The Soda Academy
"Successful agency and client relationships will increasingly depend on the principles of user centricity and iteration."
"While traditional business culture abhors failure, progressive firms welcome the learning outcomes of failure as an integral part of their creative process."

Jordan Eshpeter, Invoke Media

Infusing Startup Culture into Client and Agency Relationships

Startup Culture

Startups scurry to solve new problems in hopes of creating new markets or disrupting existing ones. They strategize for aggressive financial and geographic growth, and strive for a ‘hockey stick’ trajectory. That’s what makes startups special: those that succeed really succeed.

Hockey stick graphs are also the ambition of every marketer. Thanks to the proliferation of the lean startup methodology, user centricity and iteration are quickly becoming entrenched principles at leading digital agencies. The opposite of reactionary, a startup-like culture and methodology enables clients and agencies to maintain a purposefully responsive posture. It’s not part of the plan, it is the plan.

But agency work can be limited to a client’s predefined wish lists. While these lists are a good starting point, they leave little room for boldness. This unearths a tension in our industry ̶ how can agencies raise the bar if a client already knows what they want? How should clients and agencies react when a campaign doesn’t achieve its goals? There must be a better way.

Successful agency and client relationships will increasingly depend on the principles of user centricity and iteration.

Meet your new boss: the user
For startups, customer validation is core to the development of a new and disruptive product. It proves (or disproves) the viability of the startup’s concept and helps validate its market.

For this to work, agencies and clients must agree on the primacy of the user. What’s more, a priority focus on user centricity should help agencies vet prospective clients. With user centricity established, agencies and clients are free to select persona-based users, co-lead user testing sessions and interview users qualitatively throughout product planning and development. Users are effectively embedded in the development of any platform or campaign.

As customer expectations for their digital experiences continue to rise, so too must the usability of every product and campaign agencies produce. Customers must be able to easily and effectively understand concepts, agree on their relevancy and accomplish the associated tasks — as frivolous or utilitarian as they may be — as quickly as possible. And typically, user centricity results in delightful simplicity.

Putting users first also fosters a necessary culture of humility and vulnerability. It enables data-driven decision-making where anyone can (and will) be wrong. Experimenting with low-fidelity prototypes, high-fidelity mockups, campaign creative and key features in code are just a start. Community managers can serve as a front-line sponge for no-holds-barred customer feedback. Balance that against the quantitative, collective behavior of an entire user base and it becomes easy to adjust features and creative accordingly. User centricity makes them the boss of both the agency and the client.

Failing your way to success
Core to the lean startup methodology is the idea of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). What is the one thing a product does? If it provides value by just doing that one thing, then it’s an idea worth exploring. That one thing provides a platform to build on, and a user base that you can tap into to measure the potential value of future features. It is key to the agile development referred to constantly in startup culture.

This is a popular approach, but it can be extremely challenging to implement in agency and client relationships. There are two reasons for this. First, the majority of marketing campaigns are temporary with fixed budgets. Secondly, most branded websites and apps — while often products in the truest sense — are planned and budgeted based on short-term campaign norms.

To overcome this dynamic and to plan for future iterations, it is important for clients and agencies to have candid budget discussions. Agencies must set their client’s expectations for an iterative approach early on, and support their client with internal education as required.

Conversely, clients must plan for a comfortable amount of experimentation and testing. Structuring the Master Services Agreement and Statement of Work to accommodate retained cycles of building, measuring and learning is a vital starting point. Then, as the product develops, you will build an invaluable storehouse of hypotheses for future prototyping and creative. Not only will this create a better product or campaign, it will inspire optimism in both the client and agency to imagine 2, 3 and 4 versions ahead.

While traditional business culture abhors failure, progressive firms welcome the learning outcomes of failure as an integral part of their creative process. The success of a product or campaign hinges on a client and agency’s ability to close this culture-gap and embrace failure. Ultimately, failure begets a product’s and campaign’s continued evolution towards the user’s wants and needs.

It’s worth noting some key differences between startups and clients. Traditional agency clients are, in ways, more sophisticated and better resourced than startups. However, they can suffer from overexposure to their own messaging. They may experience intoxication from their internal cultural Kool-Aid. Bureaucracy may also keep decision makers at arm’s length from their customers. Another difference is impact. The stakes are higher when your user base is so large. So, bringing startup culture to agency and client relationships is often as difficult as it sounds.

Startups, on the other hand, are only too enthusiastic to learn about their users, to flex their messaging, products and experiences accordingly. In the future (heck, right now!), winning agencies will bridge this gap. They’ll foster collaborative creativity, user-centric product development, and constant, persistent iteration for brands. This requires of agencies and clients alike the brashness and bravery of the most disruptive entrepreneur.

In his day job, Jordan pushes the limits of the digital realm with the team at Invoke Media as Head of Client Engagement. Jordan's forward-looking curiosity and event production background led to his status as Ambassador for Hyper Island and their world-renowned Master Class hosted in Vancouver in December 2013 and March 2015. Jordan is also Director of Programming & Events with the Association of Integrated Marketers.

Photograph provided by SoDA member, AREA 17, based in France and the US.