Podcast: How To Differentiate Your Design Agency With Perspective.fm

The Perspective FM team

Click play above and have a listen as Jon Darke and I talk about how to differentiate your design agency on the Perspective.fm podcast.

Or, read on for a transcript of our conversation, in which we discuss why creatives find it hard to communicate what they do for clients, how to make your agency stand out from all the others and why it’s vital that you do so.

We also talk through how we worked together on the content strategy for Jon’s UX design agency Every Interaction and the positive effects that has already had on their sales process.


Jon: Hello and welcome to Perspective. This is a show by fans of digital creativity agencies, giving our perspective on starting and running our own companies. The aim is to provide useful advice and inspiration to others as well as learn from each other and others we get to come talk on the show.

This is our 21st episode, my name is Jon Darke. I’m a director at Every Interaction and joining me today I have Anna McLoughlin from Inkspiller. Hello Anna.

Anna: Hi.

Jon: How are you doing?

Anna: I’m doing really well, thanks Jon. How are you?

Jon: Good. It’s a bit cold, it’s bit of a frosty start this morning.

Anna: Yes it is. Frosty January.

Jon: So, Anna is someone we brought in to Every Interaction to help us with our internal stuff. We were struggling with our websites and in particular our copy. We really wanted to take a content first approach to trying to communicate with visitors, prospective clients, exactly what it is we do and how we go about doing it. And so we approached Anna to help us with that exercise.

When people ask me, and I always describe you as a content strategist. Is that accurate?

Anna: Well I suppose, I probably wouldn’t call myself that. I think a content strategist can be kind of a confusing term. But I suppose, yeah you could say that.

Jon: Yeah I would say copywriter but then it seems like it doesn’t quite do you justice.

Anna: No, I know, I totally agree with you. I stick with copywriter because that’s the term that most people understand. But I think yeah, there is a lot more to it. I also use brand strategist, but obviously I don’t deal with the visual side of brand, so that’s not quite right either. Yeah, maybe I should look into titles a bit more. To find the right one.

Jon: Rebrand yourself.

Anna: Yes, exactly

Jon: So, if you’re meeting someone new for the first time and they ask what it is that you do, how do you describe yourself?

Anna: So, I usually say that I work with innovative businesses and to help them explain what they do and why it matters. Because I think so many businesses do actually really struggle to describe what they do as I have just done. So, yeah that’s how I would describe it. I would just say I help them to describe what they do in simple terms that anyone can understand and help their customers understand what makes them different and why it matters, basically.

Jon: Great, and what types of clients other than UX design agencies do you do this with?

Anna: Well I with a lot of design agencies actually. I would say yes, design agencies are mostly the kind of people I work with. Also, other types of creative agencies and marketing agencies.

Jon: I think you’ve found a good niche there in that they always seem to be struggling with talking about themselves. It’s a very difficult thing to do.

Anna: Yes, totally. And I really like working with creatives. My husband’s also a graphic designer and I think, yeah, I just enjoy working with other creatives. I do also work with a lot of technology companies and I suppose for the same reason, they tend to be service rather than product based tech companies, so consultancies really. And, again what they’re selling a bit like with a design agency, they’re selling their ideas or their selling their process or their advice. People I tend to work with are those who don’t have a tangible product. So actually that makes it really difficult to describe the value that they offer. And I suppose you could say a website is a tangible product, but the process of getting to that tangible product isn’t. So those are the kinds of people I tend to work with.

Jon: Nice, yeah and it is invaluable to get that right, isn’t it, for a business. We really struggled. What is it, do you think, about creative people in particular that makes them incapable to articulate that value that they offer to their clients?

Anna: I always say, I think it’s just that you are probably a bit too creative. It depends on the person, but generally they have so many ideas and so much passion for what they do, they almost love it too much. And they want to be able to tell everybody everything. And it’s almost like there’s so much to say you just end up saying nothing. You know, you kind of get tongue-tied in the written version of yourselves. It’s really difficult to know where to start. And I really struggle with this myself. But I think any business does. Not just creative businesses. There’s a great book called Made to Stick and in there they describe the curse of knowledge and how once you know something, you can’t un-know it and you can’t look at it from an outsiders point of view. And that’s often where I think creative businesses struggle, because they know how important it is to speak to their audience but they can’t really stand in their audiences shoes because they’re too close to what they do. And they care about it too much, I think that’s the main reason.

