As an agency you're challenged with working across any number of clients, and therefore have a myriad of sectors to get to grips with. But - rightly so - as a client you expect your appointed agency to understand the full impact of what your company does, so it can achieve greater outcomes for the business. And that's where consultancies need to go that extra mile to get under the skin of their clients' business.
The methods used by consultancies to ensure everyone on the team has a solid handle on what a company is all about vary widely. While there's a time and a place for lectures in a training room with a flipchart, other techniques go further, ranging from desk research and absorbing everything ever written abut the client, the market and its competitors, to job swaps with agency and client staff spending a couple of weeks in each others' offices.
The staff at public sector agency The Forster Company, for example, like to go one step further. They identify a sector they'd like to work with and then proceed to learn everything about it before approaching potential clients (see box above).
Bonding with clients
'When we identify a social or environmental issue we want to work on, or where a sector has moved on or we want to consolidate our knowledge, we will incorporate more unusual training elements,' says The Forster Company associate director Amy Meadows.
'To be an effective partner for our clients we need to feel confident that we understand the area we're working in. With some clients, that just means spending a couple of weeks in their office, but if the organisation delivers front-end services you'll only get so much out of that. For our work with the Guide Dogs, for example, a key element will be meeting visually impaired people,' she adds.
Hill & Knowlton offers clients 'Soak and Scope' training sessions early on in a relationship to get to know them better. These are half or full day, and take place in the client's or the agency's office. In a recent session for IT skills council e-skills UK, everyone in the client and agency teams was involved in talking about the business, brainstorming ideas and bonding on a personal level.
Understanding the business
'By the end of the session, both client and agency have a more detailed, shared view of what and how we need to move forward and a real sense of the energy and momentum that will take us there,' explains H&K creative director Peter Lawlor. 'Obviously when you pitch for business you have a certain knowledge of that sector, but this really beds that knowledge down.'
One of the tactics used at tech specialist agency Firefly Communications is to send staff on the same induction process that new employees at the client go through, where possible. Teams working on the Adobe and Casio accounts have recently gone through internal inductions at those companies.
Consultancy staff who know their client inside out can even tell management things about their company that they didn't know before. At Northern Profile, part of the Golley Slater Group, for example, a concentrated period of getting to know new clients takes up much of the first quarter of work and, throughout the life of the account, agency teams spend time talking to people at all levels of the business to understand how they work on a daily basis.
Northern Profile chief executive Nick Brown says this is a particularly effective training method with multi-site or retail clients: 'We go out and meet the people who have the stories, not just the senior staff. For Greggs bakeries we visit around 30 of their outlets each month.'
He adds: 'Out of its 1,200 branches, we see more than 300 a year, and we are usually able to tell Greggs' head office about what is happening on a local level before they even find out themselves.'
At recruitment company Harvey Hash, group marketing director Paul Smith says he insists all agency staff have a real handle on what the com-pany is all about.
'I have dealt with agencies who haven't really bothered to work out what our USP and strategy are, or even understood the industry we're in, but if they don't then they are just a telesales operation. It's as much up to clients as the agency to make sure everyone is trained up this way,' he says.
Smith points out, however, that these added-value training activities and initiatives must last beyond the first six months of working for a new client. 'So often agencies start well but don't keep up with the business and changes in the market and strategy, and they tail off. They really do need to keep working at understanding the business,' he says.
Getting your hands dirty
Consultancies also need to tailor their approach for individual clients, depending on the business. Fishburn Hedges claims staff do whatever they need to do to get to know various stakeholder groups as quickly as possible, from packing bags at supermarket checkouts (see box) to spending time at court with client TV Licensing to gain an understanding of the legal processes around non-payments.
One of the reasons for bringing in an agency is to get some fresh thinking.
Yet consultancies need to apply their creative thinking as much to the training methods in which they can see the world through their clients' eyes as they do on their campaigns.
THE FORSTER COMPANY AND AGE CONCERN
When public sector specialist The Forster Company decided one of the big issues it wanted to work on was ageing, a team of six worked with Age Concern to experience the physical disadvantages of being old.
Weights were strapped to ankles and wrists to reflect the feeling of muscular weakness and a slow shuffling walk, and the team wore earplugs and goggles to mimic various ear and eye conditions.
'We had to carry out various tasks, from crossing the road to buying a pay-and-display parking ticket,' explains associate director Amy Meadows.
'Based on practical research, we drew up guidelines on designing effectively for older people, which we've distributed to public sector organisations and government departments.'
The Body Shop founder Dame Anita Roddick, who used The Forster Company's Ageing Up programme on a number of projects, says immersing agency staff and clients in issues worked: 'Too often people think communications solutions can be arrived at via desk research.
'If you're developing expertise in communicating with, and on behalf of, old people, what better way to start understanding the issues by ageing up and spending a day living with reduced hearing, mobility and sense of touch? This induction programme ought to be mandatory for all marketing staff.'
GOLLEY SLATER AND THE CLAY ROOF TILE COUNCIL
Everyone who works on the Clay Roof Tile Council account at Golley Slater is expected to spend a day at one of its members' factories as part of their induction to the account. The day includes a factory tour and consultants making their own roof tile.
'We learned about the clay extrusion process, and saw first hand how the natural material is moulded into a tile form and then fired to make the finished product,' says account manager Caroline Edwards. 'We then moulded and engraved our initials into our own handmade tiles. It was quite an experience and left us with a better understanding of the manufactur-ing process and a great deal of respect for the artisans. It's an invaluable experience all round.'
Clay Roof Tile Council secretary Andrew McRae agrees the experience is beneficial for the agency and the organisation: 'It's vital that our agency account executives visit our members' factories so they can gain a better appreciation of the product and the manufacturing processes,' he says.
'It undoubtedly helps in ensuring that they understand some of the esoteric remarks and nuances in the member meetings they attend.'
FISHBURN HEDGES AND ASDA
Fishburn Hedges works with Asda on all of its financial services products. At the beginning of this year, everyone at the agency who works on the Asda account spent a day at the Wembley supermarket in an effort to get to know the company better.
The team walked around the store and talked to staff working in different departments, and spent several hours packing shopping bags on the checkouts, conversing with employees and customers.
FH new business director Suzanne Hitchcock says: 'It was a really useful day as we gained a better understanding of Asda and the customers and staff. It helped us understand what they are looking for from the brand.'
Asda director of financial services David Rutley says that it is crucial that everyone who works with the supermarket chain understands the culture of the company thoroughly.
'Customer service is so important to us, and to communicate effectively with our customers, our agencies have to understand the language we use,' he says.
'A press release needs to have the same tone as the rest of the company, so when agencies experience our stores they are better able to communicate in the way we want, and the feedback from journalists is that we are doing well,' he adds.