Buzz on the Street: Proactive Partners

I work with about 20 active clients of varying sizes and interactive needs every day. One of the common themes which has emerged among several of them lately is a common demand/complaint:

“We’re looking for you to be more proactive about our websites. We aren’t the interactive experts — if there’s something our website needs, we expect you to be proactive about telling us.”

The marketing industry has changed

In grad school we took for granted that the needs of the business community were vastly changing in the face of the internet. It was such a given at the theoretical level that we really didn’t spend all that much time talking about it. After all, it was so self evident to us as students that we had bellied up to the ivory tower for $30K in higher education just to prepare ourselves to be able to navigate these new and confusing waters.

As usual, the tactical world took some time to catch up. To be certain there are and have always been thought leaders and trend setters within the interactive business arena. Yet the great majority of businesses generally seem to still be stuck somewhere between begrudging acknowledgment of the web as a disruptive force that somehow needs to be tamed into behaving like more traditional communication channels, and those who have accepted the fact that the web is changing the rules of the game forever but aren’t ready to admit that this interactive influence is changing more than just the way the marketing/advertising dollars are being spent.

Not so any more. It is both frustrating and heartening at the same time to watch this shift of expectations, and a little bemusing to watch as everyone’s response is the same general line of thinking. “You interactive guys seem to know something about the internet, why haven’t you warned us about these changes which are happening and helped us to stay ahead of the trends?”

You’re my agency, educate me!

The tragic thing is that in most of these cases the interactive agencies have been fairly screaming at their clients to take certain directions and make certain changes to the means of communication in order to maximize the use of interactive tools. In many cases, we’re still attempting to advise and provide strategic leadership and information every day.

The difficulty is that we aren’t even yet at the point where we can educate our clientele yet about the grander scheme of things. It feels to me in many ways like we are struggling to teach our clients the basic vocabulary and grammatical rules of a foreign language and they complain bitterly that they aren’t Shakespeare or Voltaire yet. Even with a high degree of proficiency of this new communication form, there’s still a huge gap between operational mastery and genius, and we’re still working at finding ‘genius’ ourselves.

The real challenge with being proactive

Being proactive when you take it to its theoretical conclusion means that we, as a business partnership between each client and ourselves as an agency, need to do more than just react to the market. To be truly proactive, we will need a philosophy shift from ourselves and our clients, to push ahead and do more than just what is currently done and available. Breaking new ground somehow, forging ahead.

But all of the lessons that we are learning from the collaborative and open source online communities is that it’s not necessary to reinvent the wheel, just repurpose existing materials to make the wheels spin faster. So do we spend the time trying to break boundaries and really be proactive in the sense of finding something that is going to garner interactive street cred for both our clients and ourselves as developers and executors? Or do we lower the bar of proactive to simply mean that we take a more aggressive sales approach toward pushing our strategies onto our clients? Because as a veteran ad/marketing/promotions agency employee, let me just tell you <sarcasm> that works so well. </sarcasm> At most we gain ammo for future use with the ‘I Told You So’ gun.

And then, there’s the money.

Part of the real challenges with being proactive partners with any client is that agencies do what we do to make money. A long time ago (like, 10 years), the net used to be cheap. KInAB (‘kid in a basement’) used to run everything. Pages were static brochureware sites. Dinosaurs surfed the web. ‘Https:’ was a misspelling.

Not so any more.

The interactive sector is still going strong even with layoffs and the horrid economy. It seems that the business powers that be among clients still recognize (perhaps grudgingly) that interactive is the new marketplace. Even with the economic downturn money is still being funneled to agencies to help build, maintain, and upgrade interactive services.

But if you want to play, you have to pay. That’s the rules of the game, and they’re different rules in many places than the traditional agency billing structures of the offline marketing and promotions world. I’ve worked in three agencies and in all three, the interactive department was 100% time and materials. Meaning, if a client calls and I pick up the phone, that’s billable time for us and a fee that’s going to have to be paid for. Unlike the offline side where there are annual contracts with certain amounts of retained bodies and hours which come ‘free’ to the client with the annual payment schedule, interactive agencies tend to bill more like lawyers and less like advertisers.

And if you want us to be proactive, it’s going to cost you. No really, all those times that your Project Managers submitted scopes of work to you with time included for things like ‘Strategy’ and ‘Metrics and Analytics’ time? You remember, those line items that were first to be crossed off the list because of how expensive they were? Well, that’s the proactive part. Those are the areas which establish strategic thinking on the one side, and then measure to see if the strategy succeeded on the other. Pretty important line items in any budget.

The magic words for clients

If you are a client, and you are thinking, “We have this exact same problem with our own interactive agency! What should we do to get the right kind of strategy out from them?” then here’s my answer.

Here are the magic words to get proactive service out of an otherwise reactive agency relationship:

“I would like to begin a Discovery project. I want to do a site and content audit for the current site and engage your strategic services to generate a plan for our website for the coming year.”

That’s it. Those are the magic words. When spoken to your day to day Account Executive contact, immediately upon hanging up the phone or closing  the email box they will hit a secret button on their desk and  the red phone to the strategy department will come out. Your strategic importance to the agency (and if you don’t think we sort our clientele that way, you need to) will suddenly increase.

You will have to pay for this service. And you will need to pay for the SEO/Metrics and Analytics packages on the back end too. They will not generate any ‘thing’, except a proposed plan and maybe some Information Architecture documents. But you will see your agency put together a strategy document with supporting numbers and figures, and you will generate a new plan. If you do this project before your budgeting cycle, then you’ll also know how much to plan into your budgets for the following year.

Magic words. Every year. Eventually, your agency will remind you that it’s time for your interactive check-up, and then, finally… you’ll have a proactive agency.


One Response to “Buzz on the Street: Proactive Partners”

  1. E Fitz Smith Says:

    The future is in understanding the practical minutia of daily user behaviors. There are plenty of small time proprietors using the internet to do business successfully, simply based on SEO, and with cheap interactive tools.

    If the big time client leaders are not practicing web communication techniques personally, from blogging to selling product, they won’t know what to ask for. How can they even know what to say yes to?

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