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Ever worked with a vendor/advertising agency or outsourced a share of your work to another company? For people new to doing this or experienced in doing this, here’s a list of 5 things you should do to ensure you get the best service, get loyalty and nurture a high level of trust in your relationship.

  1. Clarity is Paramount
    Do you know your organization’s goals for the year? Your budgets? Do you have a plan for what you want to achieve in the coming quarter? If you don’t have the answers to these questions, you need to get them ASAP! If you do know the answers, the most important question here is: Does your agency know all this too? If they don’t have the big picture, if they don’t get the answers to their questions and if they see you as a client who needs to be constantly prodded for information and clarity, how can they serve you with the kind of efficiency and professionalism you expect? They’ll respect you and your organization more if you confide and explain things to them in the most verbose possible way.

    Don’t have a close relationship with your agency? Do you treat them as just suppliers of a commodity? Then you need to do one of two things: either take them into confidence and share all the information you have with them, or fire them and hire someone you can trust. The middle ground here is just too inefficient.

  2. Plan in Advance
    Always on the edge when it comes to demanding tight deadlines for deliverables? That’s probably why the output from your agency is low quality – they haven’t had the time to digest the situation and come up with better ideas. Remember, you are not the only client they have – everyone else is also demanding their time with unreasonable deadlines and its usually a case of too many things to do for too few people. Planning the bulk of your activities in advance helps everyone – forces you to make rational plans of what you want to achieve and why in the short term, and notifies your agency of the kind of work they can expect from you in the coming months so they can plan their resource allocation. At the end of the year, your plans will have changed significantly, but at least your agency will not have been completely clueless about what you wanted to achieve.
  3. Giving a good brief is an art form
    Well ok maybe it’s not exactly “art” but you get my drift; you need to spend a lot of time on your briefs, explaining everything from the core reasons why you want something done to what you aim to achieve from it. The more you explain, your agency gets a better idea of what to do and what will help the most. Of course, there are some that argue that “My agency knows our organization so well, only a one line brief is enough”. Well, in my opinion, even if an agency knows your organization well, you still need to give them a slightly verbose brief. It need not have a huge amount of detail, but simple objectives and reasons need to be there. Also, if you have any preferences for colors, logo sizes, shapes, database structure, code style or typography, please leave them out of your brief – leave that stuff to the agency, which is what my next point talks about.
  4. Why keep a Dog and Bark Yourself?
    Ogilvy’s famous words say it all: You’re hiring your agency/vendor to do something that’s not your organizations core competence, they are probably the ones who’ve given a lot more thought to your communication/marketing activities, so why can’t you trust their judgement? Sure, theres a fair amount of learning that has to happen if you’ve engaged a new agency or are at a very young stage in your relationship – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to direct everything they do. Making decisions through a “committee” is another thing that will induce high blood pressure for your agency’s people. The more opinions they get on their work, the harder it is to maintain the original intended integrity of the message. I’ve seen several instances where agencies have distanced themselves from work they’ve done because the final output was completely different from the original idea. (bigger logo! change the typeface! change headline! change visual! um.. ok, now I’m happy – lets see what the sales team have to say.) You’ll have agencies dumping your account the moment this seems to happen too often – however much money you’re paying them. If you want so much control, why hire an agency? You might as well do it yourself.
  5. Nurture the relationship
    If you are satisfied with the approach your agency takes in their work and if they seem like the right kind of people you want to work with, don’t just show your appreciation by praising them. Give them more work. After all, this is a business, and if their work is satisfactory and you’re compfortable with them, what’s preventing you from growing the relationship too? They have people, just like your organization does. they probably have targets, just like your organization’s peolple do – The best way you can show your appreciation for good work is to give them more work, trust them more and start giving them access to various people in your organization so that they can know your company better. If all goes well, this can only help increase the quality of the work delivered to you, as people who respect you will always do their best for you. Also, remember another of David Ogilvy’s famous lines: Pay Peanuts and you’ll get monkeys. Be open to expanding the scope of your relationship slowly, and demanding higher quality work and interaction for it.

At the end of the day, you need to achieve your organization’s objectives in some way – working with an agency or a vendor usually means a long term committment to the relationship – and like all relationships, you need to invest time and patience to make it a happy one.

