Naturally, I’d argue that agencies are doomed – doomed, I tell you – if they try to refine their proposition without me. But sadly this isn’t true, as this interview with Friday CEO – and non-Co:definery client – Alex Wright proves.
I believe everything good in agencies, from standout and winning to culture and fun, stems from a great proposition. I’ve written about how to create one, as well as why it matters and how an outside perspective really helps.
But how does all this look from the agency side? Well, Friday should know – they’ve recently refreshed their proposition and this interview with their brilliant agency CEO, Alex Wright, is chock-full of insights.
Hi Alex, for anyone who doesn’t know, tell me a bit about Friday
Friday is a nine year old independent agency with 80 people. We’ve worked on digital product and service design with clients including HSBC, Nuffield Health, Nespresso, TalkTalk, Anglia Ruskin University and the British Red Cross.
And to get us into this, at a high level, what have you changed?
We’ve never been very good at telling people what we do, who we do it for or the impact we create. But we’ve always had conviction about what we do. So this wasn’t a pivot; we’ve just made the signage outside the shop match what’s inside.
How did you know you needed to do this?
Clients would say ‘I had no idea you had this level of quality or depth’ or whatever. And although we got most of our new-business via word of mouth or referral, we also knew that competitors had higher profiles, so found it easier to get onto potential clients’ radars.
Basically, strangers weren’t approaching us – because of how we were describing ourselves.
And why have you decided to make these changes right now?
Well, obviously our discipline is in demand from clients. That’s why the management consultants and systems integrators have been acquiring companies a bit like us – like Seren, Fjord and Adaptive Lab.
And although our body language was like an agency’s, our impact was a lot like that of a management consultancy or systems integrator. So that helped us come in through the ‘agency’ door and then create deep value – without facing much competition.
But that’s getting harder now. The management consultancies and systems integrators are using their C-suite relationships to promote our kind of customer-centric, design-led modern engineering skills.
Doesn’t that just give you a second ‘door’ to go through?
Well, maybe. Historically, in many organisations, marketing was the voice of the customer. But digital transformation involves breaking down silos and bringing the customer with you. So over the last 20 years, where IT and marketing meet, control has ping-ponged between them. But now, customer-centricity has become more prevalent outside of marketing.
Talk me through the process you followed
Firstly I interviewed a bunch of clients and prospects, asking them about their perceptions and our competitors, allowing them to define the space we’re in. I also asked about the kinds of digital help they might need over the next three years.
We also looked at the propositions, claims and images of our competitive set in four categories – agencies, management consultancies, systems integrators and ‘wildcards’.
Then we held a series of company-wide conversations about the zealous passion at the heart of Friday and the work we found exciting. This helped us to zero-in on some plain-English, clumsy-sounding territories around the client problems we solve, the impact we have and the spark inside us.
We also held a Friday ‘friends and family’ gathering part-way through that – getting the opinion of the great and the good; NED-types.
That’s when we realised we needed to be more credible at the most senior level. Talking directly to the Boardroom meant the complexity of the words needed to be inversely proportional to the seniority of the audience.
At that stage, we decided to get some external help with refining the language.
How did you know you needed help?
We’d had several previous goes at our proposition, some of which weren’t bad! But we knew we were too close to it.
There was no lack of vision – it just took 500 words to explain, plus we each said it differently. So the challenge was to distil our story down to something simple.
And while I felt responsible for it within our management team, I also knew I didn’t want to spend hours agonising over the words again – especially as I realised that my own idiosyncratic way of writing was skewing it. Without knowing me, my voice, diction and emphasis, the proposition lost something.
So you’re an ‘acquired taste’?
Ha, yes that’s fair! I’m teased about it.
So we found a consultant via a personal recommendation, who guided us through some workshops to refine where we’d got to.
What was the hardest part of the journey?
The penultimate meeting with the consultant. We just hadn’t got it right. We had clumsy territories, but it still wasn’t focused enough.
We’d expected a phrase to appear and unlock it all – a crescendo of ‘we’ve cracked it’ – but that hadn’t happened.
In fact, we got there by increments with the entire team making little improvements.
I’ve found that people with that restless, creative spark rarely have a ‘eureka’ moment with their proposition. Their conviction comes from committing to a route and being proved right in retrospect. Was that how it felt for you?
That was certainly my experience. I took enormous comfort from the company meeting when we unveiled the final version. I was thinking of my mum – who’d always thought I did ‘something with computers’ – but the reaction of everyone was that it was really simple, really clear and really right. That was all the conviction fuel I needed.
And how else will you know your proposition is right?
This is about deep alignment, not just new packaging. There was no glaring gap between what we were and where we wanted to go.
When we were smaller, we used to align our company vision with people’s motivations through conversations. And our purpose and values were apparent through the actions of the founders. Employees and clients felt that, but prospects couldn’t.
