In this episode, Jason and Jeff discuss different types of agency-client relationships and offer perspective from both sides on how both agencies and the companies who hire them can have a better experience working together and ultimately, reach the desired results of a project.
About the Episode
To start the episode, Jason and Jeff talk about the problems surrounding the reasons why companies aren’t getting the results they want from the agency they hire.
Jason offers perspective from an agency side.
“[Agencies are] having the wrong conversation. The agency is asking a whole bunch of clarifying questions about the scope of work that the client has preordained instead of asking the questions that are questioning whether or not the scope of work is the right one.”
This is happening for three reasons:
A) Agencies aren’t comfortable having those conversations
B) Agencies don’t know how to have those conversations
C) Clients aren’t opening the door to those conversations. They’re hiding behind the vest and saying, “No, I figured this all out. You just go do it.”
I don’t think in either scenario that’s a healthy agency client relationship.
Next, Jeff offers up his perspective as a former CMO.
“You hit on some really good points. I’d throw a couple of others in there from a buyer’s perspective, from a CMO’s perspective. And I wrote a blog post on this a while ago entitled, Are You Building The Brand You Really Want and that ultimately firms fall into one of three categories. Either you’re an order taker, an order maker, or a dinner party host.”
1. Order Taker – The order taker is the firms that take orders. “I want this input, get me this input.”
2. Order Maker – The McKinsey’s, the Accenture’s of the world, they’re setting the tone and the strategic direction for the industry and they come in and they say, “We’re the experts here, do it our way.”
3. Dinner Party Host – Firms that invite their clients to be guests in their home and they collaborate and they converse around a dinner table as they’re breaking bread—that’s totally unique to those polar opposites.
“A lot of firms think they’re a dinner party host, but they’re really order takers or they’re dinner hosts and you know, they’re just buying stuff from the grocery store and taking the plastic off it and serving it up instead of, you know, really creating something special.”
“One of the things that I just hated as a CMO is when I would bring an agency in for what I considered an input and they want to go back and rethink my entire strategy, or need me to explain it in detail so that they might possibly be able to add value.”
Jason offers his perspective on Jeff’s comment:
“My sense is that the agencies that you invite into that conversation are that way and they want to go back upstream against those things are just not well positioned, right? They’re generalists and now they’re in a situation where they’re trying to understand.”
“Now, I would also kind of, a little bit, put it back on you in the sense that, I’m not so sure that any great agency wants a client that doesn’t want to have a deep and meaningful conversation about their strategy. And you’re probably missing opportunities for a good agency to add value with that mindset.”
So, my sense is that [there’s layers]:
Layer number one is you might be inviting in the wrong agencies.
Layer number two is they’re not well positioned, hence they’re not sure what questions to ask, or they’re asking the wrong questions and aren’t getting to the heart of the issues that you want, or are getting you to think differently.
And layer three is are you really hiring agencies the right way with the right expectations.
Next, Jason and Jeff look at a rebrand as an example of results not meeting expectations:
“A rebrand [has] one path of design me a logo and a color palette and a brand identity, i.e, order taker. Or reposition my firm strategically based on market research. The rebrand requires both of those, but which one are you being asked to do?”
“The interesting thing [is] they’re asking for that logo story, but they think it’s the remedy to the other problem. And that’s where the disconnect is.”
“If we just repackage this thing, all of a sudden all of our problems are going to go away. No, probably not. Now, you may still need to repackage. Just because the value proposition is broken and you’re not clear on where you compete anymore or you’re not clear on what your point of view is and all those things need to be sorted out, you may still have a massive visual problem on your hands that needs to be completely repackaged and that’s fine. But, you can’t think that one is an answer to the other.”
“And, you know, a good agency would say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, slow down. I’m not so sure your input’s actually gonna solve the problem you’ve defined.”