I’ve been on both sides of the client-agency relationship, and in a 2 part series I’m going to highlight the pain points of both clients and agencies, faced by both me and some of the people I know. In this first part, I’ve put down some basic client servicing expectations people have from their agencies.

How to NOT infuriate your clients

  1. Deliver on Time
    Sound simple, doesn’t it? But in reality it is just an alien concept for most agencies. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to run around to get things done because my agencies have not delivered as promised. And it’s not just me – everybody I know who works as a client in a client-agency elationship, from PR and event managers to good old marketing managers, have horror stories of how the only consistent thing their agencies manage to do is deliver late. Agencies that deliver on time not only get respect, they also get more business. That’s simple too.
  2. Think before you execute
    I’ve come to believe that expecting this from agencies in Bangalore is asking for too much. After all, is it rocket science to do good work? How can you deliver collateral with headlines that a 10 year old child can write? Or design collateral that looks like it’s for a client in another non-related industry? When you’re given a brief or a requirement, please stop and think. Before you roll your sleeves up and dive into generating the communication collateral, take 10 minutes off to contemplate the big picture. If you’re a designer or visualizer, this is extremely important as your work will be questioned and debated more if there’s no apparent thought process behind it. Give it some thought, express that thought process while presenting the collateral, and your efforts will show that you’ve understood what your client wants to communicate.
  3. Quality Control is not “nice to have”, it’s “need to have”!
    You know you’re in trouble here if your client gets back to you with proofing corrections of typos and tells you that collateral with your client’s logo (which you created!) is in the wrong colors. Whether it’s a first draft or a final deliverable for approval, please proof read it and check for design inconsistencies. Alignment of objects, print ready files (CMYK images, cut marks) are the norm, not something your client should ask you to do. The last thing you need for your credibility is for your client to point out spelling mistakes in a headline. (Which, unfortunately, I’ve had to do in the past)
  4. Listen, Ask Questions
    Listen to what your client’s pain points are, and don’t just draw up tactical answers. If you listen well, you can glean what your client really wants you to do. If you don’t ask questions, you won’t know everything you need to know about an assignment. As David Ogilvy once said “I prefer the discipline of knowledge to the chaos of ignorance”. Find out more about your client’s business, understand the markets they are in, ask for more information about deliverables and your client’s intentions, question your client’s decisions and come up with better ideas that promise better results. If you don’t ask questions and just follow instructions blindly, then you’d rather work at a DTP Operator’s shop and not be surprised why your client wants so many changes in the work you’ve delivered.
  5. Integrity first, your client’s business second, you last
    Sounds preachy? Well it is – because nobody seems to like that “Integrity” word and agencies and suppliers usually interchange the last two bits. Evaluate if what you’re doing is extortionate, or detrimental to your client’s business. It’s not always apparent, but even simple direct mailers with the wrong message could be a disaster for your client’s brand equity. If you’re on a retainer, sitting back and expecting your client to call the shots and give direction while you absorb the monthly fee is not only unethical, it’s also not going to help you be motivated to do good work.

Doing all this will mean only two things: You earn respect and trust, which in turn means more business and more money. It really is this simple – do a good, professional job and that itself will make you and your agency stand out from the crowd.

Coming from an agency and having contributed to creating a few TV commercials in the past, I thought I’d share my two cents on this topic because of a discussion at work:

