Content strategy disrupts unethical agency sales practices

If web and user experience agencies want to embrace content strategy,
they need to change the way they sell their services, switching from
a contractor model to a consulting model. Which means throwing
away some unethical working practices. Let’s talk about scoping,
selling, and project management.

Three ways to scope a project

Back in October 2010, Stacey King Gordon posted Content strategy and the project pricing dilemma to the content strategy Google group. She posed an insightful question which started a great discussion. Here’s an extract:

…[an agency I collaborate with] work hard to price the end-to-end design project based on assumptions – the client’s, theirs, and mine as the content strategist. However, as I dig in and do my work – content analysis, stakeholder interviews, brand research – the scope of the project inevitably grows. It’s very difficult to be accurate in what the final site will entail until the content strategy work has been done.

It’s worth reading the whole thread. I found this response from Karen McGrane particularly illuminating:

This is a common problem when you try to scope development—both copywriting and technology—without a clear understanding of what will be required. There are really only three options:

  1. Only work with clients that will accept a 2-phased project (strategy/design + development)
  2. Only deliver work within the bounds of the initial contract
  3. Change order, change order, change order

We treat web design like accountancy

Karen’s three-way choice about how to scope projects provides a neat way to explain the changes I’ve noticed in the way UX-like services—web and interaction design, software development, content development, etc.—are bought and sold.

Option 1 implies a consultancy relationship: the client thinks that they need expert help to work out where they are, and where they need to go, before they can start implementation. This is strategy.

Options 2 and 3 are more like a vendor, solution provider, or contractor relationship: the client knows what they want, and they’re shopping around for someone who has the right experience and can agree on terms. This type of relationship is familiar and comfortable for organizations: it’s similar to the relationship they might have with standardized professional services firms like accountants, or software vendors, or even cleaning contractors. This is tactics.

Until recently, most organizations have managed to buy these types of services using options 2 and 3. Need a website redesign? Write a request for proposal (RFP) and send it to some agencies to get quotes. Agencies like selling in this way too. Why is that?

Fixed specs are attractive

Let’s start with the buyer. She works in an organizational silo: maybe it’s marketing, IT, product management, or corporate communications. Although she has organizational goals in mind when she decides to start a web initiative, she’s more focused on her silo’s goals. All of her budget comes from the silo, and her performance is measured based on that silo’s metrics, not on the higher-level goals of the business. From the client’s point of view, it’s much easier to buy a fixed-price, nailed-down contract.

Even if she has some doubts about what should be in the spec, it’s easier to get her manager to fund a clearly-articulated, conservative scope than an open-ended strategic exploration whose results are unknown, and which could easily open a can of worms. For example, it might suggest that the organization needs to change the way it operates in some way. My goodness, we might need to talk to the other departments! Our client wants a quiet life, and that’s scary stuff right there.

We could be forgiven for thinking, “those wretched clients! Why are they so short-sighted?” But that’s only half the story. Web professionals are scared of strategy, and we use the distraction sell to keep projects within our comfort zones. We’re comfortable using option 2, and option 3 is even better, because it allows us to blame those pesky clients for all the faulty assumptions in the original contract. There’s nothing the lizard brain likes better than setting ourselves up for failure.

But fixed specs are dangerous

So what’s wrong with fixed specs? Let’s start with economics. Do you ever see web designers complaining on twitter about crappy RFPs, and how difficult it is to compete on price with the 3000 other web design shops who claim to be able to do great work for peanuts? Have you ever come across a client who decided to outsource their work to a contractor thousands of miles away in a low-cost location? Or have you ever heard copywriters complaining that companies just don’t appreciate the true value of content?

If the spec really is nailed down, if the strategy work’s been done—that is, if the client truly knows what they need—the actual implementation work is less valuable, more price-sensitive, and will eventually become commoditized. Someone else will do it for less, and probably to a good-enough standard. (Jared Spool calls this distinction hands vs. brains.) That’s great if you’re creating a factory-style contracting business in a low cost economy, but if you live in London or San Francisco, eventually you’ll have problems funding your latte and iPad habit.

Many web projects are sold in a murky bait-and-switch fashion, where the agency agrees to an unrealistic fixed spec written by the client, and then hopes that once the problems become obvious, the client will prefer to pay their way out of the mess rather than starting over with a new agency. You’ll recognize this practice from the technology industry, who call it lock-in. (They used to say that nobody ever got fired for buying IBM. That isn’t true any more.)

I see the move towards content strategy as part of a slow recognition that this type of sales and project management has mostly been disastrous. Objectives aren’t met, nobody plans for content governance, and projects focus on short-term pizazz instead of achieving business objectives in a sustainable way.