To close, Jason and Jeff offer agencies three pieces of advice on choosing the clients they work with:
1. You have to be exceptional at qualifying opportunities. Is this one consistent with your ideal client? Yes or no? And if it’s not, you need to walk away because there’s a misalignment between the value that you offer and the value expected. If they are aligned, they are your ideal client and appreciate your value.
2. You need to be really clear on the desired outcomes. How are we going to measure success?
3. You have to be very clear on the scope of the work, or probably more accurately, the nature of the work.
“I think the scope can be pliable, meaning that if we’re in agreement on what your desired outcomes are, the scope, if you do this right, the scope can be fluid, the scope can change on the fly to be nimble and get you to your outcomes you want. In fact, that would be the ideal agency client contractual model, to the extent it’s feasible, is to agree on the desired outcomes, contract around the desired outcomes, and then let the scope be fluid enough to enable both partners to get there.”
Jeff McKay: Well, I threw this topic out when we were doing the brainstorming and being a former CMO I wanted to talk about what a pain in the ass it is to work with agencies.
Jason Mlicki: That’s just because you always hired horrible agencies.
Jeff McKay: Right. And that was your pushback. Although, I disagree with you, but you’re right in some cases. And you’re like, “No. You’re thinking about this all wrong, Jeff.” It’s about hiring for inputs or outcomes. And I thought to myself, you’re exactly right. That just nailed it. So, we’re gonna talk about that today.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah. You know, it’s interesting, there’s a couple of industry consultants to the agency world that I read and follow and I got a newsletter from one of those guys yesterday and the gist of his article was sort of about value creation and the central premise of the article is that a lot of agencies have fallen into a trap of delivering to the scope of work so that the client defines the scope of work, the agency delivers against the scope of work, and the agency feels great that they did everything the client asked and the client is disappointed because they didn’t get the outcomes they wanted. And his argument was this is a missed opportunity for a lot of agencies, because the agency is having the wrong conversation. The agency is asking a whole bunch of clarifying questions about the scope of work that the client has preordained instead of asking the questions that are questioning whether or not the scope of work is the right one.
So, going upstream and saying, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Time out. You know, you want to build this website, or you want to launch this campaign, or you want to do whatever it is you want to do. But let’s take a step back and look at the underlying thoughts that you have that led you to believe that this is the solution.”
And the gist of my thoughts on this is that, my sense is that there’s just a lot of agencies that either A) aren’t comfortable having those conversations, B) don’t know how to have those conversations, and then of course there’s a whole lot of clients that aren’t opening the door to those conversations, you know? So they’re just kind of hiding behind the vest and saying, “No, I figured this all out. You just go do it.” I don’t think in either scenario that’s a healthy agency client relationship. No, the agency needs to be comfortable asking those value type questions and the client needs to be comfortable answering them. And if those two things aren’t happening, then you are setting up a recipe for disaster in which the client has a set of desired outcomes, they’ve hired a collection of inputs, and they’re frustrated when the outcomes don’t come and they blame the agency. Say, “Agency, you messed up, you didn’t deliver the outcomes I wanted, even though I never told you what they really were.” Follow me?
Jeff McKay: I follow you exactly. Why is that happening?
Jason Mlicki: That’s such an awesome question? That actually might be the most insightful question you’ve ever asked on this podcast, Jeff. I don’t know if I entirely know, but my sense is that somewhere along the line, the relationship between agencies and clients just sort of broke down. Some of it is probably driven by, I don’t know, let’s hypothesize a couple things. One is I think agencies lost their status as trusted advisor to a lot of their clients and that’s probably a little bit of their own doing. You’ve expressed the feeling that there’s a lot of agencies, and we’ve seen these agencies in our client relationships, that go in with an agenda to sort of push sell solutions to nonexistent problems. So, that’s how you lose your trusted advisor status is when you’re going in there and saying, “Mr. Client, you need to go cut all these videos over here.” When there’s no design problem statement for those videos to being needed, right? Whatever the tactic is. And I think a lot of agencies fell into that trap over the last decade, and so agencies probably got themselves out of the trusted advisor seat on some level.
