The Big Reveal Is Dead. Long Live Collaboration.

When most people think about working with a creative agency, Don Draper's nostalgic, cinematic client presentations come to mind immediately. When I was watching that show I always thought to myself: this is great, but it's doing more harm than good. That dog and pony show needs to go away. Thinking that agencies should put on a show and pitch ideas needs to go out of fashion just like typewriters and rotary phones. I don't see business coaches, scientists, or other professional services companies doing that with their clients.

We don't do big reveals anymore; after more than a decade of client work and a lot of reflection, we realized they are a colossal waste of our client's valuable time. There is nothing worse than burning a whole bunch of hours working on a design concept for a website, campaign, or brand without any input from our clients or their end user.

There is a better way. It's called collaboration, and not the invented version of collaboration where we say we're going to listen and we go do what we want. Real collaboration takes an investment of both time and mental energy.

We live and work in a world that can be more efficient if we could just get past our egos and our need to be entertained, and get to work on the things that make a difference. (Do you hear me State of Illinois?)

Why is collaboration scary? Here's why:

  • You have to give up control. No one likes to give up control. It's scary to think you have to trust someone else to guide you through something you've never done before. I went zip lining once and I was terrified. But guess who was there with us in the trees? People who had done this a million times: I trusted their expertise and they made it fun.
  • You have to admit that you don't know the answer. As a leader in your industry, people look to you to know the answer. If your job is to write a marketing strategy and you are the chief communications officer, you should be able to get out of your own way and write it, right? You should know everything, right? Quit beating yourself up: No one knows everything and if you've ever tried to build your own website, you know how hard it is to get out of your own head and into your user's heads. The greatest part about UX research is the more you learn, the more you realize you can't assume anything. The biggest and best surprises come from asking the most basic questions!
  • You have to compromise. We are all limited by time and bandwidth, so not everything is going to happen in the first iteration. Guess what: that is ok. And even more, it's part of the collaborative process. Everything shouldn't happen in the first phase of a project. That's why it's called the first phase. You do some research, you test an idea, you receive feedback, you make changes, and you do it again. Compromises open doors to possibility.

What do these three things have in common? They inspire learning.

We don't live in a Mad Men-style agencyland anymore. You know so much more about your particular situation and we can never actually sit in your shoes and experience your day-to-day. Similarly, neither of us can wholly experience our audience's situations and values.

But we can get close if we try by listening and testing. And when we do, people reveal their true needs and motivations and we can create experiences that satisfy them. This is where real change happens.

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This post was written during a collaborative writing session with the following brilliant business owners:
Jill Pollack from StoryStudio Chicago
Nancy Goldstein from Compass(x) Strategy
Mana Ionescu from Lightspan Digital

This blogger graduated from Goldman Sachs' 10,000 Small Businesses program. Goldman Sachs is a partner of the What Is Working: Small Businesses section.