How to Bring Disruptive Thinking to Your Agency’s Clients

How to Bring Disruptive Thinking to Your Agency’s Clients

Clients are the heart and soul of any agency business. Whether you design websites, run social campaigns, build ecommerce technology, or develop apps to help brands grow, managing and exceeding the expectations of people who pay your bills is critical.

Unfortunately, sometimes clients make requests that don’t make sense:

“Can you put this QR code on the front page of our Shopify store?”
"Can you make our company branding really modern, but with a retro flair?"
“Can you just write some junky code and get it done so we can go live tomorrow?”

Just breathe. Try not to punch your screen.

It’s not the client’s fault, especially if they don’t have expertise in your specialty area. Odds are, their company is just stuck in the past with an outdated way of thinking that has made them successful thus far.

This is a perfect opportunity for you to bring disruptive thinking to your clients. We live in a business landscape where a new generation of companies are rapidly taking share from legacy brands, and merchants have no choice but to think differently than the old guard. Otherwise they risk becoming irrelevant.

"Merchants have no choice but to think differently than the old guard. Otherwise they risk becoming irrelevant."

Today we’re going to explore how disruptors think, look at inspiration from brands who epitomize disruptive thinking, examine why measurement is essential along the way, and share some tips for growing your business accordingly.

Einstein famously said that the mind that opens to a new idea never returns to its original size.

Let’s get stretching.

You might also like: Truth In Advertising: How to Differentiate Your Marketing Agency Through Radical Transparency.

How disruptive companies think

Facebook’s State of Disruption Annual Report shares an inspiring quotation about disruptive thinking: “Average companies focus on profit, good companies focus on value, but great companies focus on building the future.”

Our agency, Metric Digital, embraces this sentiment. We power performance marketing for some of the best, most disruptive direct to consumer brands in the world. And one of the biggest lessons we’ve learned from our clients is that most disruptive ecommerce companies aren't tech innovators, but marketing innovators.

Clayton Christensen, the professor who originally defined disruption in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma, described disruption as a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market, and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors.

For example, consider some of the disruptive darlings in the marketplace, like Honest, Thinx, Mack Weldon, Away, Soylent, and Harry’s. Check out a sampling of their ads:

How disruptive companies think

Here’s the disruptive secret:

Honest company never invented baby clothes. Harry’s never invented razors. Soylent never invented meal supplements. Tommy John never invented men’s underwear. Thinx never invented feminine hygiene products. Away never invented luggage.

But all the above disruptors are really good at performance marketing, retail, ecommerce, customer experience, and digital. They focused on one existing product or category, tested new approaches, made a huge difference at the bottom of a market, and then relentlessly moved up.

"But all the above disruptors are really good at performance marketing, retail, ecommerce, customer experience, and digital."

Who says you actually have to invent anything to win?

To push this disruptive mindset forward with your clients, here’s a bullet list of phrases and language to use during your next call or meeting to challenge them to think bigger and more future focused. Feel free to adapt to your own service brand:

  • “If I owned your business, here’s what I would do…”
  • “As an experiment, let’s try <awesome strategy> and test the results.”
  • “Check out what <innovative company> did recently. They’re wiping the floor with the competition and we can learn from them.”
  • “Who do your customers want to become, and how could the design reflect that?”
  • “If your product was just table stakes, how could your unique relationship with your customer be the brand differentiator?”

What’s the theme of this language? Taking ownership to drive disruption. Focusing on one product or category and rethinking the experience. I challenge you to lead your clients where you think they should go, and get them there. Even if they’re nervous along the way, they’ll thank you when they eventually look at their revenue growth.

"I challenge you to lead your clients where you think they should go, and get them there."

How measurement connects to disruption

Now that we’ve explored the disruptive mindset, let’s talk about the measurement. Modern technology allows us to test and measure business results in a way that was never before possible. However, large companies are not particularly nimble, and can take a long time to adopt practices and technologies to enable measurement.

To use digital advertising as an example, large brands have historically driven reach and awareness as their key objectives. But modern disruptor brands focus on conversions. They’re focused on measurable results, rather than process. That’s why they tend to dedicate way more budget on channels for which they can measure the success, such as, Facebook, search, social, and email.

One challenge with running a marketing agency is that throughout history, marketing agencies have tended to not focus on their client’s financial business results. But today, it’s more important than ever to be performance oriented, since there is so much that can be tracked.

