The Soda Academy
"Strategy isn’t something that an agency can create inside a magic black box – effective strategy requires a learning process on both sides."

Chris Pile, TheFARM

Why Agency-Client Communication is Broken and What We Can Do About It

Agency-Client Communication

When a brief is vague and lacks genuinely useful consumer insights, it takes a lot of time to work out what the client actually needs. We’ve road-tested a way to build a better brief right from the pre-engagement stage, reducing the time required to create a strategy from weeks to days.

The system that we’ve tested centers on the following two workshops involving the agency and the client-side team:

  1. Discovery Workshop (2 hours) allows the agency to gain better clarity on client objectives, pain points and challenges, and to get a more complete picture of client-side team members’ varying priorities. This is a structured deep-listening exercise that rapidly extracts information from key stakeholders on the client side and builds consensus on priority audiences, objectives, etc.
  2. Strategy Workshop (Full- or half-day) allows the agency to gain rapid buy-in on digital strategy. A visual format similar to that of the Discovery Workshop is used, but new data, insights and tactics are layered in. The Strategy Workshop also includes a prioritization exercise that provides the management buy-in agencies need to go ahead and complete the go-to-market plan. Gaining consensus around priorities is important because client briefs are often a wish list that would cost far more than they have to spend. Therefore, managing expectations from the outset is key.

There are other steps in the process, but the two intensive sessions outlined above form the centerpiece. This workshop model focuses on the principle of visual collaboration. Using a tabletop visual canvas, clients and agency team members work step-by-step in a highly collaborative manner in order to gain a complete picture of priorities. Some of the broad inspirations behind the approach include lean startup thinking, design thinking, and the Business Model Canvas by Alex Osterwalder and others.

Running a Discovery Workshop with a prospective new client in Singapore.

Discovery Canvas is a two-meter visual roadmap for discussing an organization’s challenges and building a strategy. The overall layout is standardized and serves as a visual agenda for discussion questions. When we use this methodology, we add some of the elements to the canvas before the workshop based on our knowledge of clients and their industry, but we build on those elements throughout the session, based on what they tell us. Two facilitators from the agency ask questions and build the canvas, while at least one additional agency person takes detailed notes.

Basic layout of Discovery Canvas 1.1 (Q1 2015)

‘I don’t have visibility on that.’ It’s a phrase that is heard frighteningly often in large corporations that aren’t good at sharing information. Getting the broader team in the room (not just marketing) is how we start to alleviate this problem. Some workshops include Director-level, C-level and Board-level stakeholders. The tabletop canvas helps get everyone on the same page. We build up a picture right before their eyes of the challenges that need to be solved, and we start to explore solutions.

Clients usually welcome the opportunity for better collaboration click here to see results from this year’s Digital Outlook Study related to client collaboration and this provides the platform to start changing how we do things, reducing from weeks to days the time required to develop and to gain buy-in around a digital strategy. Collaboration flows naturally from the visual & tactile format, and from getting the right people in the room with the right style of facilitation.

Rapid test & learn is key to effectiveness
During the Discovery, we work together with clients to develop a clear picture of their challenges and objectives. The subsequent Strategy Workshop is where we map out in broad brush strokes what strategies and tactics we can use to address those challenges. This is a lean/agile approach that involves iterating ideas in a tabletop exercise that we can rapidly take to market for testing in order to learn what tactics work.

But rather than using unfamiliar terminology, we have devised an approach that feels safe and intuitive for clients. We also give a ballpark indication of how much they would need to spend. This allows us to identify what would be realistic for the immediate scope of work, and what would be more appropriate for the future phases of a strategy roadmap.

This approach has worked well for client-side teams that have varying levels of digital maturity, because the people most knowledgeable about digital have a chance to get their views across, and the higher-ups have a chance to ask questions in a facilitated session.

Strategy isn’t something that an agency can create inside a magic black box. Effective strategy requires a learning process on both sides, and methodologies like the one described in this piece provide a platform for such learning to take place rapidly.

Passionate about creating businesses where smart people grow good ideas, Chris has fostered a strong team who share a passion for connecting people with brands. Industry interests include Lean Start-up Methodology & the importance of results-driven work. Chris is now based in Singapore focused on growing TheFARM across Asia.

Illustration provided by Russia-based SoDA member, Red Keds