Now we’re bigger, the founders can’t work on every client and we need to share our proposition with strangers. We need to focus, so that everyone at Friday can get it and act on it. A crystal-clear proposition is one way of ensuring that happens.
Let’s talk about where you’ve got to. You’ve decided not to have a conventional positioning statement – why’s that?
We’re a bit like an agency, a management consultancy and a systems integrator. So none of the usual hackneyed professional services words, like studio, firm or partnership are right. And although we’re closest to a ‘digital agency’, I find saying that to people deeply unsatisfying.
So without that signposting, especially in an emerging discipline, you’re placing a lot of responsibility on your proposition, right?
We make digital products and services. Our work sits at the intersection of marketing, IT, core business operations and customer service. And that is complex, but we’re really clear which clients get the best out of us.
We work with high-touch service organisations; ones with a log-in and a customer relationship that’s transactional; where there’s a two-way mirror relationship so that any interaction, in any channel, is visible to both sides. It’s the ‘single customer view’ but from the customer perspective too, where digital anchors the whole service relationship.
They’re also often large, complicated companies in regulated sectors, with legacy technologies and physical structures, like showrooms. But they’re trying to keep up with people’s service demands. It’s definitely transformational.
So how have you brought all that together in your new proposition?
The proposition is that we transform customer experiences by digitising core products and services at speed.
We then summarise that as ‘Core Business Digital’ – that’s the under-the-logo strapline, if you like.
How have you defined your audience – I guess very differently to most agencies targeting all CMOs?
We’ve thought a lot about audience and you’re right – it’s not about titles; it’s about the people with operational responsibility for what we do. That’s been consistent for years.
But it’s also challenging, because who we’re actually commissioned by is quite volatile. Given that ‘digital’ is very ‘now’, lots of people are trying to grab hold of it.
So although we’ve always made products and services, and marketers always did the packaging and selling, now the smart ones are doing the making, running and pricing too.
That’s interesting – I often recommend agencies focus around a ‘conceptual target’, a singular audience definition that sits above sectors, companies, job titles and personas. It sounds like you’re thinking along similar lines?
Five years ago, all our clients were in marketing. But now the more sophisticated marketers we speak to are realigning their roles around customers and propositions.
We also had a great provocation during the process – what’s the emerging role in client Boardrooms that’s driving the changes you make? What’s the argument for there being that new role, for whom you’re the obvious partner?
That led to us to focusing on the ‘Chief Customer Officer’ and why hiring us is a step forward for any client wanting to evolve into or succeed in that role.
Hence targeting that set of responsibilities – aspiring or actual – rather than any specific department?
So finally, what next?
The ultimate goal is to stop being undiscovered. And although it’s early days, it’s absolutely bearing fruit. We’ve won more new-business in the last three months than in the preceding twelve.
The proposition is already being used to frame internal decisions, like hiring, or making arguments for clients. And obviously we’re executing externally – so ‘repainting’ our creds, comms etc; investing in business development and surfacing our message to the right people.
We’ve dialled back some of our agency quirks – for example, our new site is simpler, with clearer language and no deliberate breaches of design conventions. There’s a more mature tone and a grander definition of design – from just looking well-designed, to clearly solving business problems in inventive ways.
We’ve also produced a book. It’s a mixture of methodology and what we call ‘the stack’; core artefacts that help us combine design and engineering cultures.
And we’ve looked at how our values map into the behaviours we need to adopt.
So the proposition is one of many symptoms of a new way of communicating our expertise and alignment to a larger audience.
I’ve found that clients are increasingly looking beyond what agencies say and exploring whether it matches what they do – and it sounds like you’ve thought about Friday’s entire customer experience?
We had to. It’s not enough to say what we do, we have to live it.
And thankfully, because there hasn’t been that pivot, there’s no great change programme. Everyone’s absorbed the wording really quickly and there’s been no turbulence. Which has told us it’s okay to be confident.
Hang on, didn’t you feel you had the right to be confident before?
If you can’t answer ‘what do you do?’ pithily, it’s hard for a stranger to choose you. And that lead to imposter syndrome; an insecurity that didn’t reflect the fact that we have real substance, depth and specialism; that we’re growing and making money; we’re a great place to work and do great work for clients.
But despite all that, because I couldn’t express it clearly, I didn’t feel I had the right to be confident.
And there are a lot of companies where the opposite is true – especially in a complex, emerging space. They act like they’re going to change the world, but have no substance inside. That’s anathema to Friday – I never want us to be style over substance.
But the balance was skewed for us – we’d become a well-kept secret. And that was the problem we set out to solve.
And that’s a great bookend to this conversation – thanks Alex. Fascinating stuff, thank you.