Mutuality

Highly underused and greatly underestimated, mutuality is an important concept in business and never more so than in the relationship between creative agencies and their clients.

Mutuality means building a working relationship which is of mutual benefit to both businesses. And it requires having an understanding of the inner workings of each other’s organisation that goes beyond the project at hand.

The relationship between design agencies and their clients is different from other supplier/commissioner relationships in two main ways. Firstly, because the output is ‘creative’ which can be interpreted as ‘subjective’. This sets us apart from say, accountants and their clients. Secondly, because there is an ‘end-user’ outside of either business who’s voice can be used to mediate disputes in a way that is not available to say, interior decorators and their clients.

Because of these particular conditions, at its best, the relationship is a partnership. Two teams striving toward a common goal. 

But — as I find myself saying a lot these days — it’s a bit more complicated than that.

To really get the best from the business relationship both agencies and clients need to delve deeper into each other's businesses than they are generally comfortable with.

Many disagreements over fee negotiation, scheduling and resources come from clients not understanding the business model and processes of their agency. Equally, agencies often resent creative decisions made by their clients because they don't appreciate all the other forces at play within their client’s business that can influence the course and outcome of any project.

Despite all the talk of design thinking and its prowess with complex problems, creatives have a tendency to coax problems out of their habitats for closer examination. They like clear briefs that stipulate precisely what is within, and outside of, scope. 

But no problem exists in isolation. And there are so many issues within a

client’s business that can effect the way in which a particular solution is ultimately executed. 

Needing to have a better understanding of your client’s cause goes beyond customer insights or product and market knowledge. You have to know how they work as an organisation, be able to navigate their chain of command, get to the right decision-makers and remove barriers to good work that often come from matters quite unrelated to the brief.

Think for example, of the times you have presented work to great applause only to have it rejected a week later without explanation by some other previously unheard of player. Or projects that get commissioned then never see the light of day because of some or other issue in another department with which you have no relationship.

We know we are all working for the end-user, but we are also working to help our immediate client look good to his or her boss, to help that boss hit fiscal or scheduling milestones that they have forecast to their board and to protect our project from any number of saboteurs who may be competitive, resentful or just plain incompetent.

A really great client will protect their agency from these elements. But a really great agency will have the skills and the willingness to help their client shepherd a project though whatever weather it may encounter.

It’s easy to feel like time spent on navigating this stuff is time wasted which could be otherwise directed at your wonderfully effective and elegant solution to the problem you’ve been commissioned to solve. But often all this other ‘stuff’ is the job. Or at least a significant part of it. And if you want to work on creative solutions that actually fly and get used in the real world you need to be ready to deal with the entire circumstance.

This is where mutuality comes in. It’s about appreciating that your clients are running a business and that all the messy pitfalls and triumphs that go along with, that are valid concerns whether they are directly connected to your

brief or not.

The further upstream agencies can move into their clients’ business the further they will improve their chances of getting work approved. Certainly it is our job to keep refocussing the client toward the consumer, reminding them that there are real people who stand to benefit or not by our work. But, you can’t separate out the noise completely. 

For great ideas to become great products we need businesses. Companies, no matter how huge and unwieldy, are still just conglomerations of people trying to get stuff done in time to go home and put dinner on the table for their families. The better you get at smoothing the road ahead by helping your client solve often small and seemingly unrelated issues along the way, the better ride your great idea will have out into the real world.

The hardest part is budgeting and scheduling for this stuff. It’s difficult to predict where and when you will hit snags and how long they will take to dismantle and navigate around. But, it’s even harder to convince clients that they need to set aside some budget reserved for fighting internal battles, selling-in to colleagues or changing the whole course of the project midstream in reaction to some unforeseen circumstance. Nobody wants to believe this will happen to them. But it always does.

The flip-side of the mutuality deal is that clients need to develop a better understanding of their agency’s business and processes. Many problems around fee negotiation and scheduling happen because clients forget that their agencies are entities unto themselves, and are trying to pay the wages and the rent at the end of each month like everyone else. 

They disbelieve our renumeration structures and pick over our budgets because they have  no experience of running a creative agency and have never really thought through how we pay our way.

Most clients believe that their agencies over-charge. But I would bet most creative projects are drastically under-budgeted when the total hours are tallied. This forces many agencies to make up revenue by inflating day rates and charging incremental but exorbitant costs for consumables and deliveries. 

Clients also tend to regard their dealings with agencies as a straight up service relationship, assuming that agencies exist solely to fulfil the needs of their business. They see the relationship as parasitic rather than symbiotic. But, agencies and designers have agendas of their own: growing a business, building a reputation, improving the offering of products and communications for the general good of the consumer. And, there is no reason to consider these ambitions any less important than those of the client.

Mutuality is an ethical but also an intensely practical idea. It builds business relationships which are more trusting, less wasteful, longer lasting and better value for all parties concerned. Most importantly, for all these reasons and more, it creates an environment where better work will be made.


Kate Leury Nielsen, For the Design Management Institute, March 2011

Leury Nielsen Consulting

Strategic thinking and practical problem solving for Business, Brand and Design.