Are you really being ‘collaborative’?


Most design agencies claim to be collaborative. In fact, it is one of the most used words on agency websites. As an industry we have now grown so familiar with the notion of collaboration that perhaps we’ve ceased to question what it really means in practice. Perhaps the ‘collaborative’ word trips off the tongue a little too easily?

This is borne out in our latest ‘What Clients Think’ report, the definitive annual snapshot of the client/design agency relationship. Our new report is based on 525 interviews conducted on behalf of design agencies and will be published on 27th November. A key finding is that 33% of clients believe that agencies could work more collaboratively. This statistic may be greeted with a degree of consternation by design agencies. ‘Of course we are collaborative’ I hear you cry, so what exactly are clients driving at?

From an agency perspective, the idea of collaboration is typically based on a collection of factors – ‘we are a personable bunch, get on well with clients, easy to work with, enthusiastic and positive, accommodating and flexible.’ Workshops with the client, usually at the front end of a project, are also frequently mentioned as further evidence of a collaborative approach.

All this is well and good but many clients view collaboration slightly differently. Their main complaint is about the ‘big reveal’ model. This is where the agency tends to hide away for a few weeks and, apart from the odd e-mail, phone call or status update, the client is left wondering how the agency is faring and what on earth is going to be presented. For some clients this can be a worrying time. Has the agency really understood the brief? If the creative work isn’t right, what impact will that have on deadlines and costs?

A preferable situation, from a client’s viewpoint, would be to compare notes through the process via interim meetings where early creative thoughts and ideas could be shared. Ideas could be health checked and discussed. Potential creative blind alleys could be avoided. The client would feel reassured and part of the process, and more confident that everything was on the right track. For the client, this is true collaboration and removes the nervousness around a ‘big reveal’ presentation. For the agency, it makes for a more proactive approach because they are engaging with the client in an ongoing two-way discussion. This fosters a greater sense of partnership, as opposed to a feeling that they have just been briefed. There is also a significant advantage, because early sight of a creative idea can help build client ownership. If the process is well handled, it is a more effective way for the agency to sell their preferred creative route.

So why doesn’t this way of working happen more often? Some agencies may feel that it is not their job to reassure nervous clients and that clients should display more trust. Others may feel that it seems like more work than the big reveal model. Perhaps some agencies rather enjoy the excitement of the ‘big reveal’ moment and see interim sharing of ideas as spoiling the thunder of the big ‘ta da’ presentation.

The more likely explanation, however, is that sharing work through the process requires a highly organised and disciplined approach. The agency needs to work at a consistent rate through a timeframe with no last-minute rush or panic. The reality, however, is that multiple client demands and pressures on resources mean that agencies can struggle to work in such a way. This is a challenge for the design industry. Meeting client demands for a more collaborative approach necessitates a more structured and consistent way of working. There is also a shift of mindset required away from an emotional attachment to the ‘big reveal’ presentation – such an ingrained feature of our industry – towards a more open and genuinely collaborative way of working.

In re-analysing what ‘collaborative’ really means, is it possible to think of other areas that could be approached differently? One example is the pre-pitch Q&A session with the client. For agencies, these meetings are a chance to ask questions, create a good early impression and strike up some sort of initial relationship with the client.

However, the new ‘What Clients Think’ report shows that 54% of clients find these meetings to be more of a chore than truly useful. Perhaps agencies could look at approaching these meetings as more of a collaborative workshop than a straight Q&A session, giving clients a better feel for the agency’s thinking and approach. An agency’s main currency is visual so how about introducing some existing visual content – ‘Is this what you mean by evolution or is it more like this?’ There may be an opportunity, where appropriate, to turn these sessions into a different kind of experience, rather than simply conforming to expectations.

In conclusion, the ‘What Clients Think’ report reveals that ‘collaborative’ seems to have become a slightly lazy design industry word. So, let’s re-assess it. Is it being demonstrated, not just said?