When I joined Adaptive Lab in January this year, it was off the back of a two year stint in the digital team at Barclays Bank. At Barclays I was lucky enough to commission and work with some great design and research agencies (Adaptive Lab included) on a bunch of cool and interesting projects. This was an exciting first for me. My career up to this point had been spent in agencies, taking orders instead of giving them. Here are some things I learnt on the other side of the fence.

NB: for the purpose of this article I use the term agency. I also mean consultancy, studio, team, shop, crew, production house, etc.

1. Thou shalt not bullshit

Just don’t. You’ll get found out, and it will be ugly. Going to miss the deadline? ‘Fess up. Underestimated? Admit it. Don’t know how to do the thing? Just say so.

I once hired a well known agency to help me on a service design project, on the understanding they could do service design. Except they didn’t really know how to do service design. We got there in the end, but it was way harder than it needed to be.

We never hired them again.

2. Just make it easy

The times I found myself cursing agencies most was when I couldn’t find version 2 of the latest research, or I didn’t know the meeting schedule, or I had to redraw their slides in powerpoint.

Your client has probably got a day job that isn’t your project, so make things easy for them. Set up a simple file repository, share the plan for the week, write the decks in their template (not your fancy Keynote). These are tiny things, but make a BIG difference to the experience of working with you.

3. Understand the jigsaw (and how you fit)

If you’re working for an agency then you’ve probably been hired by a big company. Big companies are large, complex things that somehow fit together. Take some time to work out what your clients jigsaw looks like, and where your project fits. Is it part of a programme? What’s the overall objective? Who’s funding it? Who promised what by when? Who gets a bonus? Who is the boss and what do they like for breakfast?

Not only will having a good understanding of context help you empathise, it will come in handy when it’s time sell your work on presentation day.

4. Clients are people too

I used to think of clients as unassailable beings who signed off invoices and always asked for an extra round of design changes. When I became one I realised that they were just normal people with loved ones, interests, strengths and weaknesses. Remember this.

Take some time to get to know your clients as people. What they enjoy or dislike, or how they like to communicate. Talk about things that are not related to the project. Crack jokes. Starting meetings with a personal opening round is a great way first step.

And take heart, if they’re grumpily picking holes in your work it’s probably because they didn’t get much sleep last night. Because your work is awesome.

5. Do the basics brilliantly

If you do one thing do this. Nothing more, and definitely nothing less.

“But what about adding value?” I hear you say.

“We need to over deliver on the brief!” / “Let’s reframe the strategy!” / “Let’s take them out for a fancy dinner!” / “Let’s invest in some free workshops with our senior team!”.

No. Do not do those things. Take the time, money and effort you would spend doing them and double down on nailing the brief you were given, in the time you were given, with the budget you were given.

I’m not saying you should never do that other stuff, but you need to earn the right first. I never re-hired an agency because the schmoozing was good.

Client as craft

Managing clients is a skill. And people who build successful, long term client relationships deserve as much respect as the best designers and engineers. The advertising industry realised this a long time ago.

At Adaptive Lab, we’re trying to create a new model, one that is very different from the agencies and consultancies of the past. The way we work with our clients is different as a result.

But we also believe in crafting awesome experiences. And that doesn’t just go for the users of the products and services we create. It goes for our clients too. I enjoyed the experience so much I joined.