photo by Designecologist

The ingredients of a good client-agency relationship, Part 2.

Previously on the show

You can read about why I’m doing this project, and what it is exactly here, in Extreme sports, religion and the secret to better agency-client relationships: an exploration

Then the first part of the research is explained here: in Part 1 of this article. We pick up from there…

Initial Concepts

Going into the second round of interviews, I didn’t just want to do broad questions again. Though the first half of the interviews were still about understanding the processes of these very established design agencies, the second half were about validating the clusters that I’ve made, their relative importance compared to each other, and their connections. The third half (or third third, if you will) was about sharing some initial concepts I had in mind — so we wouldn’t just talk theory, but actually see what they think of different types of solutions. What could work, what couldn’t, why, how it might be done better or differently. Proper discovery stuff.

My initial concepts on ‘idea napkins’

I like to use ‘idea napkins’ in this very early stage of sharing ideas. Their use is similar to IDEO’s ‘conversation starters’, or sacrificial concepts.

They are concrete enough so that people will have an opinion about them, but vague enough so that everyone can have their own interpretation of how it would work. I didn’t put in a lot of time to create them, so I’m not attached to them, and it’s completely OK if they end up in the bin. To me the interesting part is why — because that directs my further designs. And if something does stick, all the better! I can go on iterating on it until it becomes something that answers a real need in the right way.

Now, without further ado, the napkins:

The User’s Manual

The ‘User’s Manual’ generally got positive feedback, some agencies even mentioned they would probably try it out. An interesting additional insight gained was that while agencies usually introduce their entire team at the beginning of a project, and explain why each individual was chosen to work on it, clients rarely do that — and it would be nice. But there were also some concerns about:

  • the fact that at the beginning of a project people might not go very ‘deep’ with this, not be fully honest, and if you only scratch the surface, it won’t really work for what it’s meant
  • It might take up too much time, relative to its advantages
  • Would people really refer back to it?

The Guided Tour

Again, positive initial reactions, and also a good sign that people instantly understand the concept and smile, as it brings in positive thoughts. People deem it would be interesting to see a ‘day in the life’ of their partners. At the same time, there are valid worries about:

  • How long it would take (1 hour doesn’t necessarily seem realistic, and then it’s just too long)
  • If, without any prior preparation, people could come up with valuable scenarios
  • The playfulness of using theatrics — maybe not every client type is open to that

The Design Forecast

This is probably the one that got the most mixed feedback. The agencies that have a pretty standard process really saw potential in it. They already have something similar, though ‘less sophisticated’ (their words) in place, but they could completely imagine making it more detailed and customised to projects. On the other hand, many other agencies couldn’t even imagine anything like this, as every project is so unique and different.

The Bluff Jar

When I explained this idea, I also added a little preamble that’s not included on the napkin: That it would be introduced via a small game (similar to 2 truths and a lie, where you have to call people’s bluffs), and then people would be encouraged to keep using the technique.

This was (unsurprisingly) the one that was probably the most controversial amongst the interviewees. The main insight that came out of it was, people draw the line of ‘honesty’ very differently, and would be hesitant to be 100% honest, all the time in a project. To them it’s rather about cultivating a culture of general openness, not necessarily with techniques. At the same time people seemed curious, some even mentioned they would love to “try it with a client I don’t care about”, just to see if they could get honest answers to some pressing questions they always feel are being misdirected. Interesting:)

The Code Red

It’s no coincidence I left this idea for the end. This is the one I’m going to pursue and iterate on (actually, I’m already in the process). This one instantly got people to start thinking about how they would use it, and got very positive feedback, with a few healthy reservations. The way people started to unpack it for themselves allowed me to see possibilities in it that I didn’t even think about in the beginning:

  • It would create psychological safety around handling potential problems
  • Talking through potential problems and how we would handle them allows us to get to know the other company’s culture indirectly (maybe even better so than a ‘guided tour’
  • people said it feels very ‘mature and different’ — you could make it playful, but also keep it old-school professional
  • You can create great value in a relatively short timeframe
  • Co-creation makes it ‘personalised’ to the specific project
  • By workshopping it, we don’t just talk about how we work on design projects in an abstract way, but we actually show it, and experience it together
  • And while I wrote in the previous post that ‘trust’ cannot be accelerated, it actually seems like being frank about potential or past problems and looking for a solution might just give us an advance on trust as well.

The main concern about this idea, that two separate agencies mentioned, was starting out on a ‘negative’ note. There is usually very good energy in the beginning of a project, so it feels a little counterintuitive to start talking about how it could all go wrong up front. This is something I have to keep in mind in framing the exercise, to make sure it doesn’t bring people down.

note: this is also a gap in the existing best practices. While discussing potential barriers is part of some standard exercises like Project Charters, none of the agencies or clients I’ve talked to mentioned using this part of it. Also, the existing options mostly focus on risk management and barrier removal, while I imagine this exercise going wider, and is definitely not just about prevention, but also about preparation, and ways of handling things productively.
About building a solution-culture instead of a blame-culture.

So right now I’m working on creating a detailed exercise for Code Red (and a better name:)). I will probably test it quickly within the next 2 weeks, iterate on it, then connect back to some agencies I’ve interviewed who said they would be willing to test it for me with their own clients. Hope this is still the case:)


While downloading the second set of interviews I made, I almost had a pivot-moment. I’ll just copy-paste the e-mail I wrote to my mentor about it, thought it’s an interesting behind-the-scenes peek:

Hi Matt,

Maybe this is just Monday morning speaking, but as I listen back to more and more interviews it’s getting harder to ignore the problem that’s so obviously a pain to both sides: money.

How payment is handled really affects the work:

- When the prices come out from the agency’s side (an offer) — they feel that’s the lowest point in the relationship and that clients often don’t understand why it costs so much, and always want to negotiate

- there’s a tension between the model of clients and agencies: clients usually make products that once perfected, can be sold over and over again with little additional work, so it’s worth putting in the time to perfect them. Agencies get paid by the hour, so they will always want to do things in the least possible time, or get paid more if they work more. Every additional time we spend on making things better, costs more — which is again frustrating for clients to balance (and sometimes for agencies to plan)

- Procurement processes haven’t changed in centuries, they are made to ‘buy screws in bulk and get a discount, not people’s creativity’ — they tend to look more at the price than the price-quality ratio

- With budgets firmly set by people who don’t even work on the project, agencies try to make do with what they have, and do what they can from that money, instead of what they should be doing for the best outcome. — this also means there’s no learning curve because ‘last time, they could do it for that money’

- Most often there’s no flexibility at all in the pricing, while there has to be flexibility in the project outputs — that’s why we do research, to learn something we didn’t know in the beginning, that will influence what we’ll do from now on — and its price.

So it’s a clear problem area for me, that hurts both sides. Also a problem area I haven’t specifically researched, it just came up — which is nice from a research and synthesis perspective, but not so nice time-wise, because I’d have to do further research. And of course there’s no clear or easy solution, and it’s hard to test [within the restrictions of my Industry Research Project]. But it seems so interesting.

Hope this was interesting for you all, to be honest I didn’t feel the muse today when I sat down writing, but you can’t always wait for her, sometimes you just gotta write. Curious to hear your thoughts.



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