To Be Defined

The Case for a Transparent Agency

From the outset, I (Matt) wanted TBD to be transparent, open and honest.

Perhaps I've been motivated by the misguided vision of a utopia facilitated by trust, but the inclination remains: I believe business works better when it's based on a foundation of uncompromising honesty.

If you'll indulge me, I'd like to try to explain why...

Demonstrating Our Values

In recent years, honesty within business has become more important to companies and customers alike. Customers are able to share their experiences with the world and at the same time find it increasing easy to seek out competing businesses.

Gone are the days when a company was able to 'spin' a story into a positive light, or rely on customers having to stick with them due to lack of competition or the difficulty involved in switching providers. The internet has seen to that.

Ever increasing connectivity allows customers are able to fluidly move between services in order to find those that resonate the most with their own values. This was demonstrated in a study by Havard Business Review which found that 64% of customers cited alignment of values as the primary driver for developing their relationship with a brand.

Outwardly demonstrating these values is also becoming more difficult. Customers are bombarded with mission statements, ads and slogans every day which they know present values that don't match the day-to-day activities of the company that produced them. There's an increased awareness of the difference between brands that 'talk' rather than 'act' in line with their values.

Transparency allows us to overcome these problems by firstly putting our values front and centre, and then following up with a significant amount of content that shows us sticking to those values.

Not only does this approach help potential clients to find us, it also helps us to identify clients that we would most like to work with. By clearly demonstrating our values we can be quite confident that clients who get in contact with us agree with our outgoing messages.

So by adopting a general approach of public transparency we can hope to achieve two things:

  1. Announce our values to the world consistently and on a regular basis.
  2. Naturally end up working with people who also align with those values.

Both are big wins for me.

Trust

Transparency engenders trust in a few ways.

Firstly, it lets our audience know that we have nothing to hide. We are willing to share our ups and downs because they are part of our development as a company, and that has made us who we are. There is a reason that 94% of consumers believe they would stay loyal to a fully transparent company: they are deemed to be more trustworthy.

Secondly, it demonstrates that we truly do live by our values. The content that we produce and the insights that we share will be a strong demonstration of how we stick to what we believe in. Being able to show that we can be trusted to stick to what we say we'll do will hopefully go a long way to developing a great relationship with our audience before we've even had a chance to speak with them personally.

Finally, it shows that we trust our readers and viewers because we are comfortable in sharing insights that many other companies would prefer to keep to themselves. Trust in one direction tends to create trust in the other direction too due to social reciprocity, and there's no better way to kick off a new relationship than with a strong foundation already in place.

The glue that holds all relationships together - including between the leader & the led is trust & trust is based on integrity. - Brian Tracy

Accountability

As well as fostering improvements to external relationships, a 'transparent by default' approach can have some positive internal effects too. When the whole world (specifically our 22 Twitter followers) is watching, and we've laid out our company values in advance, there is a very strong incentive to stick to those values in everything we do. The presence of external overseers helps to maintain accountability for sticking to our values.

We don't envisage straying far away from our initial values at any point in the future, but we welcome the possibility of being called out on it if we ever do. Small businesses can become an echo chamber without any external influence, so we'd like to invite as much of that as we can in order to continually review and improve ourselves, our work and our processes.

Engagement

We want to be part of a conversation centred on what we love: producing great work and building a healthy business to support it. By opening up we want to invite others in, to comment, critique or get inspired. This engagement will help us to develop towards our goal and also allow us to share what we learn as a result.

Eventually we're hoping to find out what is and isn't working for the industry as a whole. I imagine we'll face a lot of the issues that other agencies are, or have, struggled with. Once we've identified these we'll be able to work to figure out how best to solve them in order to better serve our clients whilst maintaining a sustainable business.

I'm sure there are a few negatives to this approach too, such as giving away info on processes that might otherwise provide a competitive advantage. Personally I think that the value of original ideas like this are overstated; belief in the idea and thorough execution are much more important so that's where we'll be focusing. I also believe that there are more people in the community that want to help others to succeed than there are people looking to free-ride on other people's ideas (if such a thing were even possible).

There's enough protectionism in the world already. Hopefully we can foster some collaboration instead.

Staff

We aren't planning on hiring any time soon, but when the time comes having a larger collection of content which demonstrate how and why we do the things we do will be invaluable. It should help to attract candidates who align with our values and also provide them with a strong sense of who we are as a company before any formal process has even begun.

If/when the agency does eventually expand the already ingrained principles of transparency will also be of benefit internally. There are many surveys and studies which demonstrate a positive impact on staff well-being when placed in a more transparent environment. By sharing as much as we can publicly, we also end up sharing at least that level of information internally too, but hopefully even more.

We expect the people that we work with in the future to be very talented and forward thinking. I hope to stick to the "hire people who are (or will be) better than you" approach. Having a group of people of this calibre all working towards a common goal should allow great things to occur, but tapping into all of those potential ideas is only possible if everyone on the team has access to all of the applicable context and information. By adopting a transparent by default approach we hope to empower those we work with to positively impact all aspects of the business.

I imagine this loss of perceived control over the business would result in many founders feeling a little uneasy. This is why going all-in on transparency is so important: if it forms the basis of the company, it's very difficult to abandon when the going gets tough and we find ourselves tempted to give in to short-term-ism.

Difficulties

It's very unlikely that this will all be plain sailing. One of the things that we've identified as potentially causing us issues is the sheer amount of work that will be required to keep up with remaining fully transparent.

This work will involve regular writing, website updates, social media sharing and packaging of project content. We aim to mitigate the impact that this has by building these tasks into our processes such that they become a side-product of the client work that we're already doing. Also, many of these things are part and parcel of standard agency marketing routines so in effect we'll be building some of our marketing process into our standard workflows. The specifics on how we'll be doing this aren't quite clear yet; I expect there to be a learning curve.

We also know that we're going to have to be careful when communicating all of the above with our clients. It will be really important that they understand our processes and the benefits that they can bring, but it will be equally important for us to understand their particular needs on a per-project basis. Some projects will suit a very transparent approach in which we are able to openly share a lot of what we're doing in real time. Others will require much more care regarding when and how information can be made public. One way that we might handle this is by collecting all of the same content during the creation of a project, but waiting until the project is live before that content id released. Hopefully that'll also give a nice little PR boost to the project itself too, like a behind-the-scenes special.

What Next?

Once we're up and running we'll start figuring out how best to share anything we create. We're not sure about specific platforms yet so if you'd like to know when we start sharing things sign up to the mailing list below where we'll be sharing the most interesting things first, or follow us on Twitter.

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