What’s more important: the product or the process?

In a recent conversation, a friend confided that he wished we could simply create the ads and produce the marketing materials without having to worry about all the other program elements and business process needs. There are days when I wish it were that simple, too. And lucky for us, that sentiment runs deep in most marketing and ad firms. In fact, this offers an opportunity to those who do roll up our sleeves and get their hands on the workings of the clients’ business. Those that do will be able to offer significant benefit to their clients — and an advantage for themselves. This applies to any service business out there.

Most service businesses now involve consulting. And the benefit of that consulting throughout the delivery process is becoming a more prominent and valuable aspect, while delivery of the end project is becoming the lesser part. This is not to say that execution is unimportant — delivery excellence will always be essential. But planning the execution is more important as the complexities, choices and decision-making are navigated with the client.

In a way, the process is becoming the end product itself. As an example, here are the steps our agency uses to determine and produce our end product (marketing materials and ad programs). You be the judge as to where the value exists:
Our intent is to develop win-win solutions, since the value we create for clients leads to the privilege of our next engagement. We believe that a ‘solution’ designed exactly for their needs can’t exist until they can clearly state a defined challenge or goal. To help them, we get out all the issues with the client, leaving nothing unturned. We go through each issue, beginning with the