Dying of thirst in a sea of solutions

(Photo courtesy  Bert Kaufmann via Flickr)
(Photo courtesy Bert Kaufmann via Flickr)

Best of 2014: It's all well and good to talk about expansive "solutions" intended to sell clients more services -- but without understanding what they really need, more may not be better

What do clients want from agencies?

Pose that question to agency people, and you’ll be sure to hear frequent mention of the word "solutions." Integrated solutions. Data-informed solutions. Cost-effective solutions. All reasonable answers, yet one has to wonder if "solutions" has become shorthand for "what we’ve got in our product portfolio." (In which case the better spelling might be "$olutions.")

Valid as the "solutions" response might be, this perspective reveals the critical flaw in the current agency/client dynamic. On the one hand, agencies are indeed providing more services across more channels and delivering more information than ever before. Yet even as our capabilities are expanding, our perspective is contracting.

Put another way: When was the last time you offered a client an idea that had no potential to generate an SOW?

There’s an old saying in retail: "The customer doesn’t care how much you know; he knows how much you care." Applying that somewhat simplistic axiom to the agency/client relationship, is it fair to say that agencies need to balance expanding the breadth of their capabilities with the depth of their commitment to the client’s broader business needs?

Early in my career I had the good fortune to learn just how important that balance is as an account executive on a regional baked goods account, where each member of the team was required to spend several weeks each quarter riding the delivery trucks and stocking shelves at retailers. While there are certainly easier ways to learn about what clients want from their agencies than climbing into a truck at 4 a.m. in the dead of winter, there probably aren’t many that are better.

During these agency mandated ride-alongs, the team gained first-hand knowledge of all aspects of the product’s in-store performance — nuances that you can’t see from a sales report, such as how as having an elementary school versus a high school near a retailer, or being located in a single family home versus multi-family residence neighborhood impacted uptake. These real-world learnings informed recommendations that we took to the client each quarter — most of which fell outside the parameters of traditional advertising and marketing ideas. The goal wasn’t to find more ways for the agency to make money – the focus was on ideas that would address business challenges and enhance business growth – knowing that client growth would translate to increased opportunity for the agency in the long run.

When I founded my own agency, Domus, in the early ‘90s, that premise informed our go-to-market offer. As Domus marked its 20th anniversary this year, we took the insights gained from two decades of asking our clients about what they need from their agency to a broader scale, partnering with Harris Interactive to launch an annual study on unmet client needs. The results of the 2014 benchmark effort revealed that many clients are indeed dying of thirst in a sea of solutions.

Which brings us back to the original question – what do clients want?

  •  They want ideas that go beyond advertising to reveal new revenue streams – which means an agency that knows as much or more about their business as the they do
  •  They also want more meaningful social media metrics – or as one client told us, "I need a quantitative metric that upper management can respect"
  •  And with more than 60 percent of survey reporting "digital dysfunction" within their organizations, they want a blueprint for creating digital effectiveness at the enterprise level

Meeting these needs requires a secular shift in how agencies engage with clients. We need to stop reactively selling mass market service solutions and start proactively delivering customized business solutions. Instead of building a portfolio designed to meet every client’s needs, we need to start building agencies that can meet each client’s needs.

Betty Tuppeny is co-founder and CEO of Domus Inc.


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