My sense is there’s a cultural issue, too. This is a deeper issue, right? Step back for a second and think about the rise of the spreadsheet over the last decade and what happened to the relationship between clients and agencies. All of a sudden clients, sort of, were buying agencies by the pound and they were really trying to hyper measure the cost of the inputs they were getting.
I remember we had a client, we laughed, they literally … This was back in the print days when we were designing a lot of literature for this client, and this client, he literally calculated how many pages when into every single thing that we produced for them, and the cost of what it was to deliver, and calculated a per page cost for our work. And then said, “Well, we think this is how you should price.” The funny thing was, is he’s dictating this, and this is how he did … I’m not … This is entirely true, this entirely happened.
Jeff McKay: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jason Mlicki: And the funny thing was is it actually became much … Then all of a sudden we said, “Okay. We’ll price that way.” We ended charging him even more, and it make absolutely no sense. And, as you know, there’s just no rationale there. The work we were doing should never have been measured on that metric. It should have been measured based on the value we’re creating for them, right?
Jeff McKay: Well, that’s a productivity school metric, right?
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, absolutely.
Jeff McKay: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jason Mlicki: Absolutely. So, I hypothesize there’s at least those two, right? Agencies earn their way out of trusted advisor status. There was sort of a cultural shift in the business world where, I hypothesize, it’s the rise of the spreadsheet where we kind of got into this hyperspace of we have to track and measure everything, you know? You talked about when we set this podcast up, the notion that you got so tired of agencies talking to you about hours they billed or whatever.
I know it’s hard to believe, but there was a time when tracking time was difficult and you couldn’t really track time all that well, and agencies at that point in time, I’m imagining, probably didn’t bill based on time, did they? They billed on some entirely different metric, but then somewhere along the line, you know, the bean counters came in and said, “No, no, no. We’ve got to track every last minute of your day and we have to, you know, job cost that and then we have to have a price,” and that’s ridiculous. I haven’t had a conversation with a client about hours in over a decade. Longer, probably. We got off that in early 2000s. We’re not having that conversation. That’s a total waste of time.
Jeff McKay: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jason Mlicki: You don’t care how many hours I got on this, you shouldn’t. You should only care if I’m delivering on what you want, you know? The outcomes. It’s all you should care about.
Jeff McKay: Or the inputs.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah. If you wanted … If I let you buy the inputs, or you chose to buy the inputs, then you should only care about us completing the inputs you’re requesting.
Jeff McKay: You hit on some really good points. I’d throw a couple of others in there from a buyer’s perspective, from a CMO’s perspective. And I wrote a blog post on this a while ago entitled, Are You Building The Brand You Really Want and that ultimately firms fall into one of three categories. Either you’re an order taker, an order maker, or a dinner party host.
Jason Mlicki: I want to hear what these mean.
Jeff McKay: So the order taker is the firms that take orders, right? I want this input, get me this input. And those, I think, fell into that because it’s easy. They were probably hyper specialized in a given function or discipline and they will go to people for, “I need this video. I need, you know, this piece of collateral. I need this very specific tactical thing that fell out from a much higher perspective.” So specialization led to part of this problem, I think.
The order makers, you know, the McKinsey’s, the Accenture’s of the world, they’re setting the tone and the strategic direction for the industry and they’re out there sharing points of view, and they come in and they say, “We’re the experts here, do it our way, or you’re an idiot,” to some degree.
And then the dinner party hosts are those firms that invite their clients to be guests in their home and they collaborate and they converse around a dinner table as they’re breaking bread and that’s totally unique to those polar opposites.
A lot of firms think they’re a dinner party host, but they’re really order takers or they’re dinner hosts and you know, they’re just buying stuff from the grocery store and taking the plastic off it and serving it up instead of, you know, really creating something special. But anyway-
Jason Mlicki: The dinner party hosts that are hosting horrible dinners.
Jeff McKay: Yes. Yes.