Jon: Yeah, in the creative services as well people are quite obsessed with their peers and what other companies in their market are doing as well, right?

Anna: Ah, very true, very true.

Jon: And I think they see them and they see someone they think is doing something better than them. I think it’s just the nature of the creative industry and this is how the creative industry works, it’s that somebody does something, so everybody else sees it, gets inspired by it and either is influenced by it, copies it or enhances it, takes it and puts their own spin on it. And I think that’s what people try to do too often when it comes to speaking about themselves. See what other people have done and they’ll just do the same thing in a very similar vain and just change it slightly.

Anna: I think that’s really true, I hadn’t really thought about that before. But, yeah I think you’re absolutely right. What is it people say? It’s comparatitis or something, where you’re spending all your time. You’re obsessed with looking at what other people are doing? So you’re maybe looking more outward than inward. It could be that.

Jon: And it’s so important to get right. And as creatives we all want to be seen as individuals, right, and different from everybody else because it is an expression of our creativity.

Anna: Yes totally and actually that is what you’re selling isn’t it? You’re selling your unique process or your uniquer way of doing things. Especially if you’re looking at the world of websites, because, you know it has become commoditized and people can get a website for free so you have to therefore show where you would approach it, personally, or as a collective, and add value.

Jon: Yeah and websites in general are sort of homogenised to a large extent and they’re very similar. They all follow very similar patterns and, I guess when we were starting this project with you for our website that we wanted to try and break the mould of that and not do what everybody else did. Not go with the large header image and single statement with call to action button, followed by a couple of case study squares, to try and do something a little bit different.

Anna: And the bug there that I have, and apologies to anyone that’s listening, but the header with the Mac and the iPad and the iPhone. It’s just argh. So many design agency websites have that. It’s just, yeah, everyone does that and it’s you know, if you do that same thing as everyone else you are making yourself a commodity basically.

Jon: Yep, and the process that we took with our site, with you, before we got you involved, I think we did what most people do in this scenario. Of just trying to redesign it in isolation and starting in the wrong place. We started straight into the case study pages and didn’t even think about the rest of the experience of what it would take someone to get to that point. I think we were making the same mistakes we had made in the past and at some point we got to the realisation that we really needed to take a content first approach with this. The content and the messaging should drive the experience. And that’s when we got in touch with you.

Anna: Yeah, and I think that’s great, you know I think content has to come first. You have to decide what you’re going to say before you decide how you’re going to say it. And it was really such a fun experience working with you.

Jon: Yeah, it was interesting. To explain that to the listeners, Anna, after doing a few iterations and getting the structure right, well, we didn’t write with a site map in mind, did we, we just wrote and wrote and then it sort of naturally fell into couple of different sections. That we thought might become the main site map pages for the website. Yeah, we did a little experiment to see if we got those categories right and what they should be called by printing all of your copy, chopping it up into little cards and then scattering them around basically on a table and we got everyone in the team to do a card sorting exercise and group them and order them into what they thought were coherent sentences and paragraphs and then put a label on those groups.

It was really interesting, everybody did something slightly different, but it gave us a direction, that there was enough commonality between what people were doing to give us a steer in the right direction to choose what those labels are. Yeah, and then to give it, something that we wouldn’t have got to any other way.

Anna: Yes, totally. So it was sort of like deciding, well what is it that we want to communicate. What are the important things, and then from that evolve a structure. So, yeah it was really interesting way of doing things.

Jon: I mean we did quite a few interesting exercises. Do you want to walk us through the sort of process that you did with us or the process that you do with clients in general?

Anna: Yeah sure, so I mean really as I said earlier, what I was interested in when we started working with you was to understand what is was that made you tick. You know, what you stand for, what is it that makes you different. What do you stand against? What’s your unique perspective? What are your values, what do you care about? What would you fight for? Those sorts of things. So, we had a workshop and we did a number of exercises where we dug into that.

