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By Tim Williams

By Tim Williams

Stop Filling Orders and Start Solving Problems

The decline in the perceived value of advertising agencies can be closely correlated with their increasing propensity to dutifully fulfill “scopes of work” rather than proactively solve client problems. 

An unfortunate number of firms have forgotten that the role of the professional is to probe, question, and diagnose, not simply provide services. Otherwise it’s the equivalent of the patient not only self-diagnosing, but self-prescribing.

“Start with the business challenge, not a marketing channel.” advises Johnny Vulkan, co-founder of Anomaly. “We focus on ensuring we are actually asking the right question, often collectively deciding with our clients that the real issue is bigger (or smaller) than first thought.” Pushing on better questions helps Anomaly get to better answers.

Asking great questions

My friend and colleague Ed Kless has cultivated a list of “Great Questions” that transcend the typical discovery process. Consider the insight you would gain from questions like these:

  • What is the value your organization creates for its customers? 

  • What is the crossroads you and your company face at this time?

  • What is the story you keep telling about the problems you face?

  • What is the question that, if you had the answer, would make you free?

Author and consultant Alan Weiss, an expert at constructing value propositions, recommends questions like:

  • What better condition are you seeking?

  • How would your company be different as a result of this work?

  • What is the rate of return that you seek?

  • What harm would be alleviated?

  • How much would you gain on the competition as a result?

  • How would you most easily justify this investment?

  • What indicators will you use to assess our progress?

  • What will these results mean for your organization?

  • What is the scope of the impact (on customers, employees, vendors)?

  • What if this fails?

Great questions provoke your clients to imagine a new and better future for their company. They allow you to devise a “Scope of Value” before enumerating a Scope of Work. It’s understood that there will be a “create and produce” aspect to the work you do for most clients, but creation and production are always in service to a result your client seeks. 

Grasping the value you create

In the simplest terms, the value you create has two dimensions:

Gain: Helping your client increase revenue, profit, awareness, reputation, etc.

Pain: Helping your client decrease their costs. Or equally important, helping decrease their risks.

Professional strategists Jim Barnes and Cristina Austin of BMAI offer the perspective that value perceptions involve weighing “give vs. get.” Value is created by adding to what is obtained or reducing what must be given. 

New forms of value

Part of the challenge agencies face when selling their value is the outdated idea that consumers make their brand decisions as a result of watching, listening to, or reading commercial messages. But as the agency R/GA points out, agencies now create multidimensional value by connecting with and influencing consumers in ways that go way beyond the mass media communications model. Agencies are now adept at intercepting and persuading consumers while they are:

Searching / Researching / Comparing / Shopping / Purchasing / Connecting / Saving / Liking / Personalizing / Designing / Paying / Reviewing / Gaming / Photographing / Sharing / Participating / Tracking / Aggregating / etc.

Today’s progressive agencies employ ingenious approaches to engage with consumers in ways that transcend the elements specified in a client-supplied statement of work. In other words, they focus their energies on creatively solving marketing problems, not executing pre-ordained lists of marketing to-do’s. 

Prominently on the website of Bain & Company, the global consultancy, is the assurance “Our clients realize, on average, results yielding 25 times returns on our fees and margin improvements of seven percentage points within two or three years.” Bain is in the business of performance improvement. 

It’s been said that how your firm sells is a good indicator of how it solves. By focusing on solving instead of executing, you underscore that you’re not in the service business, but rather the results business.