Jason Mlicki: I love those three, by the way. I layered on the order taker’s the doer, the order maker is the advisor, and the dinner party host is the collaborator.
Jeff McKay: Yes.
Jason Mlicki: At least that’s what I took away. And I wanna layer on a … Your original question of why did this happen, meaning that why did agencies find themselves in a situation of, and I wanna get off agencies in a few minutes, in a situation of not creating value and then sort of working against the inputs. My hypothesis would be, and you hit on this, is that there was a period in time when it was pretty easy to be a highly profitable firm as an order taker. The client tells you what to do, you did it and you made good money.
Jeff McKay: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jason Mlicki: And then the bean counters came in, and that’s my spreadsheet analogy, and all of a sudden that got exposed and all those firms that were order takers all of a sudden weren’t making much money anymore. And now all of a sudden they tried to become order makers. They realized they had to become order makers, but they really weren’t sure how to do it. And they’ve kind of stumbled and struggled through that. And I’m sure all of us have, I mean, you know, have ever tried to make that transition.
Jeff McKay: Yeah, and that’s particularly evident if you’re dealing with large corporate procurement functions or lower level buyer that has to justify some budget spend. So I get that. So, I think that’s one dimension of what’s causing this.
Your other point about agencies and kind of expand that to professional services firms so it’s applicable there as well because we’re kind of talking to marketing leaders and how they can more effectively work with agencies, but we’re also talking to practice leaders who want to be order makers or dinner hosts and work more effectively with our clients here as well.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, that was … You read my mind. That was what I was thinking, too. Was that, yeah, we’re talking about the agency/client relationship, but my sense is that this is true for all firms, have had these issues where they fall into this trap of the client dictating inputs and them just going along and saying, “Yeah, let’s do that,” without having a deep enough conversation about, “Wait a minute, what are we trying to do here?”
Jeff McKay: And as a CMO, this is one of the things I always had difficulty with. When an agency came in, or I invited them in to have a conversation about an input or an outcome, let’s call it an engagement, my perception of them as an order taker, order maker, or dinner host dictates my approach to them. So, I have a preconceived notion to them.
It’s not to say that they can’t alter that, but I’ve reached that conclusion based on interactions with, you know, their intellectual capital, their people, peers that have worked with them. There’s a whole lot of inputs that are shaping my perspective of who they are and what they’re capable of doing. That’s not to say that they can’t shift that in an interaction, but to your point where you said either the agencies don’t want to have that conversation, don’t know how to have it, or are not capable of having it.
One of the things that I just hated as a CMO is when I would bring an agency in for what I considered an input and they want to go back and rethink my entire strategy, or need me to explain it in detail so that they might possibly be able to add value. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to take my time to educate an agency. If they can ask me the right questions, and/or, and this is probably more important, do your homework before you come and visit me. Do you know my industry? Do you know my firm? Do you know what my firm’s been up against? Can you read, strategically, what you see the firm doing and directionally tell where we’re going and then you can ask one or two, three quick questions and know fairly quickly, whether or not this needs to be an input or an outcome.
I think other ways firms think, “Well, let’s do this input really well on this first project and then we’ll earn the right to do some outcomes type of engagements down the road,” and I don’t know that that’s necessarily true. I guess there’s some gray area there, but I’d like to get your thoughts from an agency perspective on what I just said.
Jason Mlicki: Well, that’s really. There’s multiple layers to that. Let me try to unpack them a little bit. So-
Jeff McKay: Jason, you say that every time I answer. “There are so many layers there. There’s so many questions to that, I have to.”
Jason Mlicki: You have to ask simpler questions. No, I’m teasing. Well, I see a couple of layers. So, layer number one is that if you’re inviting an agency in the door to have a conversation with them and the inkling at the beginning is that from your standpoint is I’ve already figured this all out. I just need you to go execute on it. Then for the expert agency, you’re not a very good client, right? The expert agency is going to say, “Well, we don’t really want doer engagements for we’re just your hands. We want to be your advisor.”
