Planting seeds and tilling soil

by Dirk on June 10th, 2011 - Comments (5)

Jared Spool delights in being provocative. Listen: I like provocative. Much of the way people frame our professional world is outdated or out-of-touch. It takes provocateurs to get most of us to look in a different direction and consider new things. Unfortunately, many of those who make provocative statements as a matter of routine espouse half-baked and incorrect things alongside their other good ideas. Such is the case with Jared’s latest attempt to stir up a shit storm, Agencies Don’t Like Me Very Much.

First, some framing: Jared’s comments don’t pertain to our business at all. The work we do is very intentionally Rapid Expert Design (what he called “Genius Design”). We see a unique value proposition in coming in as a “special forces” team and helping our customers to rapidly get a new or revamped software product that is significantly better than what the too often mediocre internal design team could do. Thus the things he claims that “agencies” are unable to do – and we don’t really follow a traditional agency model, but regardless – we aren’t particularly interested in doing at the moment. That said, the premise for his thesis is theoretical and out-of-touch with the realities of how 21st century business functions.

Jared’s basic point is that only an internal team that is keeping continuity through the years and not “walk(ing) out the doors” with the knowledge gained during the work together. The reality is, whether it be an internal or an external team, that knowledge is walking out the door every day.

Let’s do a simple math experiment. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average American stays in a job between three and five years, shorter for people under 38 and longer for people over 38. Let’s assume a garden variety user experience team of 20 people, which in my experience are almost all 38 years of age or younger. In that scenario you’re going to experience turnover of roughly one employee every other month. Over a 3-5 year period you are going to cycle out almost an entire team. That will be lower for gold-plated companies like Apple, higher for more workmanlike companies with cultures less conducive to attracting and retaining creatives. On the other hand, agency engagements are often multi-year in their own right, especially for the largest and most complex projects.

Thus, the academic ideal that Jared espouses of an all-or-nothing “agency” where all the knowledge flies out the door whilst “internal” means this garden of knowledge paradise has been cultivated is prima facie absurd. We don’t hang around for gold watches anymore; we move on. Companies don’t benefit most by clutching onto people for decades; we benefit most by leveraging internal *and* external knowledge to create a culture and environment that is lush and robust. And related, the difference in retained knowledge between working with an agency which – if they are competent – are sharing and transferring knowledge with the internal team all throughout – is nominal. I can line up senior executives who will testify that we’ve transformed their organization – the people, the processes, the culture – despite the fact that, at the end, we left. The legacy we left behind was vibrant. Jared’s final statement, “I just hope that agency’s contract never ends, because then their (now former) client is screwed” supposes a “throw it over the wall”, “us vs. them” process for working together. That is simply and provably false. Our leaving doesn’t screw our customers; it moves them into a new phase of self-sufficiency with new tools, outlook and opportunity.

Jared also talked specifically about how agencies cannot accomplish “experience-focused design”. Let me give some context again because it is relevant: I was one of the first people using the phrase “brand experience” more than a decade ago, writing numerous articles and giving over 20 speeches on the topic. I have, as an outside consultant, gone into companies and spearheaded their brand experience activities, influencing touchpoints across entire corporations in the process. As just one example, here is an article I wrote about the manifestation of brand experience in the context of the web seven years ago. About brand experience, Jared wrote:

“For example, for a retail business to create a seamless experience, they’ll have to change things on the web site, in the stores, at the call center, in the distribution centers, and in the merchandizing department.

Agencies can’t have this kind of reach. It takes commitment at all levels. It’s too expensive to teach an agency how your business works. They don’t have the political clout to make the hard decisions.”

That is, quite simply, bullshit. Jared is correctly framing experience strategy and brand experience in his first paragraph. But the presumption that agencies can’t be the key ingredient to make that happen is flatly ignorant. Let me tell you a story: about 10 years ago I was brought in by a marketing executive at a medium-sized company. He (correctly) felt they were suffering from brand inconsistency, and didn’t know how to go about creating internal and external alignment over the brand they aspired to be. Using his passion for change and organizational authority with our ability to understand what needed to be done, and how – along with our combination of experience and creative excellence – we went about intentionally designing for every touchpoint that was within the financial means of his company. In the process we touched pretty much every person inside the company and transformed how they were interacting with – not just communication tools/marketing messages – the market. We largely aligned their realized perception with their aspirations. I still am in touch with this person and the changes enjoyed because he trusted our “agency” to be the transformative agent still reverberate. Their market cap has done pretty darn well, too.

Jared says agencies don’t like him very much. Well, I like Jared. He’s a really smart guy, and I find him to be right more than he is wrong. However sometimes he comes from a more theoretical, academic, idealized view of things that is not consistent with the reality of how business actually gets done. This is one of those times. And, as a life-long service-side professional, I certainly can’t let him impugne the very notion of an agency’s ability to catalyze massive change at the most strategic and complex levels.

