Agencies need to stop giving clients appalling advice. And clients need to stop asking for it

When I first meet a new client team, it’s always interesting to hear about how they got to where they are. It’s always different and often complex – but there are some similarities across the board – from multi £m businesses to start-ups.
The most common theme I hear surrounds clients simply not getting business advice.

I use the word business pointedly here.

What can happen is, clients have a back-story that then leads them to a self-perceived solution or service that they think will solve the problem. For example, I spoke to a really smart marketer yesterday who represented a £10m turnover membership business. She had a ‘web design’ brief for a new website and a reasonable budget. It had all kinds in there – better SEO rankings, new CMS, CRM integration, better brand experience… you name it.

She was new in post and has inherited a reasonably new website, but it wasn’t working for the organisation. After spending 20 minutes on a call it transpired that there are 100,000 members, and membership was slowly depleting. Every year she attracts 8,000 new members, but loses 10,000 members due to a clunky retention strategy – so a net loss of 2,000 members. Each member is worth around £70 a year to the organisation. So every 12 months they are losing £140,000 in revenues because there is a problem with their member retention strategy. Quite quickly my advice was for her to focus on fixing this problem first.

Take a look at why members fall out of love with you, and create appropriate online and offline solutions to the problem.Drop the web brief completely.

Don’t build a new website – you don’t need one.

Yes – there will be a number of digital touch-points as part of a clever and creative retention strategy. But our priority has to be our ability to love our members more.

Let’s assume that we claw back £100k of the £140k loss.
As an organisation you’d be willing to part with some budget to solve this problem right? Suddenly the conversation is exciting and we are talking about real business benefit stuff!

The answer? I’m not sure…yet – I’d have to ask a clutch of recently exited members to find out. But the ‘solution’ probably requires a mix of:

· DM

· Personalised and rules-based e-mail

· Highly-persuasive landing pages

· Probably a compelling member video to emphasise the value of the role you play as ‘one of us’

· Revisit member benefits and keep them fresh

· Saying ‘thank you’

We had a great chat about this and I think she was interested. But fundamentally the thing was…. I was giving her a new problem.

She had a problem already (‘I need a new website’) – and not only have I not helped with that, I’ve just given her a new problem that she never knew she had!!

Thinking this through from her perspective, she has already asked the board for some money for a new website, and I was effectively asking her to go back to the boardroom to say, ‘Actually I might have got this wrong, and this guy thinks the website is fine as it is, and we need to spend our cash stopping people from leaving instead’.

No-one delights in that experience.

My next role (if she wants me to have one) is to help her raise the profile and value of digital to her board, but my concern is that she might not want this new problem, and instead she’ll find a ‘web design agency’ that will take her original budget and build her a new website. A website she doesn’t need.

And where do you think that original budget came for that piece of work? Has it been carefully planned against a known amount of work effort, or some calculation based on ROI?


It comes begrudgingly from a hacked off board of directors who have always seen ‘the website’ as a necessary business cost that they try and minimise whenever they can. Getting the original budget was probably quite a task I imagine. As marketers we are given as little money as possible from the board to ‘build a new website’ because we ourselves don’t understand the value digital plays. Even in 2016 it’s striking how often we have this conversation.

So we get scraps from the top table.

And because they are scraps we make bad decisions and buy the wrong things, or cheap things. And because we do the wrong things they fail. And when they fail the board points the finger at us all and say things like ‘stop wasting money’ and ‘get a new agency’ or worst still ‘get a new job’…

We are perpetuating our collective failure, and this lack of assertiveness creates dissatisfaction for everyone. No-one wins. Not even the ‘web design’ agency who may be slightly richer, but they have a failed relationship and an unhappy team on their hands, and the chances are they spent way more than the set budget of their billable time and ran over the deadline handsomely.

This story is not isolated. Another business I know had a perceived need for an app, So they approached an app development company to build them a new app. So they did.


Sadly, what they really needed was a world-class mobile web experience, which (at some point in the future) may have benefitted from an app experience. They didn’t need a new app; but yet they spent a fortune on it. But because they got the wrong advice they have wasted time and money on the wrong things. They have since had to crowbar a web strategy into an app strategy which will naturally have compromises.

So – as practitioners we have a responsibility to advise the people we speak to in their best interests – not ours. I would like to think the marketer I spoke to yesterday will look at the role digital plays for her business in a new way. Even if she doesn’t re-engage with me, I hope she takes the decision to revisit her business problems before jumping into ‘solution’ mode.

But both parties have a shared responsibility. Marketers and IT teams need to think about the business problems they are looking to solve; and studios and agencies have a responsibility to advise and signpost clients into the right relationships.

Especially if it means we don’t take the money and run.