Blog / White paper: Failure and the Client-Focused Approach

Smiley Face not smiling with FAIL written on itNobody wants to fail. Failure is something we naturally try to avoid. But what happens when it occurs? As agencies, we don’t often talk about it publicly, but of course we have failures. And within our failures lie deep insights and answers waiting to be uncovered. These insights can provide us with the biggest breakthroughs, especially when running a strategy agency. So, in that spirit, I’ve elaborated about one of our failures. And it speaks to a larger insight about our “focus-the-client” approach we really encourage.

The project seemed perfect for Agentic. We were hired to work first on the online strategy and then build a website for a large consortium of environmental advocates. But the strategic engagement was a failure. In the end I walked away with a very important lesson: as an agency, we have to use our expertise to focus our clients and ensure that they recognize what that means.
 
In going through the process of engagement, it seemed clear that we were hired for our expertise. Expertise for us is applying our knowledge to a situation in which we have a lot of experience. As experts, we are comfortable sharing our expertise gained over hundreds of projects. We trust that they are the subject matter experts in their field of environmental activism, but they have to trust that we are experts in online strategic engagement. When this doesn’t happen, problems arise.
 
Business consultant David Baker calls it a “client-driven” approach when the client is not listening to your expertise and driving the relationship. We look for a “focus-the-client” approach where we align our expertise to their needs. We can then suggest and do what’s best for the client, even if it’s hard to hear; that’s the key issue around expertise. Sometimes your doctor tells you to exercise and eat better, but we know we don’t listen even when we know better. The client does not have to listen, but that expert opinion should be why they come to us.
 
Early warning
 
I noticed some of the warning signs early – even from the very first meeting. But given my years of experience, I felt that I could make a difference. Boy, was I was wrong. What happened was an interesting case. It quickly became apparent that some people in the group were looking for acquiescence rather than expertise.
 
This group had of a lot of different stakeholders with a lot of different opinions. That’s not unusual, but the group had been working together for a while, and not all that constructively. They had a difficult dynamic, which became more and more apparent over time. (After I decided to step down from the project, I was told that they had gone through three facilitators to run their group before we were hired to run this particular part of strategy.)
 
One person saw themselves as very knowledgeable about the web, so my facilitation was often challenged. I had to prove why I suggested something to the group, instead of moving forward with the conversation. My experience was constantly called into question. When this happens, even if by one person, the group dynamic can shift negative. This made it extremely difficult for our expertise to shine.
 
I did realize that the group operated within a culture of questioning and there was a certain lack of trust in its own members. This meant that I spent a good amount of time trying to justify what I was doing and why. As you can imagine, this slowed progress to a crawl. Our recommendations were not taken seriously, and impact didn’t seem apparent.
 
Within a few meetings, I felt constantly under pressure. It was often from people that were well-intentioned, but who knew little about building websites. Even those that did have a little web knowledge were unaware of the full implications of their words. 
 
This kind of situation was very new to me, as typically we have impact. And that is a key piece of our “focus-the-client” approach, which is that our assignments to be successful have to have impact.
 
Plus, my ability to manage a large group had never been so seriously challenged. One of the group participants challenged me on our strategy methodology. Our process is a key piece of our expertise, so I was caught off guard. I believe in our methodology, and it is the cornerstone of our expertise. The participant wanted another methodology, a “plan B”, which really stumped me, as the whole point of hiring us was that we had a successful methodology. By undercutting our methodology, there was no way that we could have impact. Our high quality of our outcomes is based on the repeatability of our methodology. We have developed a process that really does lead to high quality results, and have generated that over hundreds of clients.
 
What also went wrong
 
One of the problems when your expertise is not recognized is that it becomes harder and harder to challenge issues that you know from experience will be wrong. If you tell your doctor that you will eat junk food after they’ve told you to start eating healthier, you are not looking at the expertise in the right way.
 
For example, one of the self-styled web experts talked about having this project go “viral”. Realistically, going viral is a unique phenomenon in our media obsessed culture that results from a combination of timing, humour, interest and the ability of specific people to forward a video to their networks. People, called influencers by Malcolm Gladwell are often the ones who trigger the tsunami-like increase of views for a particular video. It is really, really hard to achieve with any kind of standard campaign. As experts, we cringe when clients come in with a baseline expectation for their project to go viral. It would be easier to win the lottery than for a project video to be plucked from the millions and millions out there to suddenly skyrocket to a million views.
 
That being said, it’s difficult for a client to hear that. We want to help clients make realistic goals. We try to build understanding around what they are asking for. But demanding daily miracles is a sure sign that you are not being listened to. Unfortunately, after making our case, the client settled for requesting an “award-winning” project.  Ouch! It was safe to say that the expectations were high.
 
Agencies like ours know that “award-winning” is often another way of saying “spend.” Why? Because in our expertise, we know it is time consuming to make projects uniquely creative. Realistically speaking, any client will have to spend a lot of money if they’re aiming for a project like those winning Webby or Canadian Interactive Awards. Creativity takes time and experimentation.
 
Another problem I felt creeping up during the process was the request to target two very distinct audiences: seniors and youth. As someone who has worked in this field for over a decade, this is an extremely difficult audience segmentation to work with. Yet because they had undercut our expertise, they weren’t willing to compromise. As an expert, we want to set clients up for success, and help them manage their expectations.
 
Worse, youth were not at all represented in the decision-making group. Any time a group wants to target an audience, the first thing we suggest is to get that audience in the room. Even though one of the group members was a teacher that did not mean the youth voice was well-represented. It’s been our experience that youth input is critical. All too often we see projects run by well-meaning educators that are lacking when it comes to youth because they simply didn’t ask for their input.
 
Failing fast
 
In all, the challenges in this group made me realize that we were never going to have an impact.  After a final challenge around our methodology, I realized that there was no way that they were able to hear me anymore. I had lost their perception that I was an expert. They just wanted us to abandon our expertise and just agree with them. I finally had to give notice. How could I in good conscious work on their project knowing that my work was completely irrelevant and lacking any impact?  Fortunately, it was at an appropriate time for both of us as it was near the end of the strategy phase. We did deliver value for their money spent, as we provided extensive documentation throughout the process, but I didn’t charge them for the entire strategy even though we had already spent the time. We wanted them to be able to have options and still move ahead with their project.   
 
Still, this was a failure for us, and for the client. In hiring an expert like Agentic, clients need to place themselves in a trusting position. They need to allow experts to offer insights they’ve gained through knowledge and experience to focus the project strategy. Once they stopped letting us focus on their needs and guide them with our expertise, it was impossible to lead. Clients have to trust Agentic’s tried and true methodology so we  can move forward.
 
Sometimes failure is about reflecting on what went wrong and realizing how you can better prepare for the future. We will all keep this failure in mind as well as another piece of wisdom I gained from this experience: not all clients can hear your expertise and that is ok, but they are not a fit for an agency like ours.

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