About two years ago I cofounded vbp orange, a customer experience consultancy that was birthed within advertising agency Venables Bell & Partners. Like many beginnings, it was the result of both rational and emotional impulses: the rational recognition of a real business opportunity for an agency, and the emotional and personal need for a change. I’d be lying if I said that there weren’t moments at the start when I wondered if we really had permission to do this.
Two years later, we are partnering with Audi to optimize and differentiate its ownership experience, which I have found to be incredibly rewarding work. In the meantime, I’ve been asked a lot of questions about vbp orange. As we’ve built out our capabilities, and as "customer experience" has begun to take on a more recognized meaning across industries, the nature of those questions has gradually changed from "What (in the hell) are you doing?" to "Why aren’t more agencies doing this?" This evolution is telling, because the tenor has shifted from mild curiosity to outright alarm. Which means we’re on to something.
So why isn’t every agency from coast to coast launching a customer experience consultancy? They should. Here’s why.
This isn’t something we’ve just been telling ourselves. Agency people understand the fundamental relationship that companies can form with their customers—and, most important, they understand the way a well-executed idea can impact that relationship. The recent viral video from Dove, in which a police sketch artist illustrates women’s descriptions of themselves versus descriptions given by strangers, is a great example of that understanding.
There’s research and there’s empathy. Sometimes the two coincide. Agency people tend to do both well. We go into people’s homes and go through their medicine cabinets and their trash and play fetch with their dogs. We recognize narratives and subtexts. We know how to interpret that pause before they answer the question. We feel their stress and revel in their successes. We know when they call bullshit. Customer experience starts with an understanding of the customer, and at good agencies, that discipline is baked into the culture.
We are used to owning problems with our clients. We know what it means to be a partner. We do it for years—sometimes for decades. Contrary to what some consultancies and design firms would have you believe, customer experience is often a long-term commitment. You don’t solve it over a three-month design project. It involves a commitment to a way of doing things as a company that takes time to plan and execute, and even more time to implement. Agency people are used to the long haul.
So what’s stopping you, Mr. and Ms. Advertising Executive, and the rest of your industry, from swimming upstream into customer experience? Based on my observations over the past two years, I would say that it comes down to learned behavior—industry muscle memory that has to be broken:
1. Messaging Muscle Memory: Agency people are too often preoccupied with what we say versus what we do. Customer experience isn’t about saying something or telling a story or communicating. It’s about doing. Agency people are sometimes too comfortable moving words in boxes around slides. Some seem to be recognizing this shift. It seems like many agency startups have hitched their wagons to the "makers movement," but so far there seems to be more talking about making than actual making.
2. Departmental Muscle Memory: The problem with specialists is they sometimes get comfortable doing the specialized things they do and are afraid to venture out of their expertise. Copywriters write copy. Broadcast producers produce. Planners plan. I’ve found that some of the people who are best at customer experience are account people, because they have to develop expertise (and relationships) across different areas and are often thick-skinned when it comes to throwing ideas into the mix.
3. Financial Muscle Memory: We know how to pitch a new account, add up the FTEs, and write up a contract. Customer experience engagements might require a new way of looking at how we get paid for the value we create. For many, that’s a challenge not easily overcome, but if you can’t work this out, you’re not going to get very far.
There has been much handwringing and back and forth about how advertising does or doesn’t matter anymore. I think there is unquestionably still a role for great advertising, but it’s pretty safe to say that average advertising matters even less than it used to, simply because of everything else that competes for our attention. But beyond that, we live in a world where every experience, good or bad, every trip to the store, or purchase, or interaction with a brand representative, has the potential to ripple out into the universe through social media. That’s the reality, and it’s not one that’s easily managed through spots or banner ads. Increased transparency means that customer expectations are rising, and customers are holding brands accountable, as they should.
There are many design firms that want to spend three months solving a problem, but they don’t want to own the messiness of internal cultural change. There are brand consultancies that are comfortable presenting change management strategies in a PowerPoint presentation, but they don’t know how to make interesting things that delight people in the real world.
We are not those consultants. There is a real need for someone to fill these gaps, and I, for one, would love to see more advertising agencies rise to the occasion.
Harlan Kennedy is Director of Strategy at vbp orange, a customer experience consultancy in San Francisco. Prior to that, he spent 16 years in account planning on the agency side, leading strategy on brands such as Barclays, Xbox, Dentyne, Bass Ale, and Conoco Phillips.