The order maker agency is going to sort of reject that and say, “Well, we’re not really interested in this engagement,” right?
Jeff McKay: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jason Mlicki: If the agency is asking incoherent questions or questions that don’t demonstrate that they’ve done homework on your business or have done their homework to be eligible at the table, that also routes up to a positioning issue, right? Meaning that if they can’t ask you good intelligent questions, then haven’t found an agency that’s well positioned that really understands the niche in which you’re asking them to work with you, right? I would argue that my goal would be, for our agency, would be that when the client comes to the table to have a conversation with us, we should know the category in which they operate or the nature of … Because we work so narrowly in professional services firms, the nature of their practice so well that without me doing any homework I should be able to come in and ask a handful of questions that get them thinking in ways they haven’t thought before. And that is true 90% of the time, right?
Jeff McKay: Spot on. Yes. I like where you’re going. I like where you’re going.
Jason Mlicki: My sense is that the agencies that you invite into that conversation are that way and they want to go back upstream against those things are just not well positioned, right? They’re generalists and now they’re in a situation where they’re trying to understand. They’ve been tossed into an ocean and they’ve got a paddle and they’re trying to figure out how to find shore and be relevant and they’re just not relevant in the moment.
Now, I would also kind of, a little bit, put it back on you in the sense that, you know, just, and I hinted at this a little earlier, I’m not so sure that any great agency wants a client that doesn’t want to have a deep and meaningful conversation about their strategy. So, you’re probably, if that’s how you were behaving, if you were coming to the door saying, you know, “I don’t want to tell you about my strategy. I don’t really have the time to educate you.” What you’re saying … That’s somewhat arrogant, right? You know, to some extent what you’re saying is, “You’re not smart enough, Mr. Agency, to have expert guidance here that I need or value.” And you’re probably missing opportunities for a good agency to add value with that mindset. So, I don’t strike me as the person that would be that way.
So, my sense is that … That’s why I said there’s layers, right? Layer number one is you might be inviting in the wrong agencies. Layer number two is they’re not well positioned, hence they’re not sure what questions to ask, or they’re asking the wrong questions and aren’t getting to the heart of the issues that you want, or are getting you to think differently. And layer three might be, well, are you really hiring agencies the right way with the right expectations.
Now, all that said, I say all that and I have been criticizing you. I don’t mean it that way. But there’s certainly instances where it makes a whole lot of sense to hire an order maker, right? You know, to say, “I just need this done quickly and I don’t need you to think, I just need you to come in and do it,” and there’s a market for that and that’s totally fine. That make sense?
Jeff McKay: Makes perfect sense. And you’re fast becoming, behind my wife, the person that helps clean up my verbal messes.
Jason Mlicki: I didn’t mean it that way.
Jeff McKay: No, but. You’re right. And maybe there is a tinge of arrogance in my voice. That was not my intention. But-
Jason Mlicki: I know it’s not. And that’s why what I said about it, like-
Jeff McKay: You raise a good point, and I think I say it … I feel like I can tell somebody that is a business thinker in an agency that delivers outcomes, not just inputs. There’s a certain language that consultants use that is highly technical, highly discipline oriented. And then there’s a language that business people use that is focused on outcomes, business outcomes, outside of a specific business functionality.
Whether you’re a CMO, a CFO, a CIO, a CSO, there’s certain language that exists within those silos, but the business outcomes seldom are discussed within those silos. The business outcomes are revenue, cost, risk-
Jason Mlicki: Profit, growth, expansion. No, no-
Jeff McKay: Yeah.
Jason Mlicki: It cuts across all the silos and you want the T shaped individuals, right? That are-
Jeff McKay: Right.
Jason Mlicki: Deep in this silo but then can cut across.