I always find it so fascinating to see how people approach things. Yeah, we did a few different speaking exercises. We did a brand personality exercise with some archetype cards.

Jon: I really enjoyed that one.

Anna: Yeah, so good. And actually the archetypes exercise was very interesting because what came out was this real sort of altruistic, caring, hand-holding side to the work you do. Which I’m not sure was coming out before.

Jon: No, I agree it wasn’t.

Anna: Certainly, I hadn’t picked that up before we spoke anyway, before we had the workshop. And actually that linked in beautifully with how you serve clients. So as we discussed, lots of typical Every Interaction clients seemed to be somebody who has a really unwieldy site or just a very complex messy challenge. And what you do is you help them get to the situation where it’s clear, it’s organised, it’s calm. And you do that in that very caring … You know, you have that sort of scientific process. But it’s caring, altruistic and there’s no drama. You have a very measured, calm approach. And what they end up with is a very calm, orderly solution. So it all tied together really well I think. We ended up with quite a holistic picture of what it is you really do and why people really work with you. You know, it’s not as simple as they work with you just to get a better user experience, it’s actually, it’s you, there’s a lot more going on.

But that was certainly my take on it.

Jon: How does that compare to how you would work with other clients, other agencies? Is it a very similar process?

Anna: It’s a similar process, yeah. I think I have those certain exercises that I fall back on because I know they get us to the right answers. But the answers are always completely different. And that’s the kind of exciting part. But it is fluid as well and it does depend on the size of your organisation and the people there. You know, you guys were very easy to work with. Other people might need a little more, you know, the exercises might need to be a little more creative and perhaps involve more move and things like that. Just to get people really going, if people are not really that forthcoming. But actually with you guys, I think, because you run your own workshops and everything, I think we very quickly got into the juicy stuff.

Jon: Is it possible that the results end up creating something that conflicts or, you know, creates a sort of a blocker that you can’t move forwards with?

Anna: I think sometimes yes. Because often, there have been situations, where which I’m sure you’ve come across. You did this sort of work, actually, you realise that the organisation, the business realises that they have more serious problems, perhaps, going on, than a communication exercise can solve. And so sometimes that can create a block where actually they need to go back and actually re-think their whole business. So that’s … not in a bad way, in a positive way. Also, I have had the situation where … what’s come up in the workshop is not how the organisation wanted to be perceived. So, they didn’t want to come across as they really were. They wanted to kind of present a different, you know, pull a different spin on how they communicated. Which is not the right approach. As you know, we live in this world, everything’s so transparent, it’s pretty obvious pretty quickly if you’re not who you pretend to be. Or if there’s a disconnect with how your organisation really communicates internally and then how you start communicating on the outside.

So for example, very formal organisations that want to be all friendly and pally, that just doesn’t add up and it doesn’t work. So, I think I’ve only ever had that once or twice. But, yeah it doesn’t always flow perfectly.

Jon: Do you find you get quite different results if you’re dealing with a smaller team versus a much larger team and only working with then a few individuals within that larger business?

Anna: Yes, I mean I much prefer to work with small businesses really because of that, I think. If you’re working with a big organisation you really have to be working with the owner, founder because they often set the tone for everyone else within that business. So, it’s much easier to work with a smaller company. But, if you are working with a bigger company then you really have to be working with the key people, otherwise you will end up with something that’s not quite right. I think it is different and if you speak with a large organisation then you need to be speaking with the right people. You know, it’s no good if you’re trying to kind of do this looking at values and the personality, it will be more superficial if you’re just going to be speaking with the marketing team versus the actual owner, director, basically. But often that’s just how it goes, you can’t often be in charge of that.

Jon: Even in a smaller organisation, how often do they involve the whole team? Or is it often just the founding members?

