A few years ago, my wife had the idea of adding a deck to the back of our house. As her miserly and un-handy husband, I was hesitant to pay for the project but also didn't want to spend too many weekends learning which side of the hammer to hold. My lazy side prevailed and I decided to hire some help.
We wanted to preserve some space in our back yard, so I told the contractor that, ideally, the deck shouldn't encroach too far into the lawn. I remember drawing an imaginary line to mark the perimeter as he took careful notes and then built the deck exactly as I had prescribed.
It wasn't until we tried to use it for the first time that I realized the problem. The dimensions I had randomly chosen were too small to comfortably fit our outdoor furniture. So, when guests sit at the table, there isn't enough space to walk around. Three years later, every time someone needs a drink refill or a second helping, that aspect of our otherwise beautiful deck still drives me crazy.
Our contractor carried out my orders meticulously. But because I hadn't given him the full context behind my requests (in this case, to create a nice outdoor eating area), the project turned out to be less than ideal. Without knowing my overall goal, our hired hand wasn't able to offer his expertise to guide me toward a better final product.
This same principal applies in the world of creative services. It's the reason that many agencies resist the term vendor and are so bullish about becoming a partner. While the distinction may seem like semantics (or even worse, an upsell), the idea of cultivating a long-term strategic relationship boils down to an agency's ability to be effective. Pursuing graphic design, web development, editorial support or even photography without the chance to examine a project's greater purpose may lead to mediocre results. At the very least, it doesn't leave room for different ideas to emerge that might more fully address the real underlying communications challenge.
This dynamic often exists in the RFP — or request for proposal — process. Companies submit a list of specs for a predetermined project and then compete largely on the basis of past projects and total cost. This can be helpful in cross-referencing multiple agencies' capabilities and ensuring that bids are competively priced, but it may also diminish the opportunity to consider a different creative direction altogether.
In his most recent book, To Sell Is Human, author Dan Pink makes the case that the dynamics of service have changed drastically in the past decade due to the widespread availability of information. In this environment, the role of providing value is no longer predominantly about problem-solving but rather about problem-finding. The ability to anticipate future, unseen challenges and address them appropriately is the exact work of a creative partner. But in order to inform and potentially improve the final outcome, that partner must be given a strategic seat at the table.
If I had followed this advice with my contractor three years ago, perhaps our back deck would be a perfect fit for those summer afternoon barbeques.