[[UPDATE: After the remarkable traffic and response this has generated, I have written a follow-up that better explains some of the motivations behind this post. Please read it after you read this.]]
This is a glorious time for folks who work on designing for user experience. In the past couple of months, I’ve spoken at or attended conferences dedicated to mobile, converged digital media, and “the next web,” and again and again you hear from executives the importance of great user experiences.
In many ways, this is validating — at Adaptive Path we’ve been dedicated to demonstrating the value and importance of user experience for nearly 10 years. (Personally, I’ve been speaking and writing about it for nearly 15.) With such interest, it’s no surprise that there’s something of a landgrab taking place among firms who claim to do great user experience work.
Many of these firms come at it from an honest place. A desire to make the world a better place, and a recognition that improving user experiences can do that, even if only in a small way.
And then there are the advertising and marketing agencies.
Coming from a background of communicating marketing messages to consumers, these agencies have found themselves expected to do user experience work, because oftentimes corporations have their marketing departments involved with anything that touches the customer. Also, early websites tended to be marketing vehicles. As those vehicles got more complex, it was recognized they needed UX disciplines like information architecture and interaction design involved, and so agencies grew UX capabilities in order to deliver that service.
The thing is, these agencies do not come at user experience from an honest place. Ad agencies, in particular, function on a set of precepts of that runs wholly contrary to good user experience practice.
What follows will probably be variously considered sanctimonious, self-righteous, sour grapes, or just bad practice. This post really is about a deep frustration with seeing my friends join such agencies only to find themselves miserable, and working with clients who have had terrible experiences with such firms, and because of that are suspicious of any form of consulting.
In a perverse way, I also find ad agencies to be instructive, because it’s one of those situations where the best thing to do is pretty much the opposite of how they practice.
As such, I have collected a number of ways that ad agencies (and, to a certain degree, any “interactive marketing agency”) behave in ways that lead to worse work, unhappy employees, and dissatisfied customers. Ad agencies aren’t the only firms guilty of what follows, but they practice it to an extent unseen anywhere else.
The Poisonous Core
When criticizing ad agencies, you have to begin at the core — advertising, as it is widely practiced, is an inherently unethical and, frankly, poisonous endeavor that sees people as sheep to be manipulated, that vaunts style over substance, and deems success to be winning awards.
Customers are sheep
Ad agencies, by their nature, see people first and foremost as consumers, or, as Jerry Michalski once said, “a gullet who lives only to gulp products and crap cash.” Advertising and marketing perspectives give priority to the client over the clients’ customers, to the degree that it’s acceptable for advertisers to encourage people to behave against their own interests if that’s what serves the client. Responsible user experience practice has to take a more balanced approach, trying to simultaneously serve both client and end-user, and look for those opportunities where their desires align. If anything, because experience requires honest empathy, and a desire to empower and enable people (not manipulate), user experience tends to favor the end-user over the client, sometimes to the client’s chagrin.
Employees are cattle
When your core values are so distorted, your practices follow suit. Ad agencies are notorious for exploiting, and then burning out, their employees. Employees are expected to work long hours, work weekends, and exhibit a willingness to drop anything in order to serve a client.
Agencies do this because of focus on an internal metric – utilization rate. The greater that percentage, the more hours billed, and the more revenue generated. Unfortunately this leads to another bad practice, which is an expectation that designers will work across multiple projects.
User experience projects are complex and take over your whole brain. Those who work across multiple projects inevitably favor one, which means the other work gets short shrift. Also, when employees are expected to bill 90, 95, 100 percent of their time, there’s no opportunity to acquire new skills, recharge their batteries, or other practices that helps people get better at their work.
Clients feel jilted
Such poor treatment of staff is a big part of the reason that ad agencies end up dissatisfying their clients. Clients are sold a shiny flashy bill of goods by slick senior folks who are then never to be seen again. In their place are squads of junior and mid-level designers, working across multiple projects, with little chance to reflect and improve their skills. This means worse work.
Also, ad agencies, drawing from their legacy, have an us-and-them relationship to their clients. Just watch Mad Men or read Where the Suckers Moon to see what I mean. This comes from a background in communications work, where you get a brief from the client, go away and do your magic, and the try to deliver something that wows the client. This model utterly breaks down when designing for user experience for two reasons.
1. The nature of the user experience problems are typically too complex and nuanced to be articulated explicitly in a brief. Because of that, good user experience work requires ongoing collaboration with the client. Ideally, client and agency basically work as one big team.
2. Unlike the marketing communications that ad agencies develop, user experience solutions will need to live on, and evolve, within the clients’ business. If you haven’t deeply involved the client throughout your process, there is a high likelihood that the client will be unable to maintain whatever you produce.
Related to this is one of the most absurd ad agency practices, “the pitch.” As part of a sales process, ad agencies will often spend tens of thousands of dollars, and heaps of people’s time, to demonstrate how they’ll solve the client’s problem. The idea that you can credibly address a client’s concerns before you’ve actually started working with them is ludicrous, and, frankly, damaging. It undersells the magnitude and importance of our work, suggesting that hard problems can be tackled in such trivial fashion.
Team relationships are skewed
One thing I haven’t yet touched on is the legacy ad agency practice where the art director and copywriter are the voices that matter, and the rest of the team exists to serve their bidding. This might be fine in communications work, but in user experience, where utility is king, this means that the people who best understand user engagement are often the least empowered to do anything about it, while those who have little true understanding of the medium are put in charge. In user experience, design teams need to recognize that great ideas can come from anywhere, and are not just the purview of a creative director.
The folly of leading with brand
As clients realize that their problems exist across multiple channels and platforms that should work together (web, mobile, retail, collateral), it’s common that they look to their ad agencies to help them deliver services across these channels. However, when you approach it from the viewpoint of marketing, where “the brand” is the top priority, you’re designing from the inside-out, and the results is a superficial gloss, where brand standards and visual identity are consistent, but there’s no appreciation for how users actually behave in these different contexts, and there’s no attempt to coordinate internal client teams to work in concert.
And, to put it bluntly, ad and marketing agencies, for all the reasons mentioned above, are perhaps the people least suited to choreograph a truly satisfying and empowering customer experience across channels. Yes, the logo and typography might be consistent, but that’s insufficient.
Ad agencies are the new music industry
While I would like to think advertising and marketing agencies can evolve their practices to appropriately engage in user experience problems, I believe that the industry’s DNA simply cannot support such mutations. I’ve witnessed 15 years of agencies flailing (and failing) in delivering good user experiences, so there’s no reason to expect them to change.
Such agencies have been able to hang on because Chief Marketing Officers and other executives are trained to buy marketing services from them, and they see user experience as simply another marketing service. I foresee generational change, when the current crop of CMOs retire, and are replaced by people who grok how things actually work. When that time comes, and it will, ad agencies will find themselves marginalized, as it becomes clearer that manipulation and media buying is not nearly as important as an honest engagement with customers through delightful and desirable experiences.
I will not mourn their passing.
[[As stated above... UPDATE: After the remarkable traffic and response this has generated, I have written a follow-up that better explains some of the motivations behind this post. Please read it after you read this.]]
[[Update two: I've made a very light edit that removed the very charged phrase "soulless holes." For the sake of legacy, I want the focus of this piece to be on the bad practices, not name-calling.]]