Three reasons it's okay to scare your clients

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Sometimes agencies need to have the tough conversations that can make clients uncomfortable, writes the North America CEO of Wunderman

People who take risks tend to be smarter.

That’s what Finnish scientists found, after measuring what risky behavior does to brain activity and structure. Because challenge is mentally stimulating, risk-takers have evolved to have better-developed neural networks. Or as the study said, "It takes brains to take risks."

Taking a risk is obviously scary, but it’s crucial for today’s marketers who have countless ways to reach consumers. Unlimited opportunities can be overwhelming and simply sticking to what is "tried and true," as opposed to taking a risk and trying something new, seems like the safest coping strategy. But, doing the same thing leads to complacency, which, in this constantly changing landscape, means being left in the dust.

Agencies owe it to their clients not to let that happen. In short, agencies need to step up their game. The goal is to be the most respected partner to our clients by adding value in every way possible. This means we sometimes have the kind of tough, but honest, conversations during which we tell them what they don’t necessarily want to hear—even if it is a little scary sometimes.

Here are three ways agencies should be scaring their clients:

Think "beyond the brief." Every agency talks about being a partner to their clients. But not every agency actually acts like a partner, as opposed to a vendor. It’s not enough to simply wait for a brief, create a scope of work and execute exactly what the client asked for. A true partnership requires agencies to go the extra mile.

Creating something worthwhile often starts by reframing the problem. I recommend kicking off all work with a diverse group of talents across different capabilities: Creative, Planning, Analytics, Technology. Getting these talents together and aligning on what’s being asked is critical. This often allows for the most interesting debate to happen right out of the gate, which can lead to both clarity and the exploration of new angles and ideas.

Many of the most interesting or uncomfortable territories would be left unexplored if these "what if" sessions didn't exist. Clients know when agencies are truly interested in helping them solve their problems—most of the time, all it takes is going that extra mile and bringing thinking that is outside the confines of the original brief.

Bring data into every conversation. Still, too much of the advertising and marketing world is purely subjective. Many agencies continue to "sell" clients campaigns built on qualitative observations alone. And many clients are continuing to invest in campaigns without a clear understanding of attribution or return on investment. With so much data available, it can be hard to know which data is most valuable.

I recommend building agency teams where everyone is "data literate." That said, clients also require a different breed of strategy and analytics capability. It is now expected that agencies be able to use data as a catalyst for creativity versus for business analytics alone. Measuring and reporting on campaign performance is not enough. This new breed of talent must have the skills to continuously observe data as it relates to the key target audiences, to culture, to transactions and to the business overall.

The goal is to make the data "usable" across the entire idea-development process, from the identification of insights all the way to construction of the consumer experience. These are not legacy strategy generalists. These are talents with real industry experience and with the skills that enable them to turn data into value for clients.

When Microsoft wanted to celebrate their one-year anniversary of Xbox One, they used gaming data, transaction data and social data to show appreciation for gamers. The brand did something unorthodox: they sent ridiculously long emails to gamers. But those emails were highly personalized, with each one including a data visualization detailing the recipient’s gaming accomplishments over the past year. By using a diverse set of data, Microsoft showed gamers that they understood them, which ultimately led to increased engagement and advocacy.

Be bold, not "reckless." Scaring your clients isn’t about suggesting some wild piece of creative or using a new technology in a way that exists only to catch people’s attention. If it doesn’t do anything to build the brand or the business, then it’s a reckless waste of money.

I get excited by brands that are pushing boundaries and putting consumers at the center of everything they do. Brands like T-Mobile, Starbucks and TD Bank have created authentic brand engagement experiences rooted in solving everyday issues. They are aggressively building value propositions in areas like customer service, product development and rewards programs that are scary on many levels but are ultimately changing customers’ expectations forever.

Agencies have an opportunity to push clients toward a deeper understanding of the questions people ask. Getting out of a "selling products to customers" mindset sounds easy, but is actually difficult for most clients and agencies. Constructing cross-capability teams that dig deeper and build a more robust foundation of knowledge is the goal. With this approach, even ideas that feel a bit daunting become real possibilities.

Without risk, there’s no reward. So go ahead: use all of your talents and capabilities to scare your clients. If they resist too much, just tell them that the Finnish scientists said they’ll be smarter for it.

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