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Agile agency collaboration with huge corporations

Jonty Sharples explains how working for a giant client doesn't always have to be a matter of them and us

A growing number of multi-national corporations are increasingly realising the business benefits of adopting a start up mindset by collaborating on projects with agile agencies. I believe this is the way forward for our industry.

But as they seek to create products with a rapid turnaround between first conception and delivery to the market, it is perhaps inevitable that culture clashes occur and need to be resolved.

One such example would be Albion's recent project to develop the TU Me app for Telefonica, from scratch, in just 100 days. Often projects begin with two strong, opposing personalities. Benjamin Keyser, product manager at Telefonica and I had to find common ground rapidly. We both had the best intentions for the product; the only difference being that he was more aware of the roadmap than I was, and had a much broader understanding of where the product might sit in the marketplace.

In this business, tolerance of disagreement is essential. Agile and iterative working means you have to make decisions quickly, accept areas that can’t be changed and keep moving.

Our initial working session with Benjamin and the tech team in Madrid helped bake this thinking into the project at an early stage. Working rapidly, collaboratively and iteratively we realised that Benjamin and Telefonica had a clear vision for the product. We knew that, done right, this quiet little project could make a sizeable dent in the marketplace. As an agency, Albion believes in innovation by disruption, and TU Me was just that: a small but highly disruptive and innovative proposition.

If you ever find yourself writing yet another 1200-word email at 1am extolling the virtues of a single, fine stroke, then it might be time to look closely at your relationship and see where there is common ground. A set of simple rules and the creation of our own Franken-process allowed the small things to stay small and the larger challenges to be brought into focus sooner.  

The mistakes we made early on while we were still getting to know one another, meant we freed up buckets of time further down the line. By the time we had begun creating assets for the prototype, the lines of communication were very much open: one call in the morning, and a delivery email or note in a Dropbox folder at the close of play, to let the team in Madrid know what we'd changed and what we’d lined up for the next day. Those 1200-word emails were largely mitigated by using Sifter to effectively bug-track design queries and changes. 

We were also able to avoid the email ping-pong that often comes from moving rapidly through concepting and visual design phases. We had single-line bugs that were resolved with either a single-line response or by uploading a visual of the proposed solution. These bugs were then closed and the team moved on.

Fortunately, Benjamin also wanted us to be part of the design process and by proving that we were keen to play the role of partner rather than resource, members of the team gained ownership of the process.

Corporations willing to give ownership of a product are, in my experience, rare indeed. Our role as an agency is twofold: not only should we be instrumental in bringing a product vision to life, but also to help our clients manage demands placed on them from within their own corporation and help them fight the battles they want to win for the good of the product.       

Having a clear vision of the product at the start of a contract is fantastic. However when you are involved in a design and build where success is predicated on meeting hard deadlines, being adaptable to user feedback and a changing corporate landscape – sometimes you have to let go. You have to stop being precious and adapt. Never forget your user. After all, you can have hundreds of very senior staff using and loving a prototype and giving all sorts of interesting feedback, but you’re almost invariably designing for a much broader audience.

From a management perspective, I’ve been incredibly fortunate that the team at Albion is one I trust implicitly. I certainly wasn’t involved in the production of TU Me ten hours a day, five days a week. In many respects, my relationship with the team mirrored Benjamin’s with Albion: not sweating the small stuff, and when a particularly sticky problem cropped up or a set of decisions needed to be made with a little more distance from the day-to-day, I was on hand to help break them down into manageable chunks.

By sticking to the mantra of ‘test, test and test again’ we were able to iron out several areas of possible time suck. We walked out of our concepting session with the Telefonica Digital team clutching a list of 12 features we had all decided users would absolutely, definitely want. Turns out that – fuelled with pizza and coffee – we’d somehow turned what should have been the archetypal ‘do one thing well’ MVP into the ‘do loads of stuff and confuse people’ kind of product. During a card-sort, it became immediately apparent that users weren’t interested in half of the key features we had in mind.  

The basis for a solid relationship isn’t being the person your client wants to take to dinner. It’s being the person your client is happy to call in times of crisis, safe in the knowledge that you’re willing and able to dig them out of a hole and fix whatever oddity has been thrown at the project.

It's been a learning process for everyone involved with the project, and I believe it lays down a framework for collaboration between small(ish) agencies and multi-national behemoths that our industry can really learn from.

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