be the next post!).

+1 yes, for those of you who looked at the picture with scrutiny, there’s one more cluster: ‘Shared Responsibilities’. I ended up putting this under ‘Creating one team’, because if you truly are on team, you will share the responsibilities. Although I do understand it can be tricky when money is involved. Responsibility will inevitably drift towards the party getting paid, though there were some interesting solutions that came up in the second set of interviews. More on that later.


The detail freaks (like myself) might have noticed on the top part of the clusters pic the title ‘Process’. It’s counterpart is ‘Content’ (off picture). This was also part of my synthesis, as I tried to organise the clusters and how they are connected. These words refer to the ‘process and content model’ that separates but puts equal emphasis on how you approach a project, and what is the actual content of that project. What I realised is that the majority of the insights I got from the interviews were concerned with the how, not the what part. There were only two small clusters under ‘Content’: 1. Money and
2. Clear Expectations. Though these are also super interesting topics, I decided to focus on the Process, as it has wider implications, and is already a huge topic in itself. Also, these two clusters are often part of the ‘pre-sales’ phase of a project, and I am going to frame the ‘beginning’ of a client-agency relationship from the moment they have agreed to work together. I know it starts earlier. I know. But that’s outside of the scope of this project. ;)

What do you think? Do you have any tactics or tools to deal with any of the topics mentioned? Which themes are more important for you? Any thoughts and sources are welcome.

In the next post I’ll write about the initial concepts I showed in the rest of the interviews.

…and here’s the link to Part 2:



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