I worked at an advertising agency for just over a year. (A year and a day to be exact.)
Here’s how our typically engagement worked: The client would provide a brief. We’d quickly get to work on it, far out of sight from the peering eyes of our client. And when we were ready, we’d deliver our ideas to the client, much the way a grand meal is presented on a silver platter at a fancy restaurant or state dinner. (Cue the waiters to remove multiple silver domes in one simultaneous sweeping flourish.)
If the client liked what we did, great! We’d move forward in our process. But if they didn’t, we’d go back to the drawing board with their feedback, putting in more hours and hoping to get it right this time. There was no collaboration or co-creation between our agency and our clients. I often felt like we were shooting in the dark, again and again and again—all while racking up billable hours.
The last thing on anyone’s mind was building marketing or advertising capabilities within our clients’ organizations. Advertising agencies have been around for nearly 150 years, after all, and no one really questions that big ad campaigns will be outsourced to the experts.
But we weren’t coming up with big campaign ideas. We were building websites and mobile apps. We were helping people buy insurance. We were making promises that our clients’ organizations were responsible for delivering on.
This Outdated Approach Persists
This way of working feels so old fashioned to me. And it’s antithetical to one of the core tenets of service design: co-creation. To ensure that services and experiences are valuable, easy, and enjoyable, they must be designed with the input of people who will use them and deliver them. This has a number of benefits such as identifying better ways of working and gaining buy-in for changes to employee roles and processes.
And yet, there are consultancies that practice service design in the silver platter style of my former advertising agency. I believe this happens for two reasons:
- We’ve seen new providers in the service design space. When the world of service design revolved around a handful of small agencies, their work practices converged on a set of tightly held beliefs and approaches. But as customer experience and loyalty have gained importance in the corporate world, we’ve seen the world’s top strategic business consultancies and a bevy of differently flavored agencies enter the service design game. These newcomers don’t have co-creation in their DNA.
- We’ve seen new buyers, too. The field of service design providers has grown largely because demand for service design has grown. And many of these new buyers are accustomed to buying large projects from traditional agencies and consultancies — and working in traditional ways. They don’t realize that co-creation is even an option when they enlist the help of an outside partner.
Not Just Outdated — Unethical
My 366 days as an ad exec were tough ones. And not just because the agency and I mixed like oil and water; I also felt that the way we approached our work was downright wrong. This isn’t an exclusive problem of the particular agency I worked for; it’s inherent in any consultant that delivers answers on a silver platter. This approach:
- Does a disservice to clients. I strongly believe that you can’t outsource a good service or experience. (Or, to quote Oliver King, co-founder of Engine: You can’t deliver a great service without a great organization.) Consultants that insist on doing service design for their clients — rather than with them — rob their clients of the opportunity to develop into great organizations that are capable of delivering great services long after the consulting engagement has ended.
- Waste clients’ money. I’ve had numerous conversations with people who have hired Big Name consultants to help them with service design work, only to be left wondering what steps to take after the engagement had ended. One customer experience leader at a large health insurer told me about the journey maps a consulting firm had created for his organization: He struggled to understand the maps — diagrams consisting of many concentric circles — for several weeks before giving up completely and engaging a different firm to help him understand customers’ needs and expectations.
Whether you’re looking to increase profits, improve people’s quality of life, or something else entirely, there are simply too many important problems in the world for any of us to waste their time on ineffectual work. Service design educators must, of course, continue to instill a co-create mindset in students at all levels. But we can’t wait for new crops of graduates to change the status quo.
In-house leaders and practitioners must make internal capability building a required part of any service design RFP. And seasoned service design agencies and practitioners must educate those who are newer to our community: Give speeches, blog, sing this message from the rafters of your office — and don’t stop until we’ve completely destroyed all of the silver platters.