Beyond empathy: Building for client breakthroughs with agency leadership

Empathy will only get you so far when balancing the client-agency relationship, shares EssenceMediacom's APAC COO Josh Gallagher. The rest lies in the unpredictable space that fosters true innovation.

We exist in a period of rapid change and dynamism where budgets are being put under pressure across a fragmented media landscape. Keeping pace with the changes in consumer behaviour, the communications ecosystem, category dynamics, and even our culture, presents an opportunity and a challenge for marketers. Why then, does agency client management remain a profession of service when leadership is the imperative?

In client service, we have been taught to practise empathy as a way to wade through complexity. Empathy has enabled agency leaders to better build and nurture client relationships, and allow us to understand their desires and the risks they are or are not willing to take.

It has also become critical for good business. As margins shrink and teams get leaner, it has allowed us to better predict the effect our decisions and actions will have on clients, and prioritise accordingly. It has become efficient.

Efficiency, however, has become the enemy of innovation. The more things change, the more the models of the past and present do not stand for the models of the future. Change is a beautiful constraint in which to find new opportunity.

In design thinking – a process for solving problems in more creative ways – one of the founding approaches is to practise both convergent and divergent thinking. While this process starts with empathy, it quickly challenges the rules and creates the right amount of friction in the system to create a competitive advantage.

Empathise: Looking for the opportunity in change

The Covid-19 pandemic put an unprecedented amount of pressure on the marketing system. In the emergence of e-commerce, brands were required to support new routes to market. This growth opportunity came from the emergence of new possibilities for creating competitive advantage – we were forced to respond quickly to changes in category business models, shifts in people’s behaviour, and advancements in data and technology.

While waiting around for another ‘event’ that forces growth, it is time to update our models of client leadership that too often rely on focused-thinking to become more efficient, and too few encourage the expansive thinking that enables brands to shift a business from a 2% to a 20% growth.

Listening to a client’s desires is critical to reaching an ambition, but a client leader using the same method to solve the problem is one bound by legacy models. Empathy alone will not allow you to be the agent of meaningful change.

Define: Knowing the rules to break them

Categories, businesses, and markets all work to a generalised ‘model’ of what works. These are often guided by written and often, unwritten rules of the game. Breakthroughs come from challenging those rules – from challenging the conventional, or innovating the same thing to be better than the rest, and through inventing something entirely different from the model.

For example, ice-cream brand Halo Top had the right idea. As a digitally-born brand, it heavily invested in advertising through a digitally-led ecosystem. Despite this, it failed to grow beyond industry averages.

To achieve a step change, it changed the lens it used to look at audiences – instead of top-down ‘ice-cream lovers’, it found that the profile of people more likely buying was in fact fitness enthusiasts. With fewer calories, less sugar, and higher protein than traditional ice cream, Halo Top offered peace of mind to those craving for the sweet treat. The resulting change in focus saw a reinvention for the brand.

To take on these challenges, it is not just delving into the data to make a change. After all, who would've believed that an ice-cream brand is for anything but indulgence?

When you challenge, language is critical. In framing the questions, start with "How might we…” as a way to bring in a divergent opinion with a collaborative mindset. People must feel safe enough to diverge.

Ideate: Building sustainable breakthroughs

Innovation has to do with seeking unpredictable answers, as the predictable ones are taken by the previous innovation. This is why cohesive, high-performing, and fully aligned teams are very bad for such a task. They know each other so well, that there is no unpredictable answer to hope for.

When generating alternative ideas, they must fit three key lenses: Are they viable, feasible, and desirable?

One clear example was KFC’s famous (desirable) tongue-in-cheek full-page advertisement in United Kingdom newspapers in 2018, apologising for its chicken shortage by rearranging the letters of its name to spell out ‘FCK’.

Offering space for teams to challenge and be irreverent ensures that brands’ models constantly evolve, but most importantly, they become persistent, not one-offs.

Prototype and Test: Evolving breakthrough relationships

As with all design thinking approaches, they are rounded off with the 'Prototype' and 'Test' phases.

Steve Jobs famously used ‘relationship-focused conflict’ to force his unit forward. While he used this to transform a money-losing computer company into an unrivalled creative juggernaut that created a series of culture-altering products, perhaps if he had improved or iterated his approach, he might have been revered as much for his relationship with people, as he was with his method towards product innovation.

The reason many startups innovate quickly is due to flatter organisation structures. They have realised democratising of ideas along with more spaces, allows people to communicate and collaborate effectively. Hierarchy, in teams or in client-agency relationships often reduces the ability to practise empathy, offer spaces to challenge, and reward structures that take the steps to innovate.The space to challenge, but also reflect is critical.

If brands are truly to breakthrough, a healthy balance of convergence and divergence is needed for in the new era of client-agency leadership.

Josh Gallagher is the chief operating officer for APAC at EssenceMediacom, GroupM’s newest and largest agency.

First published by Campaign here