Client: “We want content strategy, but we need to know what it looks like first”

Let’s return to Stacey’s question. We’re competing for a client project, and we want to include a content strategy piece, because we know it’s the right thing to do for the success of the project—and it will also differentiate our proposal. But we’re worried that the client won’t buy a two-phase project, because they want to compare our proposal with all the others. And the RFP has a set budget and timeline.

The tempting option (which Stacey explains in the thread) is to add a line item for “content strategy”, make some assumptions about the outcome of that process, and then bake those assumptions into a single-phase proposal that includes implementation (and presumably a commitment to a fixed delivery date.)

Here’s the problem: if these assumptions are correct, the client isn’t ready for content strategy. They’re not ready to acknowledge a problem that’s bigger than a silo or a delivery channel, or to ask consultants to help them with strategy. It’s much easier to say, “we need technical help with development, design, and web writing” than to say “we need strategic advice, web therapy, and inter-department facilitation.” Crucially, the person buying probably isn’t ready to become an agent of change in their organization. Change hurts, and actively advocating for it scares the hell out of people.

No content strategy? That’s a show-stopper

When a client asks an agency to build a website, and admits to not having a content strategy, that’s a show-stopper. You can’t just graft strategy onto the project and cross your fingers.

Just because a client says they want content strategy, it doesn’t mean that they understand what that actually entails, or that they’re ready to start changing the organization. The best we can do is to explain the problem as clearly as we can, talk about the pain and suffering that will continue to occur if it isn’t addressed, and politely decline work when clients don’t appreciate the value of a strategic approach. They’ll be back, in time.

Good news for content strategy advocates

This is great news for those of us who are tying to raise our game, to leave our comfort zones, and to get our practice to a place where it sustainably serves both business objectives and user needs. (Note: if you’re already there, congrats! Many of us aren’t.)

The sales methods and working practices of many existing agencies (and internal teams too) are threatened by the growing realization among clients that their web initiatives aren’t effective. And the two-stage scoping model is key to understanding this shift. Can traditional agencies hack it?

The skills that a web professional needs are changing: it’s less about design chops, technical prowess, web writing skills–all essential of course, but also widely and cheaply available. The skills that set true web professionals apart are interpersonal skills like facilitation, counseling, advocacy, diplomacy, pragmatism, and patience. And the courage to be an agent of change.

In practice it will take a long time for client-side advocates to lead their organizations into the change management programs they actually need to start to get a hold of their content and web problems. But it’s starting to happen. And those of us who work as consultants should take an active role in the process, by refusing to participate in unethical selling practices.

5 thoughts on “Content strategy disrupts unethical agency sales practices

  1. Hoorah! Love this article Jonathan! An update since the original thread: my agency partner has moved toward doing estimates for each phase of the project rather than fixed bids, and our strategy work is having much more impact. Because the agency has recognized the impact of content strategy not only on their own process but on their clients’ outcomes, they are dedicated to making it an integral part of projects they do, and that means approaching proposals differently than before.

    This statement continues to be true however: “Just because a client says they want content strategy, it doesn’t mean that they understand what that actually entails, or that they’re ready to start changing the organization.” I think even after a content strategy is done, presented and approved, clients don’t understand what the implications of that really are. We [I] need to be better about doing more education upfront and explaining that the client shares accountability and ultimately is responsible for making it work.

  2. Hi Stacey,

    Great to hear the update!

    As you say, “explaining that the client shares accountability and ultimately is responsible for making it work” is a big deal, and difficult to do in practice because clients don’t tend to approach projects with that attitude.

  3. I was pleasantly surprised how bold this article addressed key issues related to content strategy and change management. Slowly, organizations are beginning to see the value of working with content strategists. Once they see the value, there’s no turning back. But it’s just getting them to that point that is the problem. Like you said, it’s so much easier to say we need development work, or web design, or web copy without even mentioning content strategy. That’s probably because it’s scary, and intimidating at times to sign up for change. Even if it’s much needed change. Keep the articles coming, because I like how you approach this subject.

  4. This is a great article, Jonathan, and touches on many problems we face in the web industry. In particular, I hope this raises a red flag for many people:

    “Many web projects are sold in a murky bait-and-switch fashion, where the agency agrees to an unrealistic fixed spec written by the client, and then hopes that once the problems become obvious, the client will prefer to pay their way out of the mess rather than starting over with a new agency.”

    There are good clients out there, ones that are willing to work collaboratively with a partner, ones that recognize that agencies are businesses that need to be managed profitably. There needs to be a mutual exchange of value between the client and the agency, otherwise they don’t get good work.

    If a client requires a fixed scope before you even know what you’re building, let that be a warning to you.

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