Jeff McKay: Right, and I think it’s the depth of the business understanding that separates the outcomes and the inputs. It’s the consultants, the agencies that are deep in the input silos, the functional perspective feigning to be business thinkers that I have trouble with. And that’s the lineation. So, you’re spot on in what you were saying, so maybe that is a little arrogant there, but that’s where I think agencies and professional services firms, who always desire to kind of move upstream in terms of buyers, really need to change and they don’t think exactly how they’re impacting those types of things.
Jeff McKay: So what I think would be useful, let’s get into some specific examples of outcomes versus inputs in the world of agencies. And you kind of alluded to a conversation from another newsletter that you had read, but let’s get into that and maybe we can talk about, “Well, here’s how I would think about it from an agency.” And I’ll say, “Well, here’s how I would think about it from a CMO perspective,” and see if we can reconcile those and give people listening real value.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, no. That’s a great way to look at it. I mean, I’ll start with maybe the obvious one that we get fairly frequently. Not as much as we used to, this is less and less.
Well, first off, I mean there’s a couple letters here. But a client writes an RFP, so that’s probably, you know, no no number one, right? That’s how they’re starting off a business relationship tells you that they are looking for an order taker, not an order maker.
Jeff McKay: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jason Mlicki: Which is already a cultural disconnect for our agency, anyway. So it means we’re not going to be well aligned with them. And the RFP says we want to build a website. Now, you and I added this on our topical list. You know, do you need a $100,000 website is one of our topics that we’ve been bantered around, maybe be talking about.
So, the input I guess would be we need a website. The outcomes are, of course, all the questions around why do you need a website. Why do you need to change the website you have? What are you trying to accomplish as a business? What do you think this is going to do for you? And what are you going to do with the website once it’s built so that it gets you to the outcomes you want? And that’s the conversation that they need to be having. A lot of times they’re not having it at all internally. That conversation isn’t even being had. And then if the agency opens the conversation then they’re shocked.
Now, in terms of specifics for listeners, I mean the specifics I can think of, is if you just look at the objectives of the design, right? When the objectives are business oriented, they are, “Well, we’d like to increase our visibility on these topics. We’d like to generate these amount of leads that we can turn into conversations and new revenue for these practice areas.” And those are good healthy business objectives, I would argue.
More typical stated objectives on redesigns are things like, “Well, we need to be mobile friendly. We need to have this functionality on our thought leadership pages. We need to have this functionality on our people pages.” Right? So, they’re sort of defining all of the kind of little nuances that need to go into the site and that’s good and it needs to be done eventually, but those aren’t objectives. Those are tasks to be done.
Jeff McKay: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jason Mlicki: So, when I think about outcomes versus input, that’s the things I see. And a lot of times when the marketer shows up with that RFP and we actually do get into a dialog with them, which I mean, I’ll be up front saying we haven’t really responded to an RFP and so long I couldn’t even tell you. But that’s the conversation we’ll have. We’ll say, “Okay, this is nice. You’ve put some good thought into what you’d like this website to functionally do, now let’s talk about what it’s gonna do for your business. Why are you doing this? Why are you spending any money at all on this? What’s the business case for this investment? What do you wanna get out of it?”
Jeff McKay: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jason Mlicki: And a tell tale sign of a client that wants to buy an order, getting them confused in my head, an order taker is one that can’t answer those questions, or is not comfortable having that conversation.
Jeff McKay: Mm-hmm. (affirmative).
Jason Mlicki: And there’s a cultural disconnect, and that’s probably okay for the two to part ways. For the client to say, “Well, I want a taker, not a maker.” And agencies say, “Well, we’re an order maker not a taker.” So we’re gonna go our separate ways and shake hands and say good luck, right?
Jeff McKay: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jason Mlicki: Let’s explore other example. Is that what you were looking for, by the way? I don’t even know?
Jeff McKay: Yeah.