  • One thing I’ve found incomprehensible amongst both agencies and clients is that people read too much into advertisements.
    1. The idea of mass media advertising is to get attention – get brand recognition. There is no other ulterior motive. Whether you like the Sprite or Appy or advertisement or not, the fact that you remember it, remember the brand and recognize the brand when you go shopping means that the ad’s purpose has been achieved and the advertisers, agencies and media companies have done their job.
    2. Advertisers do this in multiple ways, from boring off-the-track advertisements to humourous, entertaining ads. The idea is to gain mindshare – reading into how they do it, whether a crazy stunt or stupid looking character or sarcastic humor, is pointless because you’re not supposed to. At least, the people who create these ads don’t think you’re supposed to – they just want your attention for 30 seconds, and hope and pray that attention translates into sales indirectly.
  • Communication is one of the most subjective fields to work in, and therefore one of the most challenging…
    1. We don’t know the process by which these ads get on our TV screens – it could have been a collection of 15 storyboards with 15 different concepts, and out of all of them 3 might have been brilliant, but because the CEO/Marketing manager has ego issues or doesn’t understand them, he/she chooses the most simple, stark storyboard of the lot. Or because the sales guy thinks this idea is better than that, it gets chosen even though it’s the wrong message.
    2. Budgets: you’d be amazed to see some really amazing ideas and concepts shot down because clients don’t want to spend 10 lakhs creating a great ad, but will have no qualms about spending 2 crores on media spends on multiple channels for a crappy ad.
    3. At the end of the day, it’s all about perception – I see those ads and see an attempt to communicate with me through humour – some of it works, and some of it doesn’t because I’m either not their target audience or just don’t appreciate their communication style. But if I remember a crappy ad, and recognize the brand, then regardless of whether I like the ad or not, I’ll name the brand in a brand perception survey. And i might even buy it while shopping because I’ve heard of it and want to try it out. After all, have you ever not bought a product only because it has a crappy ad campaign?
  • As someone sensitive to advertising, I agree with the general view of people in the industry that Indian ads these days have better production values and are slicker looking. But ideas and “concepts” wise we’re wayyyyyy behind the west in terms of sophistication and subtlety.

    But while agencies compain and groan about clients choosing run-of-the-mill storyboards, they also need to realise that the majority of the Indian audience hasn’t gotten any more sophisticated than they were ten years ago. With 80% of the Indian population still in rural and semi-urban areas, only a select few have the education background, IQ levels and exposure to good communication that will enable them to grasp a sophisticated metaphor or a subtle visual connection.

    The bad news? This isn’t going to change anytime soon – the process of sensitizing the masses to great communicaiton is a long drawn one.

    The good news? With education levels rising, increased competition in the Indian markets and globalization exposing India’s adults and children to international communication, the overall process will speed up. Hopefully.

Over the past 20 years, the story of the Indian IT industry and their success has been quite phenomenal – the IT big boys got a lot of publicity and international recognition for doing the donkey-work outsourced here pretty well. They've all been riding this wave and haven't really needed to spend a lot on marketing and high visibility in the past. But it looks like all this is going to change:

The Economic Times reports that the Indian IT big guys want to take on their western counterparts – IBM, Accenture and others who get the cream of the contracts.

Also the brand recall at the CXO level of Indian IT companies is not at the same level as with global corporations like HP, Microsoft, Accenture, EDS, Cisco, Dell and others. Though CXOs are aware of India as a hot destination for offshoring IT tasks, they aren't able to easily recall names of top vendors including HCL Technologies, Satyam Computer Systems, Infosys, Wipro, Patni and others. This is what IT majors want to change now. So what is Infosys doing to get eye balls. The company's global marketing head Srinivas Uppaluri told ET that as routine campaigns may not help, Infosys is targeting a focused group of 100,000. We have to do community building and events to get a better mind share among CXOs, he said.

According to Global Services, "Branding" has now suddenly become quite important (on a different scale) to Wipro, Infosys, TCS and Satyam. So not only should we expect much bigger marketing budgets and more diverse media plans (Mindtree is projected to spend Rs. 5 Crores this year), we will also see the side effects of these campaigns on brand India; For better or worse? Only time will tell.

Is outsourcing finally getting commoditized? In that case, of course, price and brand are the only two variables that matter. Indian companies have so far played the price card, which, of course, has a lower limit. So now, they feel, it is time to do something about the brand.

My only concern is that if they start getting more publicly visible, then they'll also have to pull up their socks in the 'incompetence' and 'inefficient' departments. Too many people who don't have the experience, intelligence or capabilities to do what they're supposed to do already litter these companies like ticks on a dog. But other than that, this could only mean good things for the Indian IT industry – for by spending oodles of moolah on marketing, and brand building, the big boys will also indirectly help the other small and medium sized companies here who accept outsourced development work.

In other unrelated news, it seems that the "Database of Indian IT Employees" is going to happen after all. I recently wrote about a concern I had about a move by NASSCOM and the Indian IT industry to register the country's employees in a biometric database, accessible to companies worldwide. Well it looks like it's going to happen, and the employees in the IT industry are not going to have a say in forming the privacy policy.

