Agency Unfiltered - Paul Brienza from Laughlin Constable

Managing Increasingly Sophisticated Clients

It’s no secret: clients have become more tech savvy and in tune with the digital landscape, which has the opportunity to add friction to your team’s ability to consult and drive strategy. Paul explains what this growth in sophistication looks like, how he has tweaked his model to account for these advancements, and how he prioritizes continuous improvement for his team.

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Episode Transcript

Agency Unfiltered wraps up our stay in Chicago with Paul Brienza, Chief Technology Officer at Laughlin Constable. In this episode with Paul, we talk about how agencies can manage their increasingly sophisticated client base. It's no secret, clients have become more tech savvy and more in tune with the digital landscape which has the opportunity to add friction to your team's ability to consult and to drive strategy. Paul explains what this growth and sophistication looks like, how he has tweaked his model to account for these advancements, and how he prioritizes continuous improvement for his team. Stay ahead of the curve by watching right now.

KD: Well Paul, thanks for joining us today, appreciate having you on the show.

PB: I'm happy to be here.

KD: Excited to get into this topic, I think when we were talking about it the other day, it was really interesting but you brought up this idea that the clients that us as agencies are dealing with have become even more sophisticated or more digitally savvy than ever before and it doesn't sound like that's going to stop.

PB: No, it's not going to stop and the big reason for that is that the talent is changing. The talent that the clients have, they used to be just like us and they were all new to digital and they didn't actually know how to do it so they were really hungry to hear from us who knew just a little bit about it but we were able to put together a website for them. And then as the website got, as the web got more and more complicated, they got more savvy about it and actually the more they used the digital means to purchase goods for themselves, they started to say how does this work for me, how does this work for my business. So they became a little bit more savvy. And so they asked different questions, they asked different questions of, you know, why can't it work like Uber, right? Why can't it work like this? And then we have to explain to them and we have to unpackage why things don't always work as smooth. There's a lot of technology behind there.

KD: Now when we say sophistication marketing digital, right, that can be pretty broad. Are there any particulars or specifics as to what sort of sophistication you've been seeing from a digital or marketing perspective at your clients?

PB: It definitely, I mean, it really goes back to the early days of the web. You know, the first websites were really just a corporate brochure. The had the about us section, they had the board of directors, they listed out the main product categories, and it really was just a reflection of themselves. And then the websites begin to get a little bit more and more complex with product databases, you know, people could look at different products, they'd have the basic marketing bullet points of why does the manufacturer think it's really good. And then those things slowly evolved where you started then putting social proof, so you have, you know, user ratings, star ratings and all of this.
And you started to influence what the consumers are thinking about the products by what others are saying about it. And then from there, you know, the websites got a little bit more complex when consumers were able to say, hey, I want to have a relationship with the brand and then with that, they, you know, you started seeing the little Facebook icons or the Twitter icons and then you had those little white boxes that were the email sign ups. And people wanted to say, hey look, I want the brand to contact me when there's something new. And that's the kind of level of sophistication that were in the early days whereas really just this one on one to many conversations. Now when you start to get to the websites people want to have it to be personalized for them, they want to be able to say what are the product recommendations that others have looked at, you know, besides this main product that I'm looking at, what have others found helpful. But behind the scenes to make all of that work, you need to have a lot of data and that's, I think, the biggest stumbling block for clients nowadays is to understand that in order to make all this cool stuff work, you actually have to have all of the data and you really have to invest in gathering the data, with keeping the data updated, and then figuring out different ways to use that data to give your consumer or your customer usefulness from it.

KD: And a personalized experience?

PB: Absolutely, I mean personalization, it's, you know, my favorite thing is when a client says hey, I want it to be just like Apple. I'm like, great, I will do that, but here's all the stuff that I'm going to need you to do. Everybody wants to be just like the last best experience but what they don't realize is the amount of work that it's taken to create those experiences. And to me, that's the most fascinating thing to try to explain to a client. But then what you do is you break it down and you create a road map, say you want this experience, but then let's show you how you can get there, and let's do it in little steps. And along the way, you're going to learn from the data, from that first step, that's going to influence actually, what you do for the second step, so on and so forth.