Anna: Yeah, it’s often the key people, the key five to six people. I mean it is possible to that with the whole team, but you would just need to break it up. I haven’t personally done that, but I have helped, I work with an organisation called Beliyf. And I’ve often helped, sort of interpret lots of interviews they’ve done with, you know, the entire team of the organisation. So they’ve done, when they’re looking at company values, they’ve interviewed basically a cross section of the whole organisation and I’ve helped. We go through these interviews and map them to the values that the leadership team have identified. That’s the other way of doing, is you kind of break people into smaller groups.

Jon: Have you ever extended this into, sort of more internal focused work? A lot of, it seems to be quite fashionable these days with agencies is having a sort of manifesto and an internal communications document that describes everything that the company does. How the go about hiring, how they go about communicating themselves. I guess all new people on boarded into the company need to read this document, but they also sort of open source it and publish it on the web and use it as an outwards marketing thing to give people insight as to what it’s like to work for that company.

Anna: Yeah, I mean that’s basically what I do with Beliyf. So they work on what they call organisational identity. So, that’s looking at what is our culture and how can we codify our culture? So as we grow, how can we make sure that, exactly as you say, how can we always hire people with the right cultural fit? You know, people that are really going to, no matter what they’re hired to do, they will strengthen our culture, not weaken it. Because I’m sure, as we all know, we’ve all worked with that one person who’s mood coming to work is really miserable. Or just perhaps that we’ve not gelled with. I mean not to say everyone needs to have the same personality. But there needs to be, you know, there does need to be a shared identity to have a really strong business culture.

So, with Beliyf that’s exactly what we do. We’re working on looking at what is that culture and how can we describe it so coming up with, as you say, talking about how we do things around here, basically. How we treat each other and it’s nothing to do with the actual work, it’s just to do with the shared behaviours. How to do you treat customers, and then how can we make sure we embed that in all our policies so that we don’t ever go off track or we don’t become something we don’t want to be, or we don’t hire the wrong people.

So, that’s exactly what we do and I help and create these fantastic culture books, basically. Which are also then a marketing tool because they actually they’re a great way of showing what you’re about, as an organisation. So, yeah I think it’s really important, especially for like the fast growing companies, because you can quickly go off track.

Jon: Yeah, I mean if we ever become fast growing, it’s something I would be quite keen on doing as well.

Anna: Yeah, definitely. I think it’s a valuable thing to do anyway. Even if it’s just putting some rough ideas in place. I think it is certainly understanding what your values are and making sure that you’re working to those values. It’s something anyone can do, it’s quite easy to do. But it’s important just to give you kind of touch stone really.

Jon: Now the output of that’s quite different to doing your website copy for example or marketing copy. Is the process that same though?

Anna: I think, less so.

Jon: The initial exercise, is that you would usually do?

Anna: It’s slightly different. There is some of that as well, because obviously you need to understand the work that the company does. But no, it’s much more getting into the values and the, sort of, how the company is day to day. So, how people interact with each other on a daily basis. It’s much more, it’s probably going a lot deeper, so it’s more intensive. It’s more like a kind of, I would say, my projects run between four to six weeks, that this would be three months. Yeah, it’s much more involved.

Jon: Yeah, I guess the end document you produce as well is often quite large.

Anna: Yes exactly, you end up with a 140 page book, basically. It’s a lot more involved. But then you have something which should last forever. Because culture is the thing that should not change. That’s who you are, essentially, as a group of people.

Jon: I guess some people treat it as a bit more of a living, breathing document, don’t they? And it does need to be updated and amended over time.

Anna: Yeah, I think that’s definitely something I see when we’re looking at messaging and copy, is that often changes. You know, that’s changing every year or so as your business evolves because the kind of people you work with, the kind of projects you do, that’s more, yeah … I think should be something you’re always looking at. The messaging side anyway.

Jon: Great, I can’t stress how important this is to agencies out there, I guess, is what I’m trying to get to. Is that, it’s so important that you do get the way that you express yourselves outwardly to the rest of the world, to clients and to peers exactly right. And just accurate to who you are and what you do and what you believe. We met a client just yesterday, potential new client, who came to us, who was so enthused by what they read on the website. They confessed to reading every single word on the website and read through everything.

