When we started Zeus Jones we did what almost every startup does: made a list of principles we wanted to build around.
One of those principles was to directly collaborate with clients to solve problems. “Collaboration” gets a ton of lip-service in the agency world, but we observed that even the most collaborative companies have structures that tend to keep clients at arms-length from the people working on their business.
There are a lot of excuses for why this is case. A mistaken belief that clients will “dumb-down” agency creativity. A perception that creative people don’t think strategically or about business goals. The belief that involving too many people will cause “groupthink” and churn that leads nowhere. The idea that people on both sides should only be working with people of similar seniority/pay grade on the other side – e.g. “Top-to-top”, Business Director-to-Account Director, Junior Marketer-to-Junior Account Person, etc.
All of these widely-accepted beliefs ran counter to what we had always observed – that when we worked closely and directly with people on the client side the ideas were bigger, the impact higher and the relationship stronger.
Over the years we’ve tried to cultivate a very different, more direct kind of collaboration with clients – and within our own teams. Some of what we’ve done is:
1. We’ve eliminated Account Management as a distinct role.
This one is the most surprising to people who don’t work here, and there are a ton of implications to it. We’ve always thought that clients should have direct access to the people working on their business, and it means that everyone in every role is client-facing. There can be no wallflowers in a model like this, no “wacky creatives” that sit in a corner and just come up with ideas. Account management is a team effort – every one in every department helps manage the relationship and the work.
2. We invite clients to our internal brainstorms.
We believe in getting clients involved early and often. This has a ton of huge advantages. We get access to the expertise they have about their own business – nuances that we could never get from a one-page brief. We’re also able to get a temperature check on how they feel about certain kinds of ideas – which saves us time going down paths that are never going to work so we can focus on what will. Most importantly, it gets them emotionally involved in the ideas at a very nascent stage which helps us shape them together as we go forward vs. trying to sell them an idea later.
3. We have more work sessions than presentations.
Although it is our job to shape, define, package and present ideas; we typically go into client meetings with the goal of making ideas better vs. just getting them to buy a finished concept. As a result we find ourselves having “yes, and…” conversations rather than “yes / no” conversations a vast majority of the time. Again, we can never know the inner workings of a client’s business as well as they do, but we can help uniquely solve problems when we have their expertise on our side instead of working against us.
4. We combine disciplines and we ask clients to do the same.
Study after study shows that team diversity is the biggest factor in innovation. Sadly, traditional agency creative departments lag way behind in almost all forms of diversity. For our part, we tackle work with multi-disciplinary teams that include at least one person from each discipline (at Zeus Jones we have 4: Strategy, Creative, Design and Production) working on the project from beginning to end. But more importantly, we ask the same of our clients. When we host brainstorms or working sessions we encourage participation from not only the client-side marketers, but the R&D folks, the product teams, the sales teams, etc. Not everyone has the same ability to take thoughts and make them into big ideas – but often the spark for that big idea comes from a piece of knowledge that only the product designer or the sales manager knows. And most importantly client teams tend to be much more diverse than agency teams in every way. Many of our clients recruit talent from all over the world so being able to tap into that diversity, experience and brainpower is a huge advantage for us.
We’re always trying new ways to collaborate. The net result of what we’ve done so far is that we’re able to create positive momentum early on in a project, access a wide variety of expertise to help shape ideas and make them better, and get alignment on where we are headed long before a final presentation. Ultimately, it gets us to bigger ideas faster and clears the path to executing those ideas.
This style of working isn’t for every client – some may just want to outsource their thinking to an agency. But for those who like to get their hands dirty – and we’ve found the vast majority do – our processes help us get to great ideas together.
Also, it’s just way more fun this way.