Four Terms of Endearment

Having worked in media and digital since the mid 90s – first in video post production, then video game producing, business analysis for websites, and more latterly as a project and program manager – I’ve seen the invention of countless processes and terms and missions and core beliefs and strategies that have been proclaimed THE MOST IMPORTANT THING EVER. I’ve been thinking lately about four of these, which are a bit all over the map in terms of type, and wondering about why they are misused or misunderstood so often. In an effort to see where my understanding sits with others, I’ve composed a short list of observations about terms that I encounter frequently. There are only four in this list, but there are many more that I’ll be thinking about in the weeks to come.

Customer Experience and Engagement

There have been lots of expressions of the importance of the customer (or user) in marketing and digital product development but frankly a lot of it is lip service. I’m not convinced that many businesses understand what it means to truly engage with customers and really think through the importance of experience to engagement, brand loyalty, and ultimately purchase decisions. If businesses want to engage customers you need to think about what your customers want and need, where they need it and when they want it, and most importantly you need them to tell you. Time and again, I’ve seen clients telling me what customers want and when I ask how they know I often get an answer that is in the vein of ‘we know our business’. This is what I say back: great that you know your business but you know it from the inside… if you want to really engage customers ask them what they want, test it frequently, benchmark with competitors, and do not allow the way you are doing business now to dictate how you do business in the future. And guess what? Your entire business model may need to change to support a customer-centered approach to whatever it is you are delivering. There is always a risk of testing to death, and this is why it is crucial that any models used to understand what a customer needs and wants are incredibly rigorous. Don’t underestimate the effort required to understand your customers. It takes real work.


When I started doing project management I had no idea what I was doing and no real tools for managing work. I made it up as I went, in a kind of agile-as-chaos structure. It was all pretty self organized and often filled with surprises and long, late nights of counter productive work. Experience and exposure to ‘traditional’ project management approaches (aka waterfall) helped me to understand the value of planning, risk management, project tracking, reporting, and sequencing of work. The laborious and slow days of pure waterfall gave way to the agile revolution, driven by the work of software developers who were already doing iterative development. Agile has now matured, been stress-tested, and most agencies and many clients are hopping on the bandwagon (it’s probably more like a Airbus a380 actually). The problem is that Agile isn’t right for every project, for every client, or for every phase of a project. I know the Scrum Alliance will be horrified by this (but I’m a paid up member!). No doubt Agile is best if quality is the most important thing for you as a client and agency. But if you have a fixed scope and a fixed price, Agile rarely works. You can have a fixed scope OR a fixed price OR a fixed timeline, but start combining these and the primary benefits and the rules of Agile fall apart. I think every project should start with a discovery period during which the way of working is determined – it may be that a project can have iterative development, or iterative design, but that there is a more waterfall-ish definition phase. Or it may be that with the client the work is not Agile, but internally at the agency the team is structured in scrum teams. There are many ways to get the best out of Agile without setting up a team for failure. Cramming Agile down the throat of a client who isn’t prepared to handle it never works. Ever. And a client that says they are ready for Agile needs to be tested – over half of the clients I’ve worked with who think they are Agile are waterfall through and through, but many don’t realize it (or don’t want to admit it). Proceed with caution.

Transparent Collaboration

If I had a dollar for every time I worked on a project where a client proclaimed a desire for close collaboration and an integrated client-agency team, I’d be a millionaire. If I had a dollar for every time the rules of engagement made that possible, well, I’d be in debtors prison (except that doesn’t exist anymore). Every agency says they value collaboration and most clients say they want it. The problem is that the structure of what a client wants/needs and what an agency is generally driven by (margin – billable hours) are not conducive to transparent collaboration. Clients generally want high quality work, cheaply, and quickly. Agencies generally want the most profitable work, of the highest quality, that they can feature in their portfolios or submit for awards. There are inherent competing interests here. The only way to solve this, in my experience is to have a very clear engagement model where both teams agree to the way the collaboration will be structured, and acknowledge some of the inherent limits to the relationship. Someone recently said to me that in any relationship there are three parties that need to be considered: you, your partner, and the relationship. This is true in the way agencies and clients collaborate. Acknowledge the three parts of the relationship, set clear ground rules for how to collaborate, and (most importantly) stick to the rules (and one rule might be that flexibility needs to be possible). This is easier said then done and casting the right people in the right roles is crucial to making this work, but it is possible and the benefits of spending the time setting up the engagement honestly from the beginning far outweigh the risks of not doing it.

Digital Transformation

‘Digital Transformation’ seems to be the phrase du jour. Lately I hear everyone talking about wanting to go through a digital transformation (from businesses that are not digitally native) or needing to, or I find myself saying that I think X business really needs a digital transformation. As with any trend/fad/new way of thinking, there are many definitions floating out there about what this exactly means, what it entails, and how you do it. From my observations, I’m seeing what I often see: clients who want the benefits of having access to the efficiencies that ‘going digital’ can provide, but who may not be prepared for the costs, the work, and the impact that shifting to a model where digital is a crucial part of their business model entails. Even more, I see many clients who think digital transformation means setting up better websites, putting in place a real CRM, having a content strategy, better SEO/SEM, a social strategy, more digital marketing, and that’s where it ends. The crucial pieces that are often missed are organizational, philosophical, and strategic. You can’t have a digital transformation that stops at the office door. Digital transformation can, and should, be tailored to the needs of the organization going through it, so not every transformation will take the same shape. But there is no digital transformation that doesn’t include changing the role descriptions and daily tasks of employees, rethinking KPIs, and changing approaches to productivity and team structure. The digital workforce needs different skills and tools and they need an organization that supports them. Sometimes these changes are not super transformative – they are incremental – but in the majority of cases that I’ve seen the operational and organizational changes needed are not small, but they are often forgotten in the planning and budgeting process.
I love a good debate, so share your point of view about any and all of the above. And, maybe more importantly, what are the terms/approaches/processes that get under your skin?


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