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How Agencies Make Remarkable Work

By Tracey Halvorsen

Category Project Process

Date Published November 24, 2018

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Don’t hire a digital agency before you read this.

Great work, in any form, is about making you pay attention to something you probably wouldn’t have otherwise. That attention hopefully equates to value, and value equates to success, and naturally more people want to attach themselves or their time or pocketbooks to things that seem to offer value and success. Making other people’s ideas, products or organizations better than they could do on their own, is the work of many digital agencies — increasingly so as our commodities and communications move into the world of zeros and ones.

For agencies — it is about getting their clients to the top of that ladder, ideally making a buck while we are at it. It is always in the best interest of the agency if the client believes scarcity is a reality, and true creativity and digital skills are best snapped up immediately. But what really makes an agency, and the work they do, remarkable?

Consider this: Every few months, something changes in the digital world. This leaves us scrambling to develop a methodology, opinion, best practice, and a portfolio of experience and experts around this new development. A few recent examples are; responsive design, the shift to mobile, accessibility, and the ever changing preferences of Google when it comes to search. Throw on top of that pile the fact that every part of the process is constantly evolving, and you can see the smoke begin to roll out from beneath the treadmill.

These constant evolutions offer us a never-ending opportunity to own very complicated answers to even more complex questions.

That's the nature of digital — it's fast, it's about speed and immediacy — and you've got to keep up. Take your eye off the ball and you're in deep shit fast.

This also creates an industry attractive to natural born cons, who see the opportunity to succeed by pretending they hold the keys to the incomprehensible yet all-too-critical digital castle. Seeing so much lying, cheating and bullying displayed by so many in my industry over the years has definitely left lasting effects on me.

I’m suspicious of everyone until I’m certain they’re not certifiably crazy. I throw daggers from my eyes every time a white man who has written one line of code mansplains technology to me. I hate networking events for digital agencies as much as I hated going to the fabric store with my mother in the seventies. Where are the humans beneath all this technobabble and egotism?

Mountain side

I don't even know how to explain today, or any day really. What matters right

now, or in the last five minutes, is this. Seeing further than you could

before, is always a worthy struggle, and also a scary one. You don't know what

you'll see and you have to have faith that you'll be ok with whatever it is

that you find. And you will also have to be ok with the fact that this new

vision is as temporary as the ones you had previously clung to as immobile and

painted in a frame. Photo: Soldier Mountain, Hells Canyon, WA

There’s a volatility that exists within digital agencies due to a certain combination of factors. On one hand, we are forcing right-brainers and left-brainers to work side by side in perfect un-harmony. Additionally, the skill-sets are in such high demand, that “skill” will often win out over basic human decency. Thus you get agencies who’ve opened the doors and long tolerated straight up assholes — ranging from misogynists, to racists, to ageists, to people who refuse to display any semblance of manners or diplomacy.

Being a good human isn’t a top priority if you know how to write code fast, or are great at coming up with innovative ideas. That doesn’t sit well with me and it shouldn’t with you either.

You have to be willing and able to lead yourself and your team to evolve as human beings. This means hard conversations, and digging deep to find out what is really going on with people, in their "peopleness."

Meanwhile work and life churn on. It’s so much easier to fall back to conventions and assumptions, to take the obvious path, to skip the hard question, to not read the book that will challenge you to actually listen to what others are saying, to assume you’ve got it all figured out.

We want it to be easy, and we want it to be quick. This isn't passion, it's a transaction. Right? Wrong.

If you aren’t deeply invested, you’re simply not going to give it your all. We can’t expect every team to fall in love with every client, project or challenge. However, we can demonstrate what passion and hard work looks like — and we do this by never compromising on our own values. When people know that their leaders hold themselves to the same high standards they expect of them— they will strive for more.

If your values include honesty — be radically honest. If your values include fearlessness — do not hesitate to tackle a scary situation head on. This kind of commitment to, and demonstration of, values, can leave many feeling vulnerable. That is good. Follow that feeling.

C.S. Lewis wrote:

"To love is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. but in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable."

The really great work, the stuff that ends up on the agency’s portfolio, that actually moves the needle, that gets noticed — that work has love in it. That work came out of a struggle that included more than just revisions to a design comp. It comes from honesty, respect and a mutual desire to push one another — even with all the messy human stuff leaking in because that’s just the way it works. This is how great work gets done.

And while I don’t believe it has to be nasty or cruel, it does generally require some courage and struggle to get there. Most importantly, it involves honesty and open communication at all times. Considering most of us have trouble maintaining that in our day to day relationships, this is a tall order. Nothing great is easy. And human nature often leaves us craving the routine, the comfortable, the safe.

So how much responsibility do you bare as the client? It’s very important to connect on that human level, on that vulnerable level, at the beginning of the relationship. There are lots of ways you can set that tone between two teams, and honestly the right agency will be doing that out of the gate with you. So be sure you try to enforce some “love and humanity” into your initial interactions. This kind of partnership, and leadership on your side, will go far in ensuring you get to that amazing work you’re all after.

It's about committing to a vulnerable, courageous and genuine relationship with a shared goal of an outstanding outcome.

I’ve stopped expecting it to get easy. I’ve stopped waiting for things to require less change. I’ve focused on the much more important challenge — the human one

Mountain ridge

There exists a terrifying vastness outside us, and within. If we dare to open

our eyes and sneak a glimpse at it, we might just get a little braver.

Sometimes what we imagine is far scarier than the truth, if only we are able

to look with an open heart and an unflinching mind. For how can something be

scary when it is constantly in a state of change as well? Every moment is an

opportunity for change, courage, and growth. Photo: Grand Ronde River, Hells

Canyon, WA.

No proven process can guarantee great work, no talented strategist, designer or developer can churn out innovative amazingness on the norm. Failures will happen, marks will be missed. But if the culture encourages the pursuit of great work in a healthy environment that prizes the human more than the riches their skills can generate, and those humans know they have leaders who value and trust them and are living the same values — your chances of success go up incrementally.

I'd rather put my effort into something I know will not only make my agency better, but also make us all better as people.

Will you get it perfect every single time? Nope — but that doesn’t mean you should stop expecting it and striving for it. I know we do. And amazing only happens when everyone is working as hard as possible, and caring as much as possible, and pulling each other along so we can all get to a bright shiny promised land together. And then do it all over again.

If you enjoyed this post feel free to share it. If you’re interested in the pictures, they were all taken this Fall when I was on a trip with my father in Hells Canyon. This is a place he went to as a young boy with his grandparents, and has returned to throughout his life. I’ve made several trips with him over the years, and it never ceases to provide the perfect environment for self-reflection and growth, and a whole lot of fun too.