Brand Strategy

HOW ACTION-CENTRIC DESIGN CAN IMPROVE CLIENT-AGENCY RELATIONSHIPS 

Gary Chiappetta
CEO & Partner

September 3, 2020

Last week at the BXP Live Conference, I was fortunate to listen to a discussion on rethinking the client-agency relationship. John Gleason, the owner of consulting firm A Better View; Michael Draper of CBX; and Fe Amarante from Danone facilitated a conversation on how the client-agency model is broken and the potential solutions to fix it. There was a lot to unpack in such a short hour but I believe the model is not broken, but stale. The future of the agency-client relationship is more about creating an action-centric working partnership that starts with rethinking the brief and incorporating co-creation in design work. These ideas are not new, but having the right staff, experience and training takes discipline and time.

First, let’s start with the requisite client brief. Amarante spoke candidly and with humility on the inadequacies of most client briefs. One difficulty may lie in the RFP process which doesn’t always allow agency partners to challenge the thinking while bidding for projects. A brief, in many cases, is a hypothesis, a place to start a conversation. Consequently, it is more helpful when both parties are able to discuss and possibly rewrite the brief together while considering how internal and external teams can achieve project goals. Access and communication are key to working through the brief and aligning on budgets, timing, and overall expectations. Yet even so, design thinking is not merely following the brief and giving clients what they expect; it is just as important to challenge these expectations by incorporating consumer trends, provocative creativity, and category disruption to produce new ideas. Our Pointing North methodology allows us to do just that and gives everyone a seat at the design table. It’s in our DNA to deliver project objectives while also upending or reimagining them from different perspectives.

*BIG IDEA refers to the connection between the objectives, consumer data, the creative markets and the business performance goals. Big ideas can emerge as nuanced changes. 
Another one of Amarante’s key points (and obvious annoyance) was the idea of the “agency black box” or “black curtain,” which is the period of time in which the agency is working fervently in the office on design concepts only to emerge weeks later with a big reveal and sometimes a big disappointment. Not necessarily because the creative was bad but perhaps due to the waning communication during this working period. Moreover, external influences may be changing the brief back at the corporate ranch while the agency is still fleshing through the original hypothesis. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Partnerships are about working closely together, sharing knowledge that at one point wasn’t relevant but has now become part of the design challenge. It could be new consumer data, a competitive move, an increased cost in materials, or changes in manufacturing or distribution. There are always a lot of moving parts and that are always, well, moving.

To succeed in today’s fast-moving consumer-product markets, brands and their design partners need to act more like entrepreneurs—all the time. They need to think fast, embrace experimentation, and take value from failure. In other words, they need to supplement their professional experience and technical intelligence with two key things: the creativity of design thinking and the agility of an action-centric process versus a linear one.

In the design world, there are two different approaches to process: the linear Rational Model and the agile Action-Centric Model (which is equivalent to our Pointing North methodology). The Rational Model is a plan-driven process or sequence of events that is influenced by prior research and accepted knowledge. Gerhard Pahl, Wolfgang Beitz, and Herbert Simon, the authors of this model, state that “designers attempt to optimize a design candidate for known constraints and objectives” [my italics]. In other words, designers are asked to work in a predictable and controlled manner through a strict linear sequence of phases: design brief, analysis, research, defined specification, design development, modifications, implementation, evaluation, etc. I have simplified the thinking, but we all know the drill.

Alternatively, the more agile Action-Centric Model is the future of both agency-client collaboration and the creative culture within agencies themselves. We know it works because we have been practicing and honing this approach for many years. Whereas the Rational Model stresses prior research and accepted knowledge, this model is based on an empiricist philosophy of building knowledge through sensory experience and using abstract thinking to arrive at tangible artifacts such as comps, mock-ups and prototypes. In essence, the Action-Centric Model is more about thinking on your feet, designing with your hands, and modeling your ideas in dimensional form. You are quite literally making them. In our opinion, this method is superior because it allows designers to do what they are naturally inclined and ultimately hired to do: explore, deconstruct, evaluate, and redesign using instinct and emotion along with evolving their ideas with research and data.

In today’s market, there are various business factors and external influences that affect decision-making. For example, trends, brand attributes, consumer behavior, and competitive landscape are already in our lens. But there are many more ever-shifting influences beyond our immediate field of view. For instance, how well is the company (and its stock) performing? How does that shift economic priorities, sales forecasts, current inventory, staffing? Have there been any recent regulatory mandates or product recalls? These outside influences create an environment of constant change that a siloed linear approach cannot adapt to so they’re often ignored, whereas an Action-Centric Model continuously incorporates new data to refine the business challenge while also creating design solutions.

Every project stakeholder wants to be heard, their ideas realized in some form. Adopting an Action-Centric Model can help ensure all perspectives are considered and revive the client-agency relationship. However, embracing this approach takes more than lip service: it requires courage, time, and both parties working together. Agencies need to manage continuous change effectively and build agility into their engagement strategy and budget. With more open lines of communication, agencies can also stop complaining about a “difficult” client because they are better equipped to understand each other while exceeding expectations. Conversely, clients need value and ROI while still ensuring their agencies are operating profitably. Rely on the methodology, stay flexible, and rest assured that an agile approach is well worth the effort when it comes to growing brands.

Bibliography:

Schön, Donald A. Invention and the Evolution of Ideas. London: Tavistock Publications, 1967. Print.

Schön, Donald A. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. NY: Basic, 1983. Print.

Ratcliffe, Lindsay, and Marc McNeill. Agile Experience Design: A Digital Designer’s Guide to Agile, Lean, and Continuous. Berkeley, CA: New Riders, 2012. Print.

Pahl, G., and Wolfgang Beitz. Engineering Design: A Systematic Approach. London: Springer, 1996. Print.

Fernaeus, Ylva. “Beyond Representations” towards an Action-centric Perspective on Tangible Interaction.” Int. J Arts and Technology1.3/4 (2008): 249-65. Web.

Ralph, Paul. Comparing Two Software Design Process Theories. Rep. UK: Lancaster U, n.d. Print.

“Principles behind the Agile Manifesto.” Principles Behind the Agile Manifesto. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 July 2014.

“Design.”Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 15 July 2014. Web. 16 July 2014.

Embracing Agile. Working paper. Applause, n.d. Web. 11 July 2014. <https://www.applause.com>.

“Donald Schön: Learning, Reflection and Change.” Infedorg. George Williams College, n.d. Web. 7 Jan. 2014. <https://www.infed.org/thinkers/et-schon.htm>.

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