Dirk Knemeyer

Planting seeds and tilling soil

Originally published on the Involution Studios blog.

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 Much of the way people frame our professional world is outdated or out-of-touch.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.

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