… The Indian IT industry has declared that all employees will have to register on its biometric database, so it can assure its Western clients that their customers' personal data will be protected….
NASSCOM vice president Sunil Mehta said: "The SRO would subscribe that all members would have all their employees registered in the registry. Mehta said the rules governing the use of employee data had been drawn up in a joint effort by NASSCOM, NSDL and industry. He said it was likely the guidelines would not be published. Employees' considerations had been taken into account by consulting lawyers, he said. "They don't have a union, but we did focus group discussions to attain their views," Mehta added.

I think now is a good time for people working in the IT and ITES sectors in India to form a union. It's amazing that over 950,000 people in India seemingly don't give a damn about their personal information.

I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell's phenomenal and brilliant book titled "Blink" – easily the most enjoyable non-fiction book I've read since the Tipping Point. Yes, I know it's been around for quite a while and I've read it quite late, but I managed to make time to read it only now 😛

Not only did this book give me a fascinating insight into the way we make decisions, it also made me think about some of the relatively important snap decisions I've made in my life so far – from important ones like choosing a house and a car to not so important ones like choosing a new unfamiliar dish at a restaurant.

What is "Blink" about?
It's a book about rapid cognition, about the kind of thinking that happens in a blink of an eye. When you meet someone for the first time, or walk into a house you are thinking of buying, or read the first few sentences of a book, your mind takes about two seconds to jump to a series of conclusions. Well, "Blink" is a book about those two seconds, because I think those instant conclusions that we reach are really powerful and really important and, occasionally, really good.

You could also say that it's a book about intuition, except that I don't like that word. In fact it never appears in "Blink." Intuition strikes me as a concept we use to describe emotional reactions, gut feelings – thoughts and impressions that don't seem entirely rational. But I think that what goes on in that first two seconds is perfectly rational. It's thinking – its just thinking that moves a little faster and operates a little more mysteriously than the kind of deliberate, conscious decision-making that we usually associate with "thinking." In "Blink" I'm trying to understand those two seconds. What is going on inside our heads when we engage in rapid cognition? When are snap judgments good and when are they not? What kinds of things can we do to make our powers of rapid cognition better?

Thin-slicing is a new term I learnt, which is a phrase in psychology – "the power of thin slicing" – which says that as human beings we are capable of making sense of situations based on the thinnest slice of experience. And this is what I found that I could really relate to – from complex and important decisions to pretty mundane ones, it's not always that we examine and logically disect the information in front of us and come to a decision – doing that just creates information overload.

To quote Malcolm Gladwell on his book, this is a paragraph that I felt really summarizes the intent of the book, and made my level of respect for the author go a grade higher.

"The Tipping Point" was concerned with grand themes, with figuring out the rules by which social change happens. "Blink" is quite different. It is concerned with the smallest components of our everyday lives–with the content and origin of those instantaneous impressions and conclusions that bubble up whenever we meet a new person, or confront a complex situation, or have to make a decision under conditions of stress. I think its time we paid more attention to those fleeting moments. I think that if we did, it would change the way wars are fought, the kind of products we see on the shelves, the kinds of movies that get made, the way police officers are trained, the way couples are counseled, the way job interviews are conducted and on and on–and if you combine all those little changes together you end up with a different and happier world.

There have been reams of blog posts, reviews and quotes on this book, all available on the net, but don't get excited over all the hype. At the end of the day, the book is just a perspective on an interesting, everyday phenomenon we've all experienced 🙂 That said, even if you're not interested in marketing or information architecture or websites (in my opinion, there are far-reaching implications for all of those fields), go ahead, buy/beg/borrow/steal this book and read it, because you can infer implications from it that will affect your life and work.

<rant>
Is it just me or have incompetence levels in agencies/retail stores/marketing teams/production houses shot through the roof? Where have all the people who understand simple directions/requests gone? Am I the only one who finds it amazing that companies in Bangalore are doing so well when 80% of their staff are inarticulate, lazy, never-on-time, constantly whining slackers who take their jobs for granted?
</rant>

The angst comes from recent examples in my professional career that involve dealing with different vendors for marketing activities. Take for example a certain agency that needs to be spoon fed production and finalization details on their creatives. They never show up on time for meetings, they actually have the gall to ask their client how to make flash presentations go full screen, and better still, they need to be told that they’re using the wrong client logo in multiple places. All this after working with this client for over 2 years!