Great agencies are going to instill more and deeper organizational knowledge than almost any internal initiative because it is what they do, every day, as an organizational truth. Contrary to the easy stereotype, being an agency is not necessarily a mercenary process of in-and-out and cash the check. It is about planting seeds, tilling soil, and leaving behind a legacy of growth, beauty and success.

5 Responses to “Planting seeds and tilling soil”

  1. Dave Malouf says:

    Dirk, ya know I love both you and Jared, but I think in t his case you are missing something that Jared is saying. “*I* haven’t seen it.” He even says, it may be out there at one point.

    Now like you said, you are hired more as fire jumper coming in to save the day so this really doesn’t pertain to your business model, but your interpretation about “knowledge” is sorta off. I don’t think the issue Jared is pointing to has anything at all to do w/ knowledge, but really it is about culture & vision. Now you can claim that culture and vision can be instilled from the outside, but after being an innie for the greater part of the last decade, I am pretty confident it can’t. Sure a consultant can tell a CEO to change, but do they? ever? never saw it happen in any of the 5 organizations of various type over the last 10 years.

    So while I think there is need for agencies Jared’s argument is sorta like Don Norman’s where he says no major innovation has come from UCD. Yup! he’s right. B/c he defined “major innovation” in such a way that it can’t. Same here. Jared’s definitions of success and even agency prohibit him from being wrong. It is an amazing and popular rhetorical tactic.

    The same can also be said that agencies still have a place among all types of service agencies and actual create value at various points in product lifecycles. There are a ton of case studies demonstrating that, so I doubt anyone can refute that either. What’s interesting is that both my frame and Jared’s don’t contradict because they are set off from each other on different planes.

    – dave

  2. “Unfortunately, many of those who make provocative statements as a matter of routine espouse half-baked and incorrect things alongside their other good ideas.”

    “…that is significantly better than what the too often mediocre internal design team could do.”

    So glad you didn’t fall into this same trap.

  3. Dirk says:

    Richard, point taken! My piece could have used an unemotional edit.

  4. Hi Dirk,

    Thanks for the thoughtful response, even with its no-provocation-intended emotion. I don’t think you and I are as far off as you seem to think. Let me clarify a few things, just to see if we can get closer.

    As I see it, you have two main points here. The first has to do with people leaving and the second has to do with playing a key role within an organization. I’ll tackle those separately.

    You’re right that individuals leave organizations, as frequently (or in some cases, more frequently) than the churn of agencies.

    However, most organizations have methods of withstanding employee churn by building up institutional memory and systems. Only in the extreme cases of mass departures, such as layoffs, or when the organization isolates the design knowledge to a single individual, do we see those methods fail. Otherwise, when a single individual leaves, a prepared organization can continue to perform the functions and not lose the knowledge.

    The situation with agency churn is they look more like a mass departure than an individual departure. In many cases, most of the accrued project knowledge was never transferred from the agency to the client. The client’s response to the disappearing agency is to hire another agency. Often the new agency completely disregards any of the previous agency’s work, thereby making any continuation of accrued knowledge impossible.

    That’s how employee churn is different from agency churn, and why the latter is more harmful to the client organization over the long run.

    You second point is that external agencies can and do play a key role in the design process for experience-focused and activity-focused design. I agree with that 100% and even alluded to it in my original post, though probably not as strongly as I could have.

    However, playing a key role and doing the job are two different things. Here’s an example:

    Best Buy implemented pick-up at store purchases on their site. A brilliant idea that could’ve easily originated and pushed forward by an agency. However, it depends on the fulfillment system and the in-store management to work properly.

    When watching customers taking advantage of this service, we saw many breakdowns in the experience, where a online purchase was out of stock by the time the customer reached the store. Often these were for high-demand items, where the customers already in the store got first priority over the virtual web site purchasers.

    An agency isn’t going to be the folks telling the store GMs to hold inventory for customers they haven’t met, while refusing and disappointing customers standing in front of them. This takes, as David correctly points out, a cultural and organizational change that can only come from within.

    I’ve seen many agencies be a contributing part of the idea creation or execution of a great experience design. However, the long-term driving component that will guarantee the success of the experience design has to come from within the organization, not from an agency.

    If the organization doesn’t take control of the experiences they’re designing for, if they turn the responsibility over the hired help, they won’t get the results they are seeking.


  5. Jim Voorhies says:

    While continuity can be an issue, your experience is really just yours. I manage an in-house team where the team members have from 3 months to 35 years of experience within the company. While the majority of your people are under 38, we have 9 out of 33 in that group. Over the last 3 years we have had turnover (3 from a reduction in force that we have since then replaced and 3 who have gone to other companies) but nothing near what you suggest as a possibility.

    When we outsource (and we do frequently due to the sheer volume of projects), we face the exact issues Jared mentions – agencies that do not understand how we work or fully encompass our goals or needs or standards.

What do you think?