A New Start

The traditional agency model has been around for years. But things are changing fast. Are you ready to rethink the way you collaborate?

Richie Jones

Director of Partnerships at C Space

Richie Jones is C Space’s Director of Partnerships. With over 15 years’ experience in insight and customer centricity under his belt, his work with Nissan, Tesco and Vodafone led to major changes in how his clients engage their customers, drive strategy, and engage their employees. Richie is also a frequent writer and commentator, having been featured in The Grocer, Campaign and CityAM. Fun fact: he has a precious bulldog called Sir Ronnie Barker with his very own Instagram page.

What do clients want? When our clients ask us what customers want… we ask customers. Obviously. So in that spirit we convened a group of clients to talk through some of our ideas for new services, and hear their feedback on our current work. It was an interesting, and in some ways sobering experience.

All of our clients loved our work, which is great. The big ‘but’? No matter how good its deep, emotional, truthful insight, and no matter however impactfully delivered it was, it would never go straight to their C-suite on its own. Never. Didn’t matter how great it was, how true, how compelling. Never is a hard word to hear.

So what does make it to the C-suite? Well, some of our stuff is in the mix (thank God), but it’s paired with some quant from another agency, some ethnography maybe from another, transactional data they generate in-house, maybe tracking data… and so on. The triangulation of data is everything – one client said it and every other client nodded – there has to be more than one source or no decisions can be made on things that will affect millions of customers and hundreds of thousands of employees.

So in fact our carefully crafted insights and recommendations were being rather roughly nailed together with all sorts of other information from all sorts of other agencies into a giant, unwieldy deck. All the agencies’ names are stripped off before it’s presented to the C-Suite by the in-house insight team. Clients agreed this was a painful and inefficient time suck, but it was more commonplace than we could’ve imagined.

This isn’t just about reporting. Talking to other clients and friends in the industry, it became clear that this is just the pointy end of the wider, and cyclical, nature of the client-agency relationship – what insight teams want from their agencies, how many they use, and how they arrange and work with their roster. At the most basic level over the years there have been two main models – the ‘one-stop-shop’ and the ‘multiple specialist’ models. But now we feel there’s a third – Customer as a Service.

Our work has always been in making sense of things – of the ‘why behind the what.’ We’ve hired and trained our people for decades in seeing the connections between what people say and do, telling a clear story, collaborating. By leveraging this skill set and forging a close relationship with the client, the aim is to increase the value of all the work clients are doing across their roster through identifying synergies, efficiencies and new insights. Because the nature of our work (through communities especially) is always-on, we are well-placed to offer a point of view, a sense check, or add context to insights from other agencies, either live or retrospectively.

Clients should see the benefit of this – it is about driving outcomes, not methodologies. It is not about running more projects, it is about getting more value out of the projects you do run. It is about delivering impact, not just reports. We think this is the near-term future for the agency model which is why we’ve invested in building the capability and breaking our own processes (and slaying some sacred cows along the way) to make it happen. But the only thing constant is change – we need to keep listening to our clients, and know that when they say something that hurts, that is uncomfortable, that challenges us… that’s the thing to really value, and to build on.

Making The Models Work For You

The ‘One-Stop Shop’
Basically the way that the large research houses made all their money, and the predominant agency model for a good portion of the 2000s. Full Service Agency is the usual descriptor, although the term Jack-of-all-Trades gets thrown about every now and then. Need focus groups, communities, ethnos, market sizing, IDIs, competitor intelligence, someone to stand with a clipboard outside the shopping mall and ask people about something obscure? We got you.

 

It’s reassuring and solves some client issues; they don’t have to manage five agencies, just one. They can do everything, they join it all up. It’s easy to see why its popularity peaks in certain times. It’s also clear why its popularity wanes – clients start to get antsy. What if one agency can’t really do everything to the level of quality we need? What about complacency?

The ‘Multiple Specialist’
Having had the idea that one research shop can’t possibly do everything well (an idea planted Inception-like at some obscure conference by a boutique specialist agency no doubt), clients start to move away from handing their entire budget over to one mega-agency.

 

They start thinking, why not have a specialist qual agency? A specialist quant agency? As new technologies crop up, the roster broadens. You need a behavioral economics agency. Doing focus groups and ethnography is very different, so probably get a specialist ethnography agency. And so on.

 

You can say that you’ve got true experts involved in every part of the process, and there is real value in that. But for some clients this becomes too much. The roster becomes huge, unwieldy and fractured. Internal headcount goes down and it becomes prudent to have fewer agencies to manage. Or internal headcount goes up and you start to in-source some of the capabilities.

The ‘Customer as a Service’
Most of our clients who run multiple agency rosters (that’s all of them) have been through a process of winnowing and rationalizing their roster; for the most part they stick to trusted relationships.

 

What we might call the ‘hub agency’ model is based on a position of respecting our clients and their choices, and respecting the other agencies on roster. How do we work within the roster system to help the client maximize the value they glean from all agencies, not just C Space? Customer as a Service provides a way, a byproduct of how we have always worked as an agency and what our capability-building and focus on integrating multiple data points of our proposition allows us to do.

 

The idea of ‘lead agency’ has been around for a while; an agency that sits a little closer to the center, which takes on more responsibility in areas where multiple agencies collaborate. The ‘hub agency’ idea takes this one step further – an agency that helps organize agency activity across a workstream, that regularly references, incorporates and contextualizes the work of other agencies (and internal teams) to create stronger, more actionable insights and recommendations.

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