Two Ears and One Mouth – the Importance of Collaborative Design


According to the Greek philosopher Epictetus, “we are born with 2 ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak”. A piece of advice regularly quoted by sales directors but which is not only relevant in a sales environment but also equally important in the creative sector.

As many of us have found in recent weeks during the challenge of adapting to new ways of working due to Coronavirus, conference calls are more productive when we take time to listen to what the other participants are saying before commenting – and they are also shorter! The technical set up means we have to really pay attention in order to benefit and understand what we are required to do.

The need to pay attention and really listen has always been critical in ensuring successful outcomes and, when it comes to forming a good relationship with a creative agency, it has to be THE number one priority.

The importance and value of design to a brand is now more widely acknowledged, in part due to the exponential use of the internet but more also due to the power of the consumer and social media. Reputation is everything in today’s ultra-connected world which is why larger companies are now paying more attention to who is responsible for looking after the brand. It’s no longer something that the marketing department can add to their list of responsibilities without ensuring they adequately apply themselves to the task at hand. According to Professor Robert Jones ( in an article published by Raconteur ( he goes as far as saying that board level appointment of a Chief Brand Officer could prove integral to maintaining a healthy brand reputation and minimising risks.

In itself, a greater emphasis on the value of brand is to be welcomed. However, with a greater emphasis comes greater visibility and accountability. Working closely with your chosen creative agency is important if you are to maximise your marketing spend and narrow any disconnect between the business and marketing goals so everyone understands the impact on the bottom line. Good design is more than ‘making it look good’ which can often be how design is perceived and then dismissed. Skilled designers will listen to understand the challenge being faced by their client and then use problem solving and creative skills along with experience gained over their career to design a solution that is not superficial, but that has substance and meets your needs. Successful agencies are those that show that they can both think and work creatively in a cohesive way.

Engagement and ongoing relationships with creative agencies have evolved as the way we work has evolved. There have always been different models of brand management and some work better than others: internal brand management, complete outsourcing to a specialist brand agency or outsourcing to a one-stop shop for example. Typically the roots for outsourcing to a one-stop shop came from using larger advertising agencies that would be responsible for all aspects of managing a client’s brand – from their advertising campaigns, design strategies, PR, reports and accounts… you name it, they took responsibility for it. This has its advantages in that the person with responsibility for the marketing knows that they need only liaise with one (usually, large, advertising) agency. The downside is it is unlikely that the one-stop shop will be the best fit for every aspect of every job.

Outsourcing to a brand agency is very similar to the one-stop shop model in that again, a single lead agency is appointed and they will bring in people as necessary to work on the brand. Here again, the disadvantage is potentially that responsibility for the brand no longer rests with the company but rather a third party.

So why don’t companies simply opt to manage their brand themselves? Time, resource, knowledge, in-house skills; there can be many reasons but recent years have seen the importance of the emergence of collaborative or integrated marketing teams.

In much the same way that many industries, such as music and film, are adopting a gig economy approach where people come together to work on a specific project, creative agencies are increasingly being expected to adopt a similar approach to deliver the best client outcome. Listening and understanding and knowing what, and when, to ask pertinent questions is therefore even more important if you want to get another gig.

Having a core but select team of agencies to help an organisation manage its brand has a number of advantages too. The modern dynamic of employment and attitudes to working mean that organisations can no longer be guaranteed of retaining staff for any considerable length of time. A study in 2015 by the Education Advisory Board ( revealed that Millennials are likely to change jobs up to 20 times during their working lifetime. Ensuring that brand knowledge is retained can be difficult and time-consuming; having a good, close long-term relationship with an agency can help mitigate knowledge gaps. It can also mean that you should be able to confidently rely on them to ensure the critical brand architecture is considered and dealt with – no need for you to sweat the small stuff.

Maintain a close relationship with your creative agency and they will be up to speed with the challenges you face; it should make coming up with meaningful creative solutions easier. As a strategic partner they can often proactively come up with ideas that will benefit your brand. Don’t be put off if your agency is asking difficult questions – it shows ownership in their work and a desire that their creative solution solves the problem and works.

Using creative agencies more collaboratively and maintaining close contact on a regular basis creates an out-sourced extension to an internal team that will be able to work seamlessly with you when required. This will allow the marketing department to flex to fit the business needs without having to carry the fixed overhead associated with running a large department. It should also result in you feeling comfortable enough in the relationship to pick up the phone and using them as a sounding board without worrying that they will immediately present you with a bill for the privilege.

There is often a debate to be had about whether design agencies and those on rosters should be reviewed and replaced regularly in order to keep things fresh and exciting. It could be argued however that you might be throwing away the baby with the bathwater. The time and energy invested in developing a good relationship with your design agency and the retained knowledge should not immediately be discounted over the allure of ‘a new broom’ approach as it is often true that the grass isn’t necessarily greener. If you are feeling perhaps that the relationship has gone stale, incumbent agencies would always rather have an opportunity to explore new approaches collaboratively. Although any agency is only as ever as good as the last job, it is also true that the output is greatly influenced by the quality of the brief. The importance of this document should not be underestimated not only to frame the challenge and set parameters but as a control against which the success of the project is measured.

When using multiple creative agencies and where there are multiple people commissioning creative projects – it is important to have a well-considered and methodical process in order to maintain a strong brand identity and prevent fragmentation. Closer collaboration with a select number of agencies can help mitigate this as they understand your organisation and brand. Having a strong and consistent identity across all marketing communications is vital to support gaining customer trust and achieving a greater return on marketing investment. By listening to understand more about what an organisation needs, creative agencies will help marketers deliver growth to the bottom line.

In research carried out by Cannes Lion International Festival of Creativity, 2019/20 published by Raconteur, ( they found that in a study in 2018 by CMO, 60% of marketing leaders reported pressure from the CEO/Board to prove the value of marketing spend. Two further studies in 2019 by IPA and LinkedIn showed that the thirst for statistical evidence of success is not likely to abate any time soon; according to the LinkedIn survey, 58% of marketers are asked to prove ROI within the first month of a digital campaign, whilst IPA reported that 36% of marketers stated that reporting cycles have become shorter. That being the case, if your organisation can leverage pre-existing trust and brand recognition, then this will help achieve the success both the Board and the marketers want: a successful campaign that is both creative and continues to build business growth. As Eric Edge, SVP, Marketing & Communications at Postmate says: “The immediate metrics gleaned from performance-driven campaigns can be seductive but where brands really shine is when they are able to use creativity to tell [brand]stories in ways that engage the consumer while simultaneously driving growth.”

Close collaboration with our clients brings with it the reward of creating something that we are both proud of and can celebrate together with them. I grateful therefore for the wisdom that having two ears and one mouth provides.

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