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Improving the discovery process for agency marketing

Author's avatar By Mark Kelly 28 Jul, 2020
Essential Essential topic

Who in the agency should work on discovery and how can you convince clients it should be paid for?

In the Smart Insights Agency Guide to Discovery, I suggest a checklist of the areas you might explore as part of a discovery process for clients. But is a guide needed, we all know what ‘discovery’ entails, don’t we?

If you search Google on the agency discovery process, you’ll get between 35M to 75M results, depending on the phrase you use. In any case, that's seemingly a huge number of agencies or training providers talking about discovery. So you may think it’s a well-understood topic.

But from my direct experience and conversations over the past few years with industry contacts, there’s still some uncertainty within agencies around three areas:

  • What should be examined, which stones turned in the process?
  • Who is best to carry out this activity?
  • Can an agency charge for what can be a time-consuming activity?

The guide itself looks at that first question – what could / should you cover in a discovery process. So in this post, I’ll tackle the other common questions: who in the agency should undertake discovery and how can you can convince clients it should be paid for.

The guide itself looks at that first question – what could / should you cover in a discovery process. So in this post, I’ll tackle the other common questions: who in the agency should undertake discovery and how can you can convince clients it should be paid for.

Who should look after discovery?

‘It depends’ is maybe the obvious answer. But discovery won’t typically fall to one person – you’ll bring in your experts in each area as required. You do need a ‘band leader’ though, to orchestrate all the activity. That leader may be a planner in larger agencies or a senior account handler. For smaller agencies, it will probably be the owner or senior partner who’ll lead it with a good strategic (and organized!) head.

As mentioned, whoever you nominate, their role is to act as the conductor of the orchestra. To work with other team members to look at data/research sources, triangulate findings and ensure all your thinking is coordinated.

Whoever leads the process, they are looking to:

  • Agree exactly what hypotheses or objectives are being addressed for this particular engagement.
  • Manage who is looking at what within the team
  • Triangulate the findings and resultant insight from the disparate research and data sources. Insight is key – you can’t present a raft of disconnected facts back to client without adding some value to what those facts are telling you.
  • Keep an eye on the timeframe and budget (external research costs and/or in-house team time) that is being worked to.

Charging for discovery

‘Can we charge for this stuff?’ I’ve been asked that more than once when I work with agencies.

There’s a sense that if you ask the client to pay for discovery – even though it leads to great insights and therefore solid plans and proposals, you’ll ‘scare them away’. Clients are generally focused on commoditized deliverables. But discovery has value, so an agency should be recompensed for providing value.

But you need to explain that value to the client, so be clear about what undertaking the process will mean for them, how it will help them ‘build a better’ campaign or brand.

You can make it clear that if they are shopping around as part of a Request For Proposal process, that the discovery process itself can be a standalone: they are not wedded to you to undertake the execution.

And the discovery process should be framed as an investment from the client, which leads to more effective marketing. It’s not a ‘dead cost’: they’ll recoup from the investment with improved sales revenue.

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If you wanted a form of words to help the sell-in, I’m lifting and modifying some from the guide here, as a starter for ten. You may well say it more eloquently than me but something like this should form your initial conversations with the prospect or client:

“Discovery enables us (or insert your agency name here) to formulate robust insights about your business and brand objectives, your marketing endeavours to date, your end customers and your place in the market.

We want to serve you best by eliminating hunches and subjective views from either of us. We are aiming for sound, defensible rationales for the marketing approaches and proposals that we will be producing.

And discovery will lead to well-written briefs by us (whether that's creative, content, technical or media). So we’ll be building effective content strategies, SEO strategies, websites or inbound marketing campaigns and frameworks (delete as appropriate).

Which in turn will lead to the most effective, brand-building, revenue-generating creative and marketing outcomes possible for you.”

So, agencies shouldn’t give away their thinking time for free to secure a ‘commodity’ service.

But having said that and being real world for a moment, an amount of discovery will always be needed pre-sale e.g. at pitch stage or to recommend an overarching strategy. That’s harder to ask clients (and especially prospects) to pay for.

In that scenario the agency will be looking to only invest a pre-agreed (between new Biz and one of the agency partners, usually) amount of time for a ‘discovery-lite’.

Demonstrating to your client or prospect that you have some robust initial insight based on due diligence/discovery will go a long way to selling in a solution. The level of investment you make (multiples of in-house time and/or any externally commissioned research) will depend on the potential long-term worth of the client business to you.

What are your experiences of selling in (paid) discovery? I’d be interested to hear from agencies and clients alike.

Author's avatar

By Mark Kelly

Mark Kelly is a digital marketing and agency growth consultant working with agencies and their client brands. He can be found at Mark Kelly Consultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.

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