Michele Chang-McGrath is the owner and exponent of a skill set that is, in her own words, “kinda rare”. This is perhaps an understatement. Rare and highly coveted might be more fitting.
After all, it’s not just anyone who can say that one of the world’s most well-respected digital and creative powerhouses has bent over backwards to get them into its team.
And yet that’s exactly what LBi did for Michele earlier this year when it hired her as its head of research – a vacancy moulded specifically with her skills in mind.
LBi’s roots stretch back to 2001 and beyond. Its sustained growth and the widespread admiration it receives is the model for – and the envy of – digital creative shops.
As an agency, LBi has put a single question at the heart of what it does and turned that question into its modus operandi. The question is: What’s Next? It is the question that informs its work, and defines its attitude to the ever changing world of digital. By hiring Michele, LBi is making a clear statement of how critical the research discipline is to answering that question for its clients.
When Michele and I sit down to speak at LBi’s enormous headquarters on Brick Lane we start by discussing the practicalities of the task facing her.
She says: “Consumer insights are fundamental truths about how people conduct their daily business. The decision making process around phones or groceries, how they socialise, whatever it may be. How they live their lives.
“Up until now we’ve been thinking about research and insights as more of a validation or checking activity. Now we’re asking what consumer insights can do in terms of developing campaigns, creating a whole strategy for a client, and in terms of growth. We want that to be leading our process.”
Those insights, according to Michele, are very different from statistics.
“One of my biggest frustrations is the attitude that ‘we just need some stats’, as if stats will answer anything. They are a component in terms of what you need to know, but they won’t tell you the answer. There is something called analysis and it’s critical to the research process. When it comes to being able to have a strategic point of view, if you just have data you have nothing really.
“Understanding what the data means is something that we, as an industry, don’t give enough weight to.”
Why is that, I ask? “I think clients can regard it as invisible work. The model is that clients pay for doing, for producing something – not for thinking. As an agency it’s difficult to say ‘it took us x-long to do this project because part of it was about thinking, and mulling it over.’ People have become too focused on production. I’m not saying do away with that altogether, because production is critical. I’m saying: we can’t afford to forget about the other components that are necessary to pull this stuff off.”
It must be difficult in an agency ecosystem focused on production to break out of that and attempt to have more influence on strategic activity?
“It’s a challenge, certainly. But that’s what work is. We are beholden to the reality of doing business in this space, so you have to know how to prioritise. There are client demands and you have to meet them, and then there is the ability to say to yourself, ‘yes, I would like to grow this into something more exciting’ and taking a piece of that with you and planting that seed for the client.
“It may not be in the first week after that project closes, it may not be for several months; it may not even be that client. But you’ll be able to capture that desire and ambition for something that could have been and use it elsewhere.”
Michele acknowledges the challenges of the agency-client relationship as part and parcel of her role. Is the biggest of those that the agency, in the end, is led by the client?
“It’s a relationship. We like to have healthy debate with our clients; to be able to challenge, and to be challenged back. It’s just a question of what clients are in a position to be able to say yes to.
“There’s a tension between client-side and consultancy-side. There’s a feeling that consultancies are always trying to sell the next big programme, and from the other side a feeling that ‘you’re thinking too small’. How do you actually resolve that? That’s a really interesting problem and it’s one I enjoy working with. It’s about listening and taking viable steps that are comfortable for everyone involved.”
Michele’s route to arrive at this point has been an interesting one: from hardware giant Intel, via innovation and strategy consultancy, ReD, to world-beating East London creative shop. Where ReD was small and strategic, LBi is big – really big – and as much about execution as the macro-picture. How has she found the transition?
“I thought that it might have been overwhelming, but I’ve actually found that it suits me better. Since coming to LBi it’s been about working very closely with digital, working out exactly what it means to consumers.
“I’m very lucky because I’ve got a lot of support around my agenda. It’s crucial to a business, being able to fuel it with insight – I mean, that’s a no-brainer, right?”
So, the answer to LBi’s totemic question – What’s Next? “We want to help our clients to think about their structure,” says Michele. “The way that they move ideas around their organisation.
“In order to fuel a really great idea we actually need to do a lot of the stuff up front, and to create a community of thinkers who can facilitate that. That’s what’s really happening now.
“The whole industry is awash with players and they all want a piece of digital. We grew out of digital, and now we have to grow up and take the next step to create true value for our clients. Strategy is the answer to that. There is an appetite from our clients, and we are getting organised around it.”