Why we always say ‘we’

[social distancing meant we had to improvise with a meeting shot]

Years ago, a client told us, “one of the things I’ve noticed with you is that you always say ‘we’ when we’re talking — it’s like you see yourself as part of the team”.

The fact is, we didn’t even realise we were doing it, but the throwaway comment struck a chord. That’s exactly what we want to be. That’s exactly what we are. Part of your team.

We — and therefor you — get our best results when we’re involved in discussions about why something should happen, not just when we’re told what needs to happen.

We succeed when we ask questions, suggest alternatives, challenge assumptions and defy tradition. Not on a whim, of course, we have no interest in being part of that ‘quirky for the sake of being quirky’ set, but for genuine reasons based on our experience, our knowledge, our approach and our ability to, dare we say it, think outside the box.

(A phrase, incidentally, which has become so commonplace, so unthinkingly used, we believe it now almost means the opposite of what was originally intended. If someone tells you they “think outside the box” without any hint of irony, you can guarantee they don’t.)

A lot of agencies simply want a brief to follow or, worse, they want to rewrite your brief to suit them. Nowhere is the adage “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” more true than in some parts of the agency world.

Of course, we’d be shocked if an SEO agency recommended you don’t bother with Google and focus on your email marketing instead, or a web design agency suggested your money would be better spent on a brochure. And we’re keenly aware we are primarily a design agency, so we’re always going to have an eye on that. Our goal, though, is to make you look good — it doesn’t bother us whether we make you look good using a website, an email, a brochure, your tiny Twitter profile picture or your huge billboard. Each of represents a problem in its own right which needs solving. But there’s more to it than that, because one of the problems with problems is that people don’t always know what their problems are.

Take a moment to digest that.

Clients often want to give a brief to be followed, without question and without exception, but that’s not really our style.

We aren’t suggesting you don’t know what you need, but — well, when we take a car for a service we might mention the problems we’re aware of: the strange knock, or the fact the oil needs frequent changing, but wouldn’t dream of providing an absolute and final list of work without asking for at least some input from the mechanic.

When we eat at a restaurant, we’ll choose what to eat but it’s up to the kitchen to provide suggestions first — and they can decide how thinly they slice the garlic. All we know is we’re hungry.

You know, probably, that you want to sell more, or communicate better, or reduce complaints, or save money — the ‘top level’ problem, rather than the assumed solution. That’s why we’ll frequently help you to rewrite your brief, even your entire plans, but it’ll be because we’ve spotted a better opportunity for you.

We will often be approached with a specific problem: “nobody is enquiring through our website so it must need a redesign”, or “our marketing emails aren’t working so we need to try a new look”. It would be easy for us to just accept that at face value and redesign the website, redesign the email, take the money and move on. And that works OK when a relationship is shallow, or one-way, but the prefer the deeper connection — “we” not “you and us”. It leads us to questions like why isn’t it working?

Case in point: a client came to us because their email marketing was failing and so, surely, they simply needed to look a bit fancier? Instead of focusing on a redesign we helped them properly segment their list and manage their database. Instead of the same message going out to every contact they were highly customised.

Think of a fashion brand as an easy example:

— It would be OK to send the same email to all contacts
— It would be good to send a specific email to all contacts we knew had bought shoes, offering them other shoes
— It would be better to send an email to all contacts who had bought running shoes, offering them a range of sportswear
— It would be perfect to send an email to all contacts who had bought size-6 running shoes, with an offer to buy replacements a year later, and a direct link to the size-6 running shoes in the online shop
— Presenting that solution wouldn’t have fulfilled our original brief, but it would fulfil our commitment to care about our clients’ results.

In other words, the client came to us with their version of problem, but we saw what the problem really was. We explained it — and delivered.

That is the sort of relationship we want to be part of. Frankly, it would have been easier to have just said yes to the initial brief, but that’s not what we want to do. And that’s why we say ‘we’ — by becoming part of your team, we can better understand your problems and position ourselves perfectly to deliver your solutions.

We know how it feels coming other way too. We’ve worked with plenty of agencies, freelancers, consultants and other suppliers over the years, and are often struck by the difference in how we’ve been treated when we’re the client.

Sometimes we feel valued, part of the team. Sometimes we feel like we’re just a commodity — another tickbox on a to-do list, another project to be finished-off and cast-aside, and never more so when we hear how people talk about their relationship with us.

It’s surprising how much the little words matter. A single one can transform the meaning and interpretation of a sentence, or a campaign, or even a relationship. We know from experience it might only take a change of word to improve (or damage) a Google AdWords advert, or the open rate of an email marketing campaign, by 10, 20, 30% or more.

But there’s more to it than that. Because saying something isn’t the same as meaning it. And meaning it isn’t the same as doing it.

Let’s not fall into the trap of easy, lazy jokes about politicians — so let’s look at sport instead:
“British tennis player Andy Murray makes it to the Wimbledon final”
“Federer beats Scotland’s Murray in tennis final”

Tongue-in-cheek, yes — but you get the idea. And it’s not that far from the truth. Everyone wants to share success, normally without any of the hard work which is needed to achieve it. In fact, they normally want to share the success after the hard work is done.

Not us. We say “we” all the way through.

We want to understand the problems you’re facing, the demands your customers place on you. What do they worry about? What do they need? What problem are you solving for them? What difficulties do you face internally — budgets, politics, “we’ve always done things this way”? What have you done in the past that’s worked (and why aren’t you still doing it?)? What have you done that hasn’t (and why are you still doing it?!)?

None of the answers to those questions can come from blindly following a brief, nor a relationship which consists of a “Jump” / “How high?” dynamic. But it does mean we have to find clients who appreciate the value of this sort of relationship. Not many clients like having their assumptions challenged.

Do you?