KD: So it's not just: yes, step one, we're going to get you there but it's actually a kind of moonshot at the end, but we'll walk down the whole process of how to get to that eventual ideal state. You break it down in the timeline format.

PB: Exactly because clients don't have all the budgets in the world, right. They have desires to get to that end goal right away but what they don't understand is A, they can't afford it. Two, they aren't operationally ready to do everything that they would like. And the third piece is that you don't want to do it all at once because you want to do it in phases where you learn from the first phase, which will then improve the second phase and improve the third phase.

KD: Right, it makes a ton of sense. We've mentioned clients being very sophisticated, right, I want to be like Apple, why can't this work like Uber? That's great that they're now so sophisticated and they understand digital in a whole new way but how do we then meet them where they're at? So what does this mean internally at your agency, what does this mean for your team? How do you get, build up your teams and your people to meet these clients where they are at in regards to the sophistication, and privy or knowledge behind the digital opportunities?

PB: I would say that the most important thing is talent, you know, we spend a lot of time developing a culture so people can rally behind what we're trying to do. But once you have that culture though, that's great, but you also have to have the processes and the steps to really go out and find great talent. And talent is really, is getting more and more challenging. I mean, the unemployment rate is at the lowest its ever been but really to find the people that have the really good digital talent, you need to dig deep and you also have to, you know, ask you employees, who have you worked with in the past, who do you want to work with again, and try to recruit them. One of the things that we've done is focus a lot on education. So we do a lot of internal training, we've launched a academy this year where we'll train people that have been at the agency for three years, a little bit more about the agency, a little bit more about what it means to work in the advertising digital space. Because that's an important point in somebody's career what they decide, hey, am I wanting to make this a full time career for me and to stay at this agency, you know, for more years? Or is it the right time for me to move onto other opportunities?

KD: So it pulls the curtain back from the business elements and it teaches them about the business side of running and managing an agency?

PB: Absolutely, we want them to understand why are decisions made, how are choices in tough decisions actually being made because then they get a little more buy in and they understand exactly what's happening. So the talent, education is key. It's also have to give people the ability to try new things. And so we encourage people to, you know, work across different areas of the agency to get a little bit more exposure. The other side of it is is internships. We're having to hire younger and younger talent and really starting the hiring processes young. And so for the last two years, we've been really going into the high schools and we aren't hiring a whole bunch of kids out of the high schools but we generally hire a couple of them that are generally in their junior or senior year and really start to get them to understand, A, what's it's like to be in an agency. But then also we get a little understanding of what they're like and they're bringing a lot of insights and information into us. How is it best to use the internet because look, those, the kids that we're bringing in, they're native to the internet.

KD: They're at the forefront of all the updates, changes, the growing sophistication, they're growing right along side it.

PB: And they don't know the world without the internet, so they're minds are just open. And they're extremely talented and they question a lot and you learn a lot from those questions.

KD: That's great.

PB: Yeah, it's a great time. I mean, frankly, to have these people coming in and they're just, they bring a breath of fresh air for us.

KD: Tell me about a time, if you have one, an example, but just where we had a client, super sophisticated about anything in particular, super privy, super knowledgeable about something in regards to digital or marketing and that actually caused friction. Maybe you couldn't deliver those capabilities, or maybe your team wasn't there yet with their own knowhow, so what was that gap or what was that friction and then how did you solve for it, if there's an example you have.

PB: There are always examples of friction. But there's also examples of really good things as well, right. But I think the other, the challenges we have, you know, go into some of the larger technology projects that we work on because clients don't understand the complexity and the amount of work it takes to do these big projects that really are going to bring better value to their businesses. You know, an area that we will always work with, quite a bit, is the understanding of content and the value of writing good, original content and how that is not only going to help you from a social standpoint, it'll help you from an email stand point, it'll help you from a web standpoint. And so laying out, here's how you create a good ESO strategy, here's the reason why you need to have it and then also, you know, from a content writing standpoint why do you really have to have, you know, a tone and voice to find?

