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News Q&A

Insightful Q&A session with Jonathan Kirk

14 February 2020
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We caught up with the founder of Up to the Light (authors of the What Clients Think Report) Jonathan Kirk to find out what’s happening in agencies. Read his fascinating insights into the modern client/agency relationship.


How long have you worked with agencies?

I’ve been advising agencies for over 10 years. During that time, I’ve worked with agencies across every type of creative discipline in the UK, Europe and beyond. I advise a significant proportion of the UK’s top 100 design agencies on a wide range of issues but, basically, it’s about helping agencies grow, develop and improve. Sometimes it’s an agency that is very hungry for growth. Sometimes it’s an agency that has been in business a long time but is aiming for some new phase of development. That can be more subtle like wanting a different type of client or project, wanting to become more specialist or to sharpen their offer and positioning. 


How did you move from agency – to agency development work?

I achieved all I wanted to achieve in agencies, and I made it to the Board of some big agencies. Once there, however, I couldn’t help thinking, ‘Is this it?’ I never felt truly satisfied in those big agency cultures. At that point, I realised that I could make the biggest difference as a consultant. I noticed that there were, and still are, a lot of ingrained approaches in the design industry and I felt there was huge scope to challenge a lot of those assumptions and offer more imaginative, insight-led, and more effective approaches.  


How has the agency landscape changed since you started working with agencies?

Wow, we’re going back quite a long way! In a nutshell, some of the big changes have been a more savvy, cost conscious, spoilt for choice and, at times, a more cynical client. There are probably more agencies simply servicing clients and doing what the client has asked, rather than truly pushing and challenging clients. Some of the traditional delineations between design disciplines have hazed over. Sometimes it’s difficult to quickly establish precisely what an agency does and what it is best at. We know from the hundreds of client interviews that we conduct on behalf of design agencies that this is a real issue – What is the agency’s core competency and where does it excel? Clients now tend to attach more value to agencies that are ‘strategic’, however that is defined. There is a whole new revenue stream that agencies can potentially capture. How agencies frame their strategic offer and package those services is really important to future growth. Also, being really good at pitching has also become integral to agency growth.    


From a business perspective, what is the biggest improvement that an agency can make?

I find that the biggest watershed between agencies is the extent to which different approaches are actually defined, as opposed to being more fluid or haphazard. For instance, what is the agency’s approach to staff appraisals and HR? Is there a structured and consistent approach to client development? What are the internal stages that happen from receipt of a brief to the final pitch presentation? What is the defined approach to client service – what is ‘our approach’ to client service? There are lots of these defined approaches. An agency’s ability to nail them is proof of greater business professionalism and maturity. Ultimately, this internal professionalism shines outwards.


When you say that there is a lot of ‘ingrained approaches’ in our industry, what do you mean?

Let me give you one example – new business. The ‘credentials presentation’ is dead. In terms of understanding what an agency has done, everything is available on the agency’s website. Today’s clients want to know what you think, not just what you’ve done. 78% of clients like to ‘discover’ a new agency rather than feel ‘sold to’, so business development is now about managing communication channels and drawing clients to you. This requires a really intelligent, marketing-led approach, not a conventional sales-led approach.


Do you have any advice on how an agency can improve client perceptions of value for money?

When evaluating agencies, it seems that the overriding client mantra has become ‘value for money’. Increased pressure on client budgets, coupled with procurement department scrutiny, means that this focus is unlikely to diminish any time soon. Judgments about value for money are not all about the commercial success of the end creative result. The assessment is more complex than that with all sorts of other factors coming into play. Our client interviews repeatedly show that perceptions of whether an agency is good value for money go wider and deeper. Is the agency flagging up budget issues early enough? Are smaller fees for amendments disproportionately expensive? Is there a ‘one size fits all’ approach to costs that fails to recognise the difference between front-end conceptual thinking and later implementation work? Is there a lack of added value and proactivity beyond answering the brief?


What should agencies bear in mind when they are thinking about what makes them different?

The agency positioning is really important. Put simply, there are 4 building blocks. Firstly, your target audience. What clients do you want to work with and on what type of projects? What do these clients want from their agency? What are their motivators and attitudes? How do your current clients currently perceive you? Secondly, your market. How are your competitors shaping their offers and what can you learn from this? Thirdly, your offer. This may seem straightforward but, often, it’s not. What are your services and how are they grouped and articulated? Fourthly, what is it about you that is distinctive, true to you and something that the whole agency can understand and get behind?     


Any surprising insights?

In 2020, 64% of clients selected an agency that went against a specific brief requirement. This shows that, despite writing a seemingly confident and prescriptive brief, clients don’t always know what they want. They might not know it until they see it. Agencies need to be confident about their experience and their ability to be truly consultative. Remember that the agency is the expert. That’s why they are being consulted.   

In 2023, a very interesting finding is that 82% of clients describe themselves as risk-averse. Many of these same clients are quick to stress the need for innovation and creating difference so this may seem a contradiction. However, they want innovation and distinctiveness within a strong framework of real understanding and commercial awareness. Agencies that simply talk about ‘being brave’ and ‘taking risks’ may be giving the wrong signals.

Another one is that – 36% of clients agree that a focus on ‘the great creative idea’ has become more difficult in today’s marketing environment. Most clients readily acknowledge the value of a great creative idea. However, marketing is becoming increasingly technical and data-driven. This means that a huge time and emphasis is going into the ‘how’ as opposed to the ‘what’. How do you connect the messaging across multiple channels, how do you improve customer targeting and extract useful data that can be acted on? This inevitably detracts from a focus on the ‘what’ – what’s the creative idea that underpins all this activity?


Find out What Clients really Think at Jonathan’s Kirk exclusive preview of What Clients Think report 2023.


Jonathan Kirk is the founder of Up to the Light, a consultancy that advises creative agencies on positioning and strategy, and all aspects of business improvement and growth, challenging some of the ingrained assumptions that exist in our industry and providing effective, insight-led advice Jonathan’s senior roles have included Business Development Director of Fitch, the global brand design group, and New Business Director of Havas EHS (now Havas Helia), one of Europe’s largest agency networks. Jonathan is a founder member of the Design Business Association’s Experts Register and is a frequent conference speaker and trade press contributor.

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