Jason Mlicki: I lost track. You know, any great consulting firm does not want to come in and be dictated to and told what to do, right? L.E.K, McKinsey, they’re not gonna come in the door and let the client tell them what should be done ever. And the same holds true for any great agency, right? No great agency is going to come in and just let the clients say, “Well, I’ve done this a million times. Let me tell you what to do.” And any great agency is going to come in and say, “Well, no. Let me give you some advice on how to go about this.” And to your point, they may be an order maker or they may be your dinner party host. Maybe they’re one of those two different genres, but you know, there is no great agency that wants to be in an order maker function.
Jeff McKay: Order taker.
Jason Mlicki: Order taker. Thank you. Kinda having a hard time with this. And so whenever you put them in that scenario, you’re basically putting them in a situation where they cannot do their best work and they’re just not going to do their best work.
You know, we had a client and I’ll tell this story briefly. There’s two stories I’d like to tell real fast and I’ll try to tell them quickly.
So the first story is, and in hindsight now I recognize why this is. Big engineering firm, one of the top 500 in the country or whatever, calls us in and I start asking a whole bunch of questions. And the owner kind of looks at me and says, “Why are you asking me these questions?” And he says, “You sound like a management consultant, not like an agency,” and right there I should’ve known that there was a cultural disconnect. Well, I knew there was a cultural disconnect from our firm. We never have worked together. I doubt we ever would. Because all he was really looking for … He would constantly send me these inquiries. You know, can you help us with our proposal templates? Can you help us with proposal training? No, no, no. I cannot do those things. I have no desire to do those things. It’s not what we do for a living. But that was marketing to him, and he had a really hard time seeing anything else.
So, there’s a cultural disconnect at the start between how the agency sees themselves and how the clients themselves and I think that, you know, it’s best when to part ways when that’s the scenario. And I’d never let that client in the door, right?
The second instance I’ll tell you is about a client that I did let in the door that had brought us in to help them really drive this massive content engine that they built, where they had built out nurture streams, you know, giant spreadsheets seven layers deep, they’ve defined every single content asset that pushes to everything, and they need someone to kind of build all of this content around it. And so I let them in the door. I said, “Yeah,” and I did exactly what you said. We’ll go in as an order taker and see if we can migrate our way into a maybe an order maker in some way, shape or form.
Definitely did not work. An interesting thing was is when the client hires that way, they hire the order taker, what they usually say is they make a bunch of instances where they want order maker stuff. “Well come in, I want you to execute, you know, do all this stuff that’s already been predefined, but if you see anything that’s wrong, tell us what it is.” Well, that’s really, actually, a very unrealistic expectation, because you’re not actually giving them real permission to look at what you’re doing and say it’s not working. And the funny thing was that particular client even said, from the beginning, “This isn’t working. We’re struggling. We found you guys because you guys are experts at this,” and then they said, “But we wanna hire you as an order taker.”
Now, the mistake I made is I let them do it. And, of course, we did the project. It went well. They had success. And we mutually walked away because they wanted to hire a vendor. They called their agencies vendors, red flag, and that’s not how we operate as an agency.
I think all of these analogies hold true for both of our clients, I mean, and most professional services firms face these dichotomies. Clients that want to be in control and dictate what the firm is doing and firms that are saying, “Whoa, no. Time out. We have expertise and we need to bring it to bear.” And so there’s a push pull there that plays out in every relationship, I would imagine, and you have to know when it makes sense to part ways before the relationship happens.
It’s just not going to work out, if how the firm sees themselves is different than how the client sees the firm they want to partner with.
Jeff McKay: Let’s jump in with another example is when a firm comes to us and they want to rebrand. And rebrand, normally has, you know, this one path of design me a logo and a color palette and a brand identity, i.e, order taker. Or reposition my firm strategically based on market research. The rebrand requires both of those, but which one are you being asked to do?
Jason Mlicki: Yeah. The interesting thing about that comment is that when that does come to the table, often, what I’ve seen historically, is that sometimes the firm doesn’t … They’re asking for that logo story you described, but they think it’s the remedy to the other problem.
Jeff McKay: Yes.
Jason Mlicki: Right?
Jeff McKay: Oh, all the time.
