Editor’s note: for external consultants like me, it’s easy to prescribe simplistic remedies and gloss over the practical challenges that agencies face. ‘Autonomating’ agencies – read more in this post – may sound like a no-brainer - but in reality, it’s not so easy when you have to juggle the needs of existing team members and clients.
Rupert’s experience of a successful agency turnaround has some great lessons for agencies embarking on their own transformation journey.
The agency leaders’ perspective
Ci has been going for nearly 30 years, but when I took over 6 years ago the energy and direction it had been founded with had waned, there’d been heavy staff turnover at a senior level, and things were drifting.
Turnover had dropped two thirds in an incredibly tough climate; but in the last 6 years we’ve more than doubled, with headcount swelling from 11 to 25 full-time.
This shift is against a backdrop of two radical changes in client demands and expectations
Everything is demonstrably faster
Less time in field, shorter timelines for reporting (particularly for tracking), and much higher expectations when it comes to basic responsiveness. Emails need a reply within minutes rather than 24 hours.
Value expectations have increased
The growth and proliferation of more and more data and the ability to source survey data in-house means we have to work harder than ever to highlight our added value. We no longer provide data with some thinking on top; we provide consultation evidenced with data – and how we collect and manage the data is something we’re trusted to get on with. Clients don’t need to see all the workings.
When you look at these challenges, technology is clearly one part of the solution: it can speed things up and, in doing so, free up time for thinking and consultancy, with less time spent gathering, managing and manipulating data.
But I can only give it credit for – at most - 20% or 30% of the change. By far the biggest impact has come from hiring, developing and supporting the best talent.
To bastardise a quote I’ve heard mentioned often recently (I believe the original was from Google):
market researchers aren’t going to be replaced by technology; they are going to be replaced by research consultants armed with technology. In other words, they will be ‘autonomated’.
But what specific lessons have we learned on our journey?
Here are 3 of the big ones I would pass on to any agency tackling its own transformation process.
1. Slow and relentless is better than fast without follow-through
It’s exciting to give a big agency presentation outlining an amazing future and showcasing the software that will take us there. It’s like a sugar rush, generating short term energy.
But it fizzles quickly in the reality of getting projects done. And there are inevitable road-bumps when trying to integrate new systems and approaches into your existing workflow.
It’s far better to make gradual, sustained change. Be immovable in where you want to get. Check in regularly. Keep quietly pushing to make sure everyone knows that we solve challenges together, as a team, and keep moving.
2. You need new, dedicated, resource to make it happen
You can’t assume you can take your existing team and throw this ‘innovation’ thing at them.
If you don’t provide extra resource, you’re setting everyone up to fail.
New stuff takes more time, resource and effort to figure it out than you think it will; and in the face of clients needing things NOW it will always be deprioritised.
If you’ve got people in your team who you think can make it happen, you must take some of their workload off them – whether that’s client facing, managerial or operational.
Make the time for them to get it done. Ring-fence it. And budget properly for it.
3. Stay true to your core agency value proposition
I’ll be honest: I regularly failed in both of the previous areas. I didn’t always maintain that long-term focus; and I didn’t always make enough space for individuals to deliver the change.
Always having a hand on the third one helped to get through the failings of the first two.
Whatever technology or process change you introduce, you have to keep it aligned with what you stand for as an agency. You have to know your core DNA and ensure the new things serve that – never the other way round.
Our model is one of consultancy - so squeezing the middle section with technology is great. It leaves us time for thoughtful set up and analysis.
But replacing our beautifully designed, customised, individually thought through presentations with automated dashboards is not what we’re about. Equally we’re not about to out-source our data team, who provide us with the absolute knowledge that our questionnaires are scripted perfectly and the data we use is accurate (and, crucially, they sit 30 seconds away so we can move on changes and client requests quickly).
So my advice to other agencies would be to ask: where do you add most value?
Do you have lots of low-value clients? If so – automate like mad and prioritise the profitability of each one. Concentrate on making automation work for both parties.
Or, like us, do you have a handful of high-value, long term clients? This sort of profile leads you to prioritise those changes that allow you to deepen those relationships and focus more on the client impact from your work.
Any transformation needs to be framed by your business and brand strategy. If you don’t know what that is, then no amount of investment in process or technology will get you where you want to go.
I’ve got one final bonus, non-research related, technology win
4. Don’t just look at digital transformation as a ‘research tools’ win
We collaborate and communicate on Slack, video conference on Zoom, do our accounts on Xero. Anything that saves you time, or makes the work better, is a win – research-related or not!