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RISK: The Four-Letter Word

By Adam Fennelow, Head of Services, Design Business Association

This post was originally published on the Design Business Association Bliog.

I recently sat down with Ralph Ardill, brand transformer and one of the DBA’s accredited Experts, to talk about agency growth and the conversation took an unexpected turn. Rather than discuss profitability, effectiveness, hiring the right staff etc. we focused on what holds agencies back in their relationships with clients. In Ralph’s opinion, the growth of an agency is intrinsically linked to how agencies manage their client relationships.

So, what does hold agencies back in their relationships with clients? Many an agency would say a reluctance on the part of the client to have a ‘partner relationship’. Instead agencies are suppliers providing a service.

Ralph’s argument here is that agencies need to earn the right to have a partnership – and it will never happen unless the agency understands the elephant in the room when it comes to ‘selling the big idea’. Agencies can talk until they are blue in the face about the upsides of their big idea – how it will transform the business, sell more products, engage staff and customers alike – but it will be for naught if the client thinks the risk is too great.

RISK is the four-letter word that agencies tend to avoid.

Agencies sell ideas. Generally speaking, the bigger the idea the better. Ideas are what make creatives tick. They involve change, transformation possibly, in the pursuit of delivering growth for the client. Agencies, dreamstime_m_205036-167x167in Ralph’s opinion, are often very good at selling the positive aspects of their ideas. The benefits can be huge and multiple, but too few agencies understand the fundamental difference between an agency selling ideas and a client looking for help.

The average client understands risk far better than they understand creativity. They don’t automatically see the potential of the big idea – they see the huge risk involved in the change. The design work (and cost associated with it) is usually just part of a larger project with much larger cost implications. The risk always sits with the client.

Ralph argues that this goes to the heart of why agencies struggle to grow. They fail to mitigate the risk – in fact it is often ignored completely. The strategy very often concentrates on being enthusiastic about the positives in the hope that the client will be carried along on the wave of optimism.

A common response from an agency whose big idea has been rejected by a client is “they just didn’t get it.” Actually, they just didn’t believe it. They saw the risk, and the agency didn’t address it. They did not explain the risks as they saw them and how they could be dealt with if they arose.

Don’t let risk be the elephant in the room. Address it head on. Agencies don’t simply get ideas rejected because the client didn’t like them – they get them rejected because they were considered too risky. “Not addressing risk,” says Ralph, “is irresponsible selling, and it will stunt your growth.”

About the Author: Adam joined the Design Business Association in 2003 and as the organisation has more than doubled in size, has covered several roles in the organisation. Currently, Adam is Head of Services and traverses the nation supporting the many varied creative businesses that form the DBA’s membership. Apart from liaising with agencies and design led businesses, Adam’s joys in life stem from holidays in the sun, his daughters, and taking on DIY projects.”

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