Personally, our team is relentless about measurement with our clients. But we have fun with it. I recently asked a company founder these two questions. The meeting kind of felt like an episode of Silicon Valley:

AGENCY
Would your company rather measure its marketing to know if it’s working, or not measure it at all?

CLIENT
Well yeah, duh.

AGENCY
But are you measuring offline sales from online advertising?

CLIENT
We didn’t even know you could do that.

You better believe you can. Every disruptive company competing in the modern retail landscape is measuring and making better marketing decisions based on data and insights. Figure out how to use data to measure success for your clients, and you’ll be able to refine the big disruptive ideas you suggest to your clients.

Oh, and if you want to really geek out, read more about how Shopify is helping its merchants increase their in-store sales from online advertising with online conversing tracking technology.

You might also like: How to Make SEO and Paid Social Work Together to Drive Traffic and Revenue.

How disruptive thinking can grow your business

Here’s a misconception: Disruption isn’t the veneer you layer on top of your work, disruption is the work. As such, we’ll wrap up with several best practices for introducing disruptive thinking at every stage of the client service journey.

Prospecting and business development: Have a bias towards transparency

Only accept the opportunity to do work for clients that drive measurable business value. If you can’t, turn down the business. You can’t be disruptive if you’re doing a poor job at your services. Read our last post about Truth In Advertising for a helpful email template for saying no while still creating value. It’s counterintuitive, but it’s also the way modern companies leverage healthy boundaries as business growth tools.

Onboarding and kickoff: Have a bias towards action

In your early conversations with potential clients, always ask why, rather than why not. Legacy companies tend to get mired in the details of trying new things, whereas disruptive companies try new tactics, take action on customer centric data, and if possible, spin off into new iterations. They’re curious enough to always be improving. If you can begin training clients to think this way from your very first project meeting, innovation will always stay high on the agenda. Plus, pitching new ideas will be much less of an uphill battle in the future.

Day to day client work: Have a bias toward objectivity

The reason innovative designers and developers often come up with disruptive ideas is because they’re not native to the vertical. They can interrupt a conference call and ask, “Wait, why is it this way?” This type of question literally disrupts the conversation, but for good reason. It holds up a compassionate but challenging mirror to the client, encouraging the blazing of new creative trails. Please note, if you have a ton of industry expertise, that’s awesome. Just make sure to bring in people to your projects who don’t. Their objectivity is worth its weight in gold.

"It holds up a compassionate but challenging mirror to the client, encouraging the blazing of new creative trails."

Pitching new ideas: Have a bias toward ownership

As you evolve your client relationships, you’ll want to push your clients to be more and more disruptive over time. But you have to lead them. If they politely say no thanks to your design experiments or out of the box programming ideas, you have to push back. It may feel like a struggle, but being ready to defend your ideas will often persuade clients to take that risk. Don’t worry, it’s worth it in the end to push clients to do things differently. Even if your new ideas aren’t embraced, or are embraced but perform average or poorly, at least you’ll have demonstrated a track record of innovation leadership. That makes clients want to stay with you for the long haul.

Strategy, forecasting, and referrals: Have a bias toward speed

In all parts of your client service process, keep the emphasis on getting work done quickly. We’re not advocating making mistakes with sloppy code or design work loaded with widows, orphans, and other careless errors. But at some point, every disruptor must be willing to sacrifice perfection for the sake of getting things done quickly. Once your clients learn that your speed is the foundation on which your innovative work pivots, they’ll be more encouraged to hire you for additional projects, or recommend their peers do the same.

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Work towards disruption

Sound like hard work? You’re right. But there has never been a better time to bring disruptive thinking to your clients. The marketplace demands it, and more and more brands are expecting it. But clients are scared to try innovative approaches, and they’re waiting for you to lead them.

Have you experimented with bringing disruptive thinking to your clients? Tell us your experiences in the comments below.

About the Author

Kevin Simonson is the CEO of Metric Digital, a performance marketing agency in New York City that focuses on driving revenue and customers through online advertising, and consulting Private Equity and VC Firms on due diligence and digital marketing execution. Kevin has lectured on Facebook marketing at Harvard’s Kennedy School and General Assembly, and he is also the co-author of the book Badvertising: How Big Agencies Are Screwing Big Companies Out Of Big Money, And What To Do About It.

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