Or, take for another example a branded, well-known car dealer dealing in used cars. Because of a combination of mismanagement, lazy people at the lower rung of the food chain and incompetent staff in the finance department, it takes 1 month for me to get my new car – as opposed to the usual 5 days. And the icing on the cake here: I need an accessory for my car (a cigarette lighter) that’s not already fitted on the car. So I ask for one. And I get this response: “Sorry sir, we can’t fit a lighter because we can’t get hold of any in Bangalore – everybody is out of stock”. I calmly wiped the incredulous look on my face, grabbed my car keys and drove over to the road 2 kilometers away and got a lighter fit.

Another example: This time with getting minor changes to a certain website ready. I write a detailed mail with easy to understand steps – step 1: Do this, step 2: do that etc for 8 steps in total. 3 days and a lot of blood pressure rises, it still wasn’t done. Its not like the person who I was coordinating with was stupid or uneducated – He actually has a master’s degree and has been doing web development work for quite a while. But he still has comprehension issues with essential things like indenting code, understanding easy-to-read instructions and understanding how search engines work. At first I thought it might be my fault because my instructions weren’t as clear as I thought they were – so I gave him a brief on the phone, in person and clarified all doubts over email. Did that work? Nope, so in the interest of my blood pressure and senior management deadlines, I just did it myself.

Interested in this phenomenon of how people like this get jobs (some of them are VERY well paid), I asked around with a few friends in Pune and Bangalore – and it seems I’m not the only one experiencing this wave of interactions with people who just can’t do their job.

Maybe this is one of the problems:

There are many incompetent people in the world. But a Cornell University study has shown that most incompetent people do not know that they are incompetent.

People who do things badly, according to David A. Dunning, a professor of psychology at Cornell, are usually supremely confident of their abilities — more confident, in fact, than people who do things well.

One reason that the ignorant also tend to be the blissfully self-assured, the researchers believe, is that the skills required for competence often are the same skills necessary to recognize competence.

Never mind their educational qualifications or their backgrounds – that doesn’t matter as long as they can do what they are paid to do. Never mind if they can’t do it well – even “average” execution would be acceptable. But it seems even asking for “average” is quite an uphill battle for the average Bangalorean.

Well, more of a rare species than endangered 🙂 Ever wondered by its so difficult to get a designer who’s comfortable with typography, contemporary design and reads and does research about design and also manages his or her work and clients?

In the course of my working life, I’ve come across a fair amount of designers – from my first job to my current one I’ve worked with web designers, print designers, interactive designers, people who do all of the above and even architects/programmers/civil engineers who’ve turned into art designers, and very few of them were good designers AND good managers.

It’s always a tradeoff – you either get a brilliant designer who’s on the bleeding edge of design and typography but has to be managed by someone else 24/7, or you get designers who are good at managing work and clients but very average when it comes to design.

Why is this? Is this a problem only in India? Or is it happening all over the world? I came across an article that seems to suggest people all over the world are experiencing this.

As hard as it is for designers to learn management skills, it’s even harder for companies to find truly qualified design managers to hire. It’s just a rare quality, because for truly creative types, the act of managing can often be a daily struggle between satisfying the sensibilities of the artist’s id, and orchestrating all the business factors that intersect with a design team. It’s an unnatural and often uneasy internal alliance of opposing agendas.

Some people may want to blame the design schools – not enough training on negotiation and management or maybe even too much of a focus on the subtle and artisitic. In my opinion, though it doesn’t have much to do with design schools or with designers not getting enough exposure to management principles. Rather, it has a lot to do with their work environment and how they start off.

The designers/visualizers who start their careers as entreprenuers seem to be the only people who “get” managing their time, their work and their clients AND executing breathtaking designs. Of course, there are also the few exceptions of MBA grads with a penchant for design, but they are few and far between.

So is entrepreneurship the only way for designers to become good managers too? Seems that way to me – let me know if you have an opinion that’s contrary.