And so we spend a lot of time working with clients on that but they, it's tough for them if you don't really lay it out and explain to them why you need to do it this way. And then also, all the different possible uses for that. And that's an area that we work through quite a bit. The other side of it is also just with the maintenance side of a digital platform. Look, a lot of clients think hey, I'll build a website and then I'll forget it and then five years later I'll call, find another agency and I'll have them rebuild it all. And we try to work with our clients to say, no, what you want to do is build an MVP, a minimal viable product and then based off of that, have an idea of what is phase one look like, complete, but then you roll into phase two and roll into phase, you know three or four or whatever and you always make just iterative, little changes to improve the website, improve the experience that you're actually providing to your customer and that's a change, that's a mind shift that clients need to have these days is it's not a build it, forget it, and come back.

KD: HubSpot calls that growth-driven design. For websites, you have your launchpad and then very iterative. So totally support that mind shift, or mindset. Now, you've mentioned that when clients or digital is changing, clients are becoming more sophisticated, you've had to change some processes, or maybe you've had to make some tweaks to how things are laid out internally. Do you have any particular examples to that?

PB: One of the bigger shifts is just how we actually will produce work for our clients. In the past, we would do a waterfall design where we basically will, you know, figure out all the requirements and we'll write those out in great detail and get the client to buy off on that. And then we go into the creative phase and we say, hey, we're going to give you three creative concepts and you're going to need to pick one. They pick one and then we move into the next phase. And it's very, you know, very staged and it's very mythological in how you get things done. The challenge with that is it's very rigid and it's very hard to institute change as you start to learn more and more about your client or more and more about the client's business challenges as you start to work on stuff. So we've gone back and we work with Agile and we don't do pure Agile because pure Agile is extremely rigid and it's going from one extreme to the other but we do a highbred where we'll set up and work with our clients to kick things off. We'll do a workshop to truly understand all the different aspects of what they would like this project to be. And then we work with them to rank all of these things in a priority order. And then based off of that, we'll chip off, you know, a segment of those priorities and we'll run it in a two week sprint. And what the benefits for the clients is that they start to see a product develop very quickly, so within two weeks they start to see something being created, that gives them energy and excitement to actually understand this thing is coming to life, it's real. Versus the old way where you set it up and then two months, three months later, depending on the length of the project, you pull it off, you're like surprise, here it is, do you like it? And they probably like aspects of it but they don't like the whole thing.

What Agile does is it allows you to involve your client throughout the process. And at the end, they're very happy with the product because they were there every two weeks making decisions on what shape this thing is becoming. They're involved in that iterative process versus waiting, to your point, the box opening up and here's the final product, right?

KD: Exactly, yeah, no more unboxing. As we talk about clients learning more, understanding more, why can't this be like Uber, or even: oh, now blogs have social icons, right? As things change and clients want different things, how do you and how do your team stay ahead of that curve? So what are your tactics to just maintaining ahead of that sophistication curve, if you will?

PB: It goes back to the hiring process, you know? We really want to hire good, curious thinkers, people that want to explore and learn new things. So you've got to hire that curiosity thinker. But we also have to provide a platform for them to innovate and to test things out. And so one of the things that we did is we created a lab called LC Labs and it allows the team to go in and tinker with voice, with image recognition, A.I., all of those bleeding edge pieces of technology, allows them to test it out and learn. And then conversely, they're able to then plow that into aspects of client work. So they'll be able to bring that technology into client work. And so it's that, it's that curiosity piece that you have to find at the hiring process but then giving them the permission within, you know agency sponsored things like LC Labs and then allowing them to then take those learnings and put it into a client product.

KD: That's great, so it's mindset and people. But then we all need to create labs, right? Here are your safety goggles, now just go test out a bunch of stuff, whatever sticks and what works, and what seems impactful, find the right clients to roll it out.

