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  • APG

Clients are collaborators too

So, what are we collaborating for, exactly?

Sometimes, ‘collaboration’ feels like one of those words. You know the ones. Words like ‘innovation’, ‘disruption’, or ‘data’. Clichés. Vessels too easily emptied of meaning. Ideas fetishized as achievements in themselves, rather than nurtured as a mind set, one with which far greater things can be achieved. These are ideas that are important but end up as so much planning soufflé – full of air and always likely to fall flat in the wrong hands.

Of course, there is always a higher purpose, and it isn’t to show off at conferences or on Twitter. It is to solve our clients’ problems.

Collaboration does one of two things. It brings together perspectives so we can understand those problems in the round. And it unites diverse skills in developing the most effective solutions. In either case the factors we are dealing with are volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, and so we ignore our clients’ perspectives at our peril. They understand their problems as well as anyone. And as our ideas become less bound by traditional disciplinary modes of thinking, and their relevance to people increasingly relies on functions beyond marketing, our clients are now integral in helping those ideas come to life.

Clients are collaborators too.

The relationship is therefore central to success. Two weeks ago I presented at a conference with a client, something I’d never done before. Though we’re in relatively early days of working together, just coming out of the discovery phase, our topic was how creativity can help nurture a client-agency relationship. There’s no work yet, so instead we reflected on the techniques we’d used to create the conditions for creativity later in the project, and shared what we’d do differently next time. It was an attempt to be honest, to reflect on what we’d each experienced, and to take some valuable lessons that we could each apply to the way our own teams worked.

Here’s where we netted out. Creativity needs collaboration. Collaboration needs relationships. Relationships need to be worked at. That demands fresh ideas, and fresh ideas take creativity. Simple really. Like Henry Ford said, “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progressing; working together is success.”

Or, as former IPA President Ian Priest said when speaking at a joint IPA/ISBA event a few years back, “relationships are the high road of collaboration.”

Our paths to that high road weren’t revolutionary. Encouraging joint client-agency team to come together in multiple formations, ideally in informal settings. Opening ourselves up together to external sources of inspiration. Overcoming multiple perspectives with the neutral ground of the user journey.

But probably the best thing we did was the presentation itself. Since the conference I’ve already re-thought our discovery process to help teams internally focus more on the relationship side of this phase. Writing it forced reflection and discussion between the two of us in a way that rarely happens within the usual shape of client-agency conversations. We understood a lot more about each other. We liked each other a lot more too. I can recommend it.

I think this is the realm of collaboration that we too often miss. As planners we explore problems, but we shouldn’t forget people. New projects and relationships need empathy to mitigate our human impulses: we are erratic, fearful, uncertain. No client-agency team can establish itself without addressing these challenges.

I like what creativebrief do in this space. They are perfectly placed to see what marks a successful client-agency relationship in its early stages. Their BITE LIVE events bring client and agency audiences together to get under the skin of need-to-know trends within marketing, and to discover key case studies that illustrate these. Each event captures the working relationship as well as the fruits of collaboration – combined agency and brand teams talk through their case studies side by side.

In the past they’ve had talks from Jamie Oliver and Skype, Paddy Power and Lucky Generals, Saatchi & Saatchi and Mumsnet, with useful insights not just on what they did and why, but how they made it happen. Last week’s event had Icelandair and The Brooklyn Brothers talking about the ingenious Stopover Buddy idea – you can watch the talk here.

(As a side point, creativebrief’s BITE – a monthly digital briefing on marketing trends – is also brilliant for case studies. During my research into collaboration I found some lovely examples on finding the right brand partner, crowd-sourcing ideas, entertainment partnerships, and joining forces for social good. Well worth signing up if you haven’t already.)

It’s not always easy to engage clients in this way. Not everyone wants to. But as planners our job, as Tracey Follows said at this week’s APG conference, is to understand people’s needs, not just what they want. Why should clients be any different? They are as susceptible to emotion as anyone else. We are in the field of persuasion and behaviour change, so give it a go. Be creative. Get on that high road to collaboration.

And if you need any more inspiration, try this piece from IDEO on how they go about persuading companies to accept change. It’ll leave you wanting to practise human-centred design on your clients too.

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