Jason Mlicki: And that’s where the disconnect is.
Jeff McKay: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jason Mlicki: If we just repackage this thing, all of a sudden all of our problems are going to go away. No, probably not. Now, you may still need to repackage. Just because the value proposition is broken and you’re not clear on where you compete anymore or you’re not clear on what your point of view is and all those things need to be sorted out, you may still have a massive visual problem on your hands that needs to be completely repackaged and that’s fine. But, you can’t think that one is an answer to the other.
Yeah, that happens frequently, and that’s a symptom of something we touched on earlier, right? Just that notion of, “I’ve explored this problem at great depth in my mind and I think I’ve come to the solution and now, Mr. Agency, I need you to execute the input.”
Jeff McKay: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jason Mlicki: And, you know, a good agency would say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, slow down. I’m not so sure your input’s actually gonna solve the problem you’ve defined.” There’s an agency owner, I don’t even know him, but this quote’s been bantered around for a while. He likes to say, “You can’t read the label from inside the jar.” And I love that quote. That’s sort of a typical thing that I see clients do all the time. You know, they sort of self diagnose a problem and then when we get into it we’re like, “That’s not really the problem.” The problem is usually something different, you know?
When it comes to problem diagnosis, I would argue almost all clients are usually wrong. And that’s any professional services firm that works with us, any of their clients that work with them. That’s just a … It’s the opposite of retail. The customer’s not always right, the client is usually wrong as it relates to problem definition.
Jeff McKay: So what that means, and what a great point to end on, is one, you have to be exceptional at qualifying opportunities. Is this one consistent with your ideal client? Yes or no? And if it’s not, you need to walk away because there’s a misalignment between the value that you offer and the value expected.
If they are aligned, they are your ideal client and appreciate your value. The second thing that has to be done is you have to be very clear on the scope of the work, or probably more accurately, the nature of the work, and-
Jason Mlicki: I would argue before that you need to be really clear on the desired outcomes. That supersedes the nature and the scope, to me.
Jeff McKay: Fair enough.
Jason Mlicki: I think the scope can be pliable, meaning that if we’re in agreement on what your desired outcomes are, the scope, if you do this right, the scope can be fluid, the scope can change on the fly to be nimble and get you to your outcomes you want. In fact, that would be the ideal agency client contractual model, to the extent it’s feasible, is to agree on the desired outcomes, contract around the desired outcomes, and then let the scope be fluid enough to enable both partners to get there.
Jeff McKay: I think you articulated that beautifully. My third one was outcomes. How are we going to measure success? But rearranging those, I love that. Because that’s the way Prudent Pedal does all of its stuff. We very seldom work off a deliverable. It’s an outcome, and because we’re operating at a C level and professional services, you know, are immersed in the BS and PS. The scope changes very quickly when you’re having these strategic decisions being made or strategic discussions being made. Oftentimes there’s a breakthrough, whether it’s a breakthrough in business strategy generally in terms of market opportunities, or it’s a cultural breakthrough that somebody’s finally addressed that BS and PS taboo that exists in that firm and now there’s the freedom and the momentum to go in a different direction.
And I’ve had several clients where we’ve come in and we’ve been asked to do, maybe, value proposition development or sales enablement, and in the process of that we realized that the business strategy is off and that the market they’re actually going after is not going to be profitable, it’s not aligned with their solutions, and there’s another strategic direction that really needs to be pursued. Well, that changes the whole scope of work right then and there.
Jason Mlicki: Changes everything.
Jeff McKay: Yeah, so the qualification, the outcomes, and then not just a static scope, but a very dynamic scope, and your firm and you’re billing needs to be structured in order to address and adapt to that dynamism.
Jason Mlicki: Enable all that to happen.
Jeff McKay: Yeah.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah. Let’s wrap there. Great dialogue. I really enjoyed it. I hope the listeners get as much out of it as I did, so, thanks or the time, Jeff.
Jeff McKay: See you, buddy.