Agencies need to stop giving clients appalling advice – and clients need to stop asking for it

When advising new clients who approach us, it’s always interesting to hear why businesses are in the market for a new agency and what services they are in the market for.

There are two common themes in the conversation.

Clients can often inadvertently ask for the wrong business advice, and agencies are more than happy to give it. I place emphasis on the word business here.

All clients have a back-story that tends to lead them to write a brief to deliver to a self-perceived solution or service that they think will solve the problem. But how can clients be so sure that they know what they need?

For example, I recently spoke with a really smart marketer who represented a £10m turnover membership business. They had a ‘web design’ brief for a new website. The brief had all kinds in there – better SEO rankings, new CMS, shop, CRM integration, better brand experience… you name it.

But as our conversation progressed it became clear they had a more pressing challenge. They were losing £140,000 in revenues because 2,000 members (net) were leaving every year.

My advice was to ditch the web brief completely and fix the leaky bucket instead.

“Spend your budget on shoring up your £140k loss – using a mix of DM, call centre support, specific web landing pages, email and other things – and demonstrate tangibly to the organisation the value that marketing can have.

“Then, once you have an extra £140k in the bank, you suddenly have £140k budget to focus on the next most valuable thing. That ‘next thing’ might be the website. It might not. We’d take stock and re-evaluate when we get there.”

That would be an amazing result right?

But here’s the thing. I was giving her a new problem. She wanted a new website, and I gave her a retention strategy. And making a board-level U-turn is something no one likes to do.

Will she find a web design agency that will take her money and build her a new website? Absolutely. Will it make her an extra £140k in year one? Absolutely not.

When businesses do the wrong things they fail. And when they fail the board points the finger and says things like ‘marketing spend doesn’t work hard enough in this business’ and ‘we’ll need to cut marketing budgets next year’ or worst still ‘get a new job’...

No one wins. Not even the ‘web design’ agency who builds this unneeded website wins.

They might get a short-term cash injection, but likely in the longer-term they will have a failing relationship and an unhappy team on their hands because this was the wrong thing to do and it therefore didn’t show a business return.

We are perpetuating our collective failure, and this lack of assertiveness creates dissatisfaction for everyone.

This story is not isolated.

Another business I know had a perceived need for an app. So they approached an app development company to build them a new app and guess what? They built one!

Sadly, what they really needed was a world-class mobile web experience, which (at some point in the future) may have benefited from an app experience.

They didn’t need a new app, yet they spent a fortune on it. But because they got the wrong advice they have spent time and money on the wrong things. They have since had to crowbar a web strategy into an app strategy, which will naturally have compromises.

Ironically the website will go live before the app, and will start to drive revenue back into the business sooner, and for a fraction of the app cost.

So, as practitioners we have a responsibility to advise the people we speak to in their best interests – not ours.

I would like to think the marketer I spoke to recently will look at the role digital plays for her business in a new way. Even if she doesn’t re-engage with me, I hope she takes the time to revisit her business problems before jumping into ‘solution’ mode.

But both parties have a shared responsibility.

Marketers and IT teams need to think about the business problems they are looking to solve; and studios and agencies have a responsibility to give better business advice and signpost clients into the right relationships based on insight.

Because doing the right thing is really our only option.

Steve Peters is digital business director at Code Computerlove

Search The Drum Jobs

Explore the best jobs in Marketing and Media industries
View all open jobs