Anna: Oh wow really?

Jon: And then listened to the podcast and went through all our case studies and made notes and everything. It was quite impressive. It really caught them, it helped them engage with who we are. They came to that meeting pretty well armed with an idea of what we can do for them. That really helps in that first meeting.

Anna: So could you explain a bit more about that? So what did they, and how do you think if you hadn’t have had that experience, the meeting would have gone?

Jon: Very differently I think. Because if people don’t really get an idea of who you are, you have to work much harder in that initial meeting to be able to communicate that to them. You spend a lot of time … They are always asking, chatting to us a little more about who we are and what you do and your projects. And you’re meeting people for the first time. And you’ve got a bit of spiel you’ve done a thousand times and starts to sound a bit familiar. But it is always evolving and you’re always trying to improve it. If someone has got a good grasp of that already, it just makes those conversations simpler, shorter and you get down to talking about what it is that you can do to help them sooner. Which an important thing to focus on. Nobody wants to go to a meeting and hear someone talk about themselves the whole time.

Anna: God no, yeah … And also they’re almost, and it sounds, this sounds really clinical, but they’re almost partly sold aren’t they? I suppose. That, kind of getting to know you bit is done, almost.

Jon: Yeah, that’s it’s job really, isn’t it? It’s designed to get them to get in touch and convince them that you’re the right people. At least one of the right people that they should be speaking to.

Anna: Yes, exactly, totally. And I think, one thing I would say, I am with you, I think it’s so important because often, and I’m not saying that I’m no better if somebody was to put me under the spotlight and say, “well why should we hire you?”. I would say the same thing as everyone else. Oh, experience, skill, la, la, la. But actually, everybody has that, sadly. You know, everyone has that, that would not make me any different to anyone else that they’re speaking to. And that’s the same for any creative agency. Everybody has the talent, everyone has the skill, everyone has great experience.

So, you have to express something more and stand out, as you say, so people call in the first place, but also so you understand what your strengths are, and so you know what kind of clients you should be working with and what kind of projects you should be getting involved with. Because you will be stronger in certain areas than others. And that’s really valuable knowledge to have. And then you can start to work with the clients that you can really help, you’ll make more of a difference and you’ll have more rewarding work.

Jon: Yeah, more of that please … Excellent, well thanks so much. I mean, the process that we’ve been through together has been really enjoyable and I think we got an awful lot from it - anyone else who goes through that process can get the same.

Why don’t you tell everybody how they can find out more about you, and where they can get in touch?

Anna: You can find me @Inkspiller_ as well. And I also have, if you are interested in this process, I have made a virtual course that will take you through part of the process and that’s available via my site. You’ll see there’s a tab for Ink Academy workshops and there’s a course that I’ve developed which is, build a stand out brand. And that will take you through a lot of the process and all of the exercises that I would do in a typical workshop. That’s something that you can just do virtually.

Jon: Oh, interesting. OK that’s something you can do on your own without your direct involvement?

Anna: Yes, exactly. It will get you half way towards getting a clear idea of what makes you different and how you can stand out.

Jon: Great. What good idea.

Anna: Yes, it’s a virtual workshop basically.

Jon: Wow, how very modern. Excellent. Thanks to everyone for listening. I’ve been Jon Darke. @JonDarke on Twitter, from Every Interaction. You can find us online EveryInteraction.com where Anna has written some of that lovely copy. And on the web @EveryInteract on Twitter. If you would like to contact us about this episode or any of our past episodes, you can do so on our website at Perspective.fm or send and email directly to us to get@perspective.fm. We’re also on Twitter with one of those underscores, _PerspectiveFM. You can find us on iTunes, we appreciate ratings and everything there. We’re on all your podcast players, just search Perspective FM, you should be able to find us there. All the links will be on our website, along with show notes for this episode. So thanks everyone for listening, we’ll see you next time.

About the Author: Anna McLoughlin

Anna McLoughlin, Copywriter

Anna is Director of Inkspiller. An incurably curious writer and brand strategist, she has made it her life's mission to truly see others, then reflect their brilliance back out to the world.

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