Design culture - Agency versus client side
- Charlie Martin
“Ever worked agency side?” This was a question I used to get asked, a lot. My answer was invariably something along the lines of “Sorry, I’m a corporate client side guy”. But now, this is now a regular exchange I’m able to consign to history. Why? Well, having been that ‘corporate client side guy’ for close on two decades, I’ve gone agency side…
In only a very short period of time in this new world, I’ve observed so many differences to that of my old client side world, I thought I’d best share some of them, starting with my top eight…because a top ten would be too obvious…
1. Connected relationships
Whilst an obvious statement to make, both client side and experience design agency side work is secured on the funding and sponsorship from others, right? Right. However, the connection I see between an agency and an end client is that much more visceral and tangible, something you rarely get to experience client side. Personally, I think this is because in client side work, you’re part of a larger, heavily engineered machine with layers of entrenched processes and departments that, by their very aspect, weaken the immediacy and intimacy between the supplier and stakeholder.
Conversely, agencies by their very nature, are more agile, highly tuned machines that allow individuals to connect directly with the key stakeholders in a way that the structure of a larger machine might inadvertently dampen. Within an agency, the internal ownership of an end client relationship is so much clearer, accountable and rewarding with less need to prostrate before the corporate altar.
2. Diversity of work
Whilst both client side and agency side digital teams exude passion, skill and dedication, it’s obvious to me that the effervescent, fluid and fast moving nature of agency side work is directly attributable to the range of clients an agency works with. This is something that client side operations simply cannot match.
Like an ever changing menu, agency work provides its staff with the opportunity to explore new industries and sectors, helping individuals to transpose, hone and also challenge their skills. For all their moments of excitement, client side roles cannot escape a diet of one industry, perhaps with a passing, occasional menu update. If diversity breeds creativity, then it is therefore no surprise that digital agencies at the top of their game are able to configure solutions that break the mould to help organisations create their competitive advantage.
3. Celebrating success, as one
Although the idea of ‘work hard, play hard’ is an easy generalisation to apply to the creative industry, it’s a little more sophisticated than you may think. After weeks, perhaps months, spent crafting fabulous experiences for end users, it’s not just a case of hitting the pub at 4:30pm on a Friday for an hour of back slapping and self-adulation before the next project.
Sure, to ease the pressure of tight deadlines and absolute dedication, spontaneous changes of scenery do occur, but unlike client side where the ‘da-dah’ moments are only ever remembered and are habitually infrequent, success is celebrated by all in agency through regular, meaningful dialogue where every discipline involved has a say, and a cheer.
There is also a very sensitive and reactive spine sense within an agency. From what I’ve observed issues raised get quickly and positively dealt with.
4. Fat-free zone
Compared to most client side models I’ve worked with, and in, digital design agencies are lean, agile entities that manage specialist, finite resources to a level of accuracy and accountability client side models cannot hope to touch. From what I have seen here at Nomensa, there most definitely aren’t gangs of UX Consultants, Designers or Account Managers twiddling their thumbs, doodling flowers on spare packs of post-it notes in dark corners awaiting orders. Well judged pools of resource, properly allocated, is fundamental to the successful outcome for clients and the longevity of an agency.
This doesn’t mean an agency cannot respond at pace to demand. Due to their operational framework and market reputation, top agencies in their field, such as Nomensa, are also able to bring in additional short-term resource within a matter of days to meet surges of demand. Organisations that contract with such agencies for such support are the direct beneficiaries of this approach.
5. Investment in people
For the first time in many years, I am hearing every level of an organisation sing the praises of a very real investment in people. Gone are the barriers to entry. No long, system centric forms of old. No heavily documented process on how to get permission for your vital training. Things just, well, happen. A benefit of size perhaps, but the linkage between the identification of a training need and the mobilisation of options to fill that need is direct and very well managed. It therefore came as no shock to me when Nomensa achieved the Investors in People (IiP) Gold Standard Award in July 2016.
Staff express openly how they feel valued, motivated, yet also confident that they too have a genuine say in their development and progression. It’s refreshing to see.
6. Culture: Creative, grounded comradery
If any of you who’ve never worked agency side think that it’s all felt lined work-think-pods and hoverboards... you’d be wrong. Absent too, sorry(!), are the black berets and philosophical poses with pipes, at least during office hours… True, you’ll find people exercising their brains even further by playing chess over lunch, discussing the merits of vinyl over streaming, or getting excited about a hue of yellow in an infographic… but save the images of table football mid-meeting, Account Managers bouncing around on bright orange space hoppers in the kitchen; bin them in the stereotype, er - bin, No.1.
What there is time for though, is the collective creation of a culture to underpin the agency’s success. I see some of the best minds in their field, respectful of and eager to hear others, where people bond over hard graft and also - creative craft. The comradery as a result, is palpable.
7. Tools, kit
This is one of the big differences between client and agency side operations. At the risk of being mildly unfair to some, broadly speaking, if you’re client side and need a bit of specialist software in short order, good luck!
In the client world, it’s not uncommon to wait months for a request for something pretty ‘everyday’ to be processed, to then wait for funding for, only for the said bit of software or kit to be installed one month before the latest version is due… for which you then have to go through the whole process again to sort out. Oh, that is of course, if you filled out the right form in the first place from a ridiculously complicated intranet forms 'hub'.
Tongue-in-cheek forgiven, the scenario above is a common one. Contrast that with agency side where, in terms of I.T. support, governance rules and the overriding need to be up to date always wins the day. Being unhindered by old ‘authorised’ software lists, archaic form filling and moments of ‘computer says no’, is a major enabler of day-to-day happiness. If it fulfils a need, can-do means will-do. Nice.
8. Pace, not speed
Mindful of any ‘pedal to the metal’ quips, the speed at which a top agency such as Nomensa operates, compared to a client side operation, is truly one of the biggest differences I’ve observed. I’ve been genuinely wowed at the speed of attention clients receive behind the scenes and seen first hand the care that goes into planning, at pace, in order to meet client expectations and agency capabilities. Turnaround times are almost always shorter than client side teams can match, not just because of the people but also due to the inherent structure, process, skills and agility.
When the call does come down the line, the ignition of creativity across an agency is wonderful to observe and be part of, yet absolutely never ever at the expense of quality.
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