Close-up: Only difficult questions lead to the right answer

By applying the science of better decision-making, agencies can improve their client relationships, David Wethey believes.

Spending the past 23 years overseeing pitches and working for clients in more than 30 countries has opened my eyes to ways we might seek to improve the client-agency relationship.

Meanwhile, the researching and writing of a book dedicated to helping people make better decisions in a better way has also helped me see our industry in a different light.

The book is about business. But not exclusively so. I have looked at decision-making in politics, warfare, medicine and science, and also in personal areas such as looking for a job, a partner or a winning horse. I have interviewed people who have to make decisions under time pressure - soldiers, police, firefighters, triage nurses, referees and umpires. I have also talked to individuals and teams charged with undertaking multivariate analysis before they can make a decision; this category includes judges, selectors of sports teams and recruiters.

With the assistance of this diverse selection of "deciders", I have developed what I hope is a better way of solving problems and making decisions, and formed a map of the more obvious decisions traps.

All I have learned tells me that sound decision-making starts with asking the right questions, not looking for instant answers.

There is clearly a major correlation between decision-making, problem-solving and behavioural economics. As a fan of BE, what has surprised me is its limited application upstream in the client-agency relationship. All the best known examples and case histories seem to concern behavioural insights at consumer level.

Important as this is, the gleam in my eye is to give agencies the chance to also contribute to the solution of business challenges by bringing BE to the problem solving stage, on which the development of client briefs depends.

Puzzles and mysteries

Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, What The Dog Saw, is a compilation of some of his best articles for The New Yorker. In a piece on Enron, he credits a US security expert called Gregory Treverton with identifying the difference between solving puzzles and mysteries.

Gladwell explains that puzzles are generally solved by having rules and a frame of reference, to which you add intelligence and information. With mysteries, it is different. They are more open-ended. You can actually have too much information. What is needed is analysis and lateral thinking about human behaviour, usually prompted by asking good questions.

I believe Gladwell is on to something. For instance, it occurs to me that when agencies pitch on briefs handed down by a client, they are in fact restricted to solving a puzzle.

Which agency can write the cleverest haiku or finish the sudoku or crossword quickest? Clients generally seem to try to solve the mystery before the agency is deployed. What a mistake that is.

Agencies are not only clever and strategically gifted. They also have a broad spread of clients. The team's collective experience will span a wealth of strategic challenges, corporate conundrums and marketing brainteasers. Agencies are ideally suited to tackling mysteries, and asking questions about what might bring about behaviour change.

So why do clients so often seem to issue briefs to agencies, and not with agencies?

The ability to question is a prerequisite of problem solving. Yet in the current regime, agencies are wary of questioning briefs. They are usually stuck with answering the wrong questions because the right ones were never asked. As a result, problems remain unsolved, and all that ensues is in some way flawed.

With this now being the status quo (clients telling, agencies responding), it leads us into decision traps - something way beyond flawed brief syndrome.

Avoiding the decision traps

Let's look at three of the seven principles of BE, and try to apply them to the client-agency relationship, starting with Loss Aversion.

When a brand has lost share and consumer love, marketers will often confound logic and write an optimistic brief. I can't count the number of pitch briefs I have seen which assert that the brand is going to grow share/be a roaring success again. Yet often there is little about the how and why.

The goal is clearly expressed, but there is no definitive brand truth. There are no new behavioural insights. Yet in a pitch situation, because of the competitiveness of the marketplace, agencies will respond with alacrity.

The decision traps? For the client: Upside Optimism (gambling on a favourable outcome). For the agencies: Frame Blindness (setting out to solve the wrong problem) or Downside Delusion (so taken up with persuasive executions that there is no inclination to question the premise).

Then we can consider Scarcity Value. Agencies value long shots at new business (scarce opportunities, therefore exciting) over stewardship on existing clients (plentiful, familiar, and therefore humdrum). Decision trap for the agencies: getting the SWOT analysis wrong by over-estimating opportunities, and discounting their real strengths. I call it Cold SWOT.

Lastly, Price Perception. I think the default setting of the client-agency business model (fees based on hours) is at the heart of agencies' problems and provides the imbalance in client-agency relations. Clients issue a scope of work, which ideally needs a response based on feasibility, capability, timing and cost. But tradition determines they are provided with a spreadsheet detailing an annual aggregate of the maximum percentage of the agency's payroll that the agency thinks it can charge. Harsh? Maybe.

But perception is reality, and every client procurement department sharpens its pencils in anticipation of the amount they can knock off agency an proposal.

Learning from your mistakes

What does this grisly process do for price perception? Does the spreadsheet enhance the value of the agency's contribution? In a pitch scenario, does the higher fee cost on Agency A's proposal tell the client that it represents better value than Agency B, due to the greater time allocation of star performers? Absolutely not - on all fronts.

Decision trap for the agency: refusal to learn from mistakes, otherwise known as Condemned to Repeat the Experience.

So I think there could be many beneficial changes that could come about through seeking to challenge and change the settings of the client-agency relationship:- Better briefs when agencies have the opportunity to apply behavioural insights upstream.- Pitches that are about solving mysteries, not speculative creative.- An increased focus on fruitful long-term relationships.- Mutual agreement on adopting a better-balanced remuneration regime, with increased emphasis on deliverables and outcomes, and less on paying for inputs.- Appreciation by clients of the best agencies - and not just the best-priced agencies.

People ask for a definition of a good decision-maker. Every decision is a journey, not a single step. So the smart decision-maker is someone who solves a problem, and knows what to do next. Asking great questions is a good way to start. BE and the insights it yields can make those questions better, and increase the value of agencies to clients.

David Wethey is the founder of Agency Assessments International. He will be the keynote speaker at the IPA's Applying BE To The Client-Agency Relationship forum on 28 February