Lost in the sea of sameness

Isn't it time that data is used to evaluate and aid in the decision of choosing us, the consultants, the advertisers?

As digital consultants and agents of advertising, we preach about data and the necessity of using it to create great experiences. We say ‘in order to be disruptive or transformative you must use data to make better business decisions.’ Isn’t it time that data is used to evaluate and aid in the decision of choosing us, the consultants, the advertisers?

Brands spend millions a year on digital experiences; the digital experience spend is attributed to 18% of their marketing budget in fact. And yet, selecting a partner to strategize, design, build and maintain experiences is still largely based on emotion and subjectivity. This very important and expensive decision is still led by the notions of who you know and being at the right place at the right time.

We can’t really fault the brands or even the agencies and consultancies for subjective partner considerations. It’s an overwhelming and growing sea of sameness out there. A quick look at agency/consultancy websites and you’ll see the same words - maybe in a different order: human experience, fusing disciplines, rooted in creativity and technology, solving the toughest challenges and having the longest standing relationships. It’s like choosing frozen pizza from the freezer aisle at the grocery store. They’re kind of all the same and so you pick the one that is on sale or the one that you’ve had before (because it was on sale the first time you bought it). Is this really a good way to make a multi-million-dollar decision? Or buy pizza?

This is a bit tongue in cheek. Brands do take partner decisions more seriously than buying frozen pizza, but they are leaning on methods that don’t necessarily lead to the best outcome. I mentioned relationships in the introduction. This is business after all and relationships are essential: they should get you in the door, they should lead to continued business if trust and quality have been established, but relationships shouldn’t eliminate competition. It’s an aid, not an answer.

Some people follow the Request For Proposal (RFP) process which is an attempt at unbiased regulation. The brand sends out a questionnaire to a handful of popular agencies. The agencies spend a ton of money to curate a response (we all know this story and complaint), the brand and agency meet a couple of times, they meet the ‘team’ to be assigned the work and review a snippet of work based on a guess at the problem to be solved.  It’s a dance that is expensive and timely for both the brand and the agency/consultancy without the guarantee of selecting the best possible partner.

Some executives rely on Forester or Gartner and the analysts do a very good job, but they review the content that the agency wants them to see and they speak to clients with whom the agency wants them to speak. So, it’s a review of the best work without accounting for any failures or negative sentiment.

Finally, some brands start with agencies that have won awards. Sure, you can look at awards, but that doesn't mean the entire agency or consultancy won the award - it’s generally a group of people responsible for the work awarded. 

If not relationships, price, timely and expensive processes, quadrants, waves or awards what should be evaluated to find the right, most talented, experienced Digital partner? We have ways of reviewing brands, consumer products, restaurants, software products, doctors, lawyers, recipes, home service providers, and on and on and on. But we don’t have a way to objectively review the people responsible for designing and developing the experiences that we all use every time we interact with our phones, our computers, our voice assistants. The people who are directly contributing to the bottom line. This begs the question, can we do better? Is there a better way to match brands with digital agencies so that the best work is produced? 

If managing an agency or consultancy reputation was an easy problem to solve, we all wouldn’t be making the same claims. And until there is a way to aggregate and publish data about services that require a group of people working together, I urge brands to not only use the traditional methods of selecting a partner, but also research the people that make up your teams. Get to know the individuals producing the work.  Understand the way they think and consider their personal contributions. Not just the Leaders/Executive Teams, but the Directors, the Managers, the people doing the work. It’s the people and the dynamic magic of the team that makes the experience.  And as agencies and consultancies look to stand out in the sea of sameness, also remember, it’s the people.  Promote and advertise your people. Not just the leaders, but the Directors, the Managers, the people doing the work. Showcase their talents, their thinking and their contributions.

We CAN do better, but until we have a truly quantifiable way of assessing a creative and technical partnership, don’t forget to look to the people responsible for the work.

Jennifer Zimnowski is a digital consultant with more than 20 years of experience. 

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