PB: Yeah, and it's a lot of work to put these things together because you have to figure out what's the right model but at the end of the day, it's kind of like it's all just going back to being kids and, you know, testing stuff out and seeing, well, this didn't work so let me not do that again.

KD: Putting Mentos in Diet Coke and seeing, you know, where does that fit in to time and bandwidth? By putting time in the lab and having the focus on testing—how do you fit that in to their overall workday, work week, month?

PB: It's a balance, right? I mean, there's going to be surges of client work where you basically change that percentage of what's going into innovation or thinking or tinkering and you put a lot more emphasis on addressing the client work. But then as you're planning out the ebbs and flows of client work or you have a little bit of valleys, you dedicated more time to the innovation side. Or there's sometimes people just have passion projects and they'll find the time to work above and beyond just to work on that little passion project and see I come to life.

KD: Is there anything in particular recently that came out of the lab that you can tell us worked really cool, like some cool experiment that you were able to roll into a client engagement?

PB: So we have a client, they're a fruit grower, they grow a little fruit, and just though conversation we found out that they had challenges with bugs consuming the fruit, very simple stuff but they were eating up the fruit. But then in order for the client to get the type of bug identified, you'd have to go to the county extension agency to get it identified and it's a two to three week process, it was just extremely long. And these people were say by the time we wait two to three weeks, our entire crop--

KD: --is gone. The foods gone, yeah.

PB: Exactly, you know the bugs have moved on to somebody else's product. But, so what we did is we through just image recognition, we create an app that basically trained it by taking pictures of good bugs and bad bugs, consumed leaves and non consumed leaves and we were able to actually train the app to identify what type of bug it was. And so, you know, we've put that out into the field and it's being tested right now because the crops are just starting to get their leaves, hopefully, in a couple months or so.

KD: I'll be certainly interested to hear how that goes on.

PB: Oh yeah, but that's the crazy stuff that, you know, if you just give people the right tools and the right technology, it's amazing what they can do.

KD: It's like I almost asked, I already asked you what's the biggest part of agency life before even getting there, you know. But, hold your answer to that, hold your answer.

PB: Okay, I've got two for you.

KD: Just last question before that one, based on what you've seen in the lab, emerging technology, bleeding edge type concepts in marketing, what do you think or what do you feel is the next big thing that's going to impact marketing, maybe something that you're excited about but out of that list of bleeding edge tech and concepts and strategies, what has your eye or what caught your ear?

PB: I think it's the ability for the technology to understand your place and then come back with recommendations that are relevant to past things that you've done in similar situations. And so it's just, you know, when you look at your phone, right, we've all parked somewhere or we need to go home and your phone just literally knows where you've parked your car, that's where I think the next edge of technology is going to be where the phone, the device, just knows who you are, what the place is, what you may need to do next and it just help you along.

KD: It gives you recommendations along the way.

PB: Yeah, exactly. I think that's perfect, because I know tonight I'll, you know, put my phone in my car and it's going to know that I need to go home and it'll tell me, you know, here's the route.

KD: It'll play the first song on your alphabetical playlist, right. It always starts with whatever, starts with the letter A.

PB: Exactly.

KD: Awesome. Last question for you, Paul. What is the weirdest thing about agency life?

PB: I'll say two things, nothing ever happens with a phone call after 5:00 PM, nothing's good. So never pick that phone call up.The second thing--

KD: We're not heart surgeons or brain surgeons, we're marketers, right? That can wait until the morning.

PB: Stay away from those calls. But the other pieces that I would say is I love learning and, I mean, I'll go to work every single day and one day I'll work with a client that's, you know, let's say it will be on locks. The next day it'll be a medical device or it'll be a piece of sporting goods and of the diversity of what you get to work with is just so crazy. But it's so exciting because you're touching different things throughout your day.

KD: Wow, perfect, I appreciate you coming on man.

PB: Thank you.

KD: Yeah, it's been a pleasure.

PB: Awesome.

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