How digital consultancies are changing client-agency relationships

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Bringing in a digital consultancy often means opening up an uncomfortable level of transparency, writes the founder and CEO of Engine Digital.

There’s a trend in the marketing business, where brands continue to move away from single-agency relationships toward a more competitive multi-agency environment. It’s often described as a way to reduce costs, spur greater creativity and innovation, and increase the emphasis on results.

When it comes to digital, however, the typical client-agency relationship seems to be heading in the opposite direction. In recent years, we’ve seen far more long-term engagements, partly driven by the changing nature of what digital means to our clients, and partly due to the increasing complexity of the digital ecosystem and its ability to help organizations succeed.

For many digital agencies, this evolving client need aligns with a shift away from digital marketing—the ad agencies have long owned that space—towards a service offering that, at one time, was only offered by business consultancies. But the increasing importance of digital as a way to support organizational growth has led to the emergence of a new kind of agency—the digital consultancy.

Where business consultancies are focused on helping the C-suite understand both the upside of investing in transformational projects, and the downside to maintaining business as usual, digital consultancies tend to focus not just on identifying opportunities, but concepting, prototyping, and testing solutions quickly. These solutions can include digital product innovation or business-wide digital transformation, and this kind of engagement requires long-term, dedicated and committed partners that can dig deep into the business and work quickly toward real outcomes.

So as more and more brands look to hire digital consultancies, there are several considerations that will help guide their search.

Lean and agile operations: Let’s be honest, both clients and agencies are often guilty of bringing too much complexity to their working relationships. Whether it’s oversized project teams on the agency side or too many gatekeepers for approval on the client side, these layers can end up derailing projects, killing creativity, and negatively impacting the final product.

The digital consultancy model is based on small, streamlined teams able to move fast and collaborate, removing unnecessary layers of management so the team can focus on results. It also ensures a high degree of collaboration with client-side colleagues by removing some of the barriers that often get in the way of progress.

Cross-functional teams: Defining digital solutions requires a team with a broad understanding of the client’s brand and business, their audience, their technology stack and so on. Long gone are the days of the waterfall-based process where the strategy team sets the vision, the design group defines the visual experience, and the technology team then builds it all out.

The digital consultancy model ensures a fully cross-functional project team is given the resources needed across practice groups—research, strategy, design, technology—to uncover the right insights and define the right solutions. These teams collaborate with their client counterparts through all stages to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard. No practice group works in isolation, and the end solution is almost always better using this approach.

Roadmapping projects together: Defining the scope of a digital project can be a challenge in almost every instance. Unfortunately, the most common approach is for an agency to define this independently, and then bring the client a recommendation for how best to spend their budget. It’s common for agencies to roadmap a big project as part of their planning process, but clients are usually left in the dark as to the specifics.

Digital consultancies work with client partners to identify, organize and prioritize the work that needs to be done. This is no longer done in isolation, leading to uncomfortable scope conversations. Instead, it’s part of a collaborative decision-making process of every major project and gives the team and the client an equal voice and a role in defining how a project will unfold. When everyone is aligned on what the objectives are and how to achieve them, the agency and client team collectively gains a mutual focus that helps to strip away unnecessary distractions or surprises.

Trust and transparency from the outset: The most effective partnerships are built on trust, and that’s no different in the traditional client-relationship. Similar to hiring a business consultant, bringing in a digital consultancy often means opening up to an uncomfortable level of transparency.

In one instance, we were tasked with auditing several internal tools used across a global financial services company so our team needed full transparency across many levels and global regions. This transparency allowed our team to create a single platform that helped align global teams and streamline workflow. Without transparency, our outputs would be guesswork at best.

For any client agency relationship, what’s most important is finding the right partner and setting the conditions for success. Avoiding a round peg, square hole situation can mean the difference between success and failure.

For those brands seeking out a digital consultancy partner, look to understand how your agency team operates—are they a true agile organization? Find out how they’re structured—do they value cross-discipline teams? And know whether or not they have the strategic rigor to balance business strategy with true digital, design, and technology sensibilities that help move your business forward.