We Teach Our Clients To Fish

The agency business is a service business that outputs communications products.

To make something great, to make communications that are capable of changing the course of a company, you need to first earn the trust of the client. If you skip this part, you’ll be forever stuck in the milquetoast middle ground, turning in work that meets the client’s technical specs, but fails to interest her customers.

Growing up in this business, we learn to “service” accounts, which means we will do almost anything for them. Over time we go from a reliable vendor to a trusted partner. We seek longevity and often brag about how long we’ve held an account. Because our clients trust us and it shows in the work.

I was on this page for many years. Long enough to know that the model is rusty and in need of some repair. Let’s begin the deconstruction with client wishes versus agency wishes. Agencies want to earn trust and spend many years servicing the account. It sounds reasonable enough, but what do clients want? Do they also seek to establish the kind of trust that opens the door to breakthrough work and extended multi-year contracts? That’s wishful thinking. Clients almost always look past the agency to their true desire, which is more and better customers spending more money on their products.

The agency is the vehicle that can deliver them to said promised land, and for that, we get a grateful nod and a wad of cash at the end of the ride. And there’s nothing wrong with this math. What’s wrong is failing to see it for what it is.

Bonehook Gives Marketers What They Want: More and Better Customers

By acknowledging what clients truly want, we are better able to deliver it. Clients don’t want a longterm relationship with us or any agency, they want a non-bumpy ride to the promised land, or in Bonehook vernacular, they want to hire a captain and crew to expeditiously deliver them to the hungriest fish in the sea.

Our customers—and that’s precisely what clients are—want to catch more and better fish. The more an agency successfully enables this action, the happier customers become, because their intended outcomes are being met. They didn’t get on board the agency vessel to develop trust with the captain and crew. The trust that is developed comes as a result of a good day, or days, at sea.

A good day, or days, at sea may indeed lead to several more charters with the same customer, along with a stream of recommendations. As it should. My point is to acknowledge our need to reframe the agency/client service relationship so it meets our customer’s needs. To stay with the nautical theme, it’s critical to know that the charter ends at the dock. It can start again on another day but the captain’s job is to get the customers back on dry land, safe, happy, and richer for the journey.

Dependency Theory and Client Service

Scholars in the 1970s developed a media dependency theory to help explain and understand the effects of mass media on audiences and of the interactions between media, audiences, and social systems. I don’t know if any advertising industry scholars have examined or considered a client service dependency theory. I can see the need for it.

Fishin'

The ad industry has always been dependent. Our first dependency was on media, newspapers in particular. This media dependency is alive and unwell today. One might assume that digital disruption broke this bond, but it did not. Now, we’re playing the platforms game instead of pursuing the “every company is a media company” high road. When Facebook falls from its perch, as companies sometimes do, what then? Then your agency’s media dependency, which is unwisely shared with your clients, is a stinky egg mess on your otherwise attractive face.

Agency operators have media dependencies on one hand, and client dependencies on the other. By holding on to clients for a long duration, it may lessen the need for a perfected new business process, although an agency is always on the hunt for new business, whatever the guiding philosophy of the founders.

By letting Bonehook customers (formerly known as clients) off at the dock with a warm greeting, pleasant memories and a cooler full of fish, I am explicitly saying, “see you later.” This takes the long-term service contract and shreds it. In its place are project-based engagements with custom information products as outputs.

You can hire Bonehook to provide strategic mapping and discovery that will dramatically improve your brand messaging. You can hire us to make your brand come alive via design and writing. You can hire us to deliver live skill-building workshops. You can hire us to provide all of the above.

Whichever form future projects take, we will help you navigate stormy waters and help you understand your brand from your customer’s point of view. This process is called “thinking like a fish,” and it’s been proven to work by many an old man in the sea.

Client Showcase: Rio Grande Valley Rapid Response Network

Right now, there are several hundred men, women, and children stuck in Matamoros, on the Mexican side of the international border. The people have no food, no water, no work, and no home. Faced with these conditions, they await an asylum hearing in the U.S., which is typically scheduled many months from the time of their arrival at the border.

The good news is there is a coalition of local activists in Brownsville and throughout the Rio Grande Valley delivering humanitarian relief daily. American citizens cross the border with food and water, clothes, diapers, and tents. Also, volunteers provide legal aid, medical aid, transportation, and hope for a better tomorrow.

Last July, I went looking for a way to contribute to these relief efforts. Thankfully, I found Rio Grande Valley Rapid Response Network, a newly formed coalition of local activist groups in Brownsville. The more I learn about the people on the ground in Brownsville doing this heavy lifting, the more impressed I am. This team is made of intelligent, compassionate professionals who have graciously welcomed Bonehook’s support. Now, I ask for yours.

I am driven to use my talents and connections to let the rest of Texas and the world know what’s going on, and how to get involved in providing humanitarian solutions. While politics caused this mess, this is not a political response. This is good people helping other people in dire need.

Today, after months of preparation and coordination with the team, we launch the organization’s new website. Please visit RGVRapidResponse.com to learn more about the incredible work being done at the border and how you can contribute much-needed money, supplies, and volunteer hours.

For the latest updates, follow @RapidRGV on Twitter and Facebook.

Inputs Before Outputs (Always and Forever)

Definitions matter. Therefore, we endeavor to explain the value of strategy to ourselves, to workshop attendees, and our clients. But before we can explain the value, we also need to explain what we mean by strategy.

Here’s a recent explanation from my Twitter friend Derek Walker:

I’d like to illustrate the above sequence…

  • An online brand is suffering from shopping cart abandonment. That’s the data.
  • One insight derived from the data is people feel unsure about their purchases and/or their relationship with the brand.
  • A strategy based on this data point and the insight derived from it would be to increase trust with customers.

The creative team then takes this call to create more trust and creates a series of ideas that, when executed, build trust with current and prospective customers.

Solve Business Problems, Sometimes With An Ad

Salmon Theory, a weekly philosophy newsletter for creative and strategic minds by Rob Estreitinho features an interview with Zoe Scaman, founder of Bodacious, a full-service strategy studio in London.

I like this passage a lot:

What’s the philosophy behind Bodacious?
Embracing mess and uncertainty and applying strategy problem-solving skills at the broadest possible level. People often ask me to define myself – are you an ad agency, a consultancy, an innovation house – but I balk as definitions, they don’t suit me. I’m all of the above and more. And I’m ok with that amorphous shape. And my hope is that other strategists will start to wake up and feel the same. We keep reading pieces about how the ad industry is crashing and burning and that’s because the problems we need to solve are ever more complex, but the solutions (where the margins live) are always the same, so what do we expect?

Strategists are problem solvers as their core, and that means you should be able to turn your skills to any challenge. The sooner we divorce ourselves from advertising as the output, the better.

This is a theme that I keep returning to time and again. In 2016, I wrote this:

We routinely ask that an action or series of actions be taken by people inside the client company. This is where marketing communications meet operations. When you’re dedicated to growing successful businesses you end up going way beyond making ads. You become an essential part of the team and invested in the outcomes. This level of teamwork and commitment may surprise some clients. It’s our belief that we need to care about the marketing problems at hand, but more that than, we need to care about the human beings our work impacts, namely our client’s customers and prospects, and the community of people employed by the company.

Brand Truth Is Foundational

At Bonehook, we pursue our client’s brand truths because it’s the mud that we make Marcom bricks from—bricks that hold up the brand house.

I hate that advertising is considered to be wallpaper or paint by anyone inside and outside of the ad business. Ads are not decorations, although they can be appealing to look at. Ads that move people to pay attention and to buy are interactive artifacts from the sponsoring company. An interactive artifact (print, broadcast, or digital) can be entered, like a house or a compelling story. An interactive artifact can be explored, altered, celebrated, and shared.

A brand has to know how to turn people on. Is it the quality of the products that drive people to the store? Is it the low price? The magic is always inside the company, yet people go searching for wild ideas far from the where the action is. All the action is happening inside the customer’s heart and mind. Thus, the job of all brand marketers is to know their customer’s desires, fears, ambitions, and day-to-day pressures.

When you know your brand truth and what makes your customers and prospects pounce, you’re ready to advertise. If you do not have these two essential ingredients figured out, we’re here to help you. We can also make your ads after the discovery period, but so can lots of other talented people who focus on outputs. We focus on inputs because when you get your inputs right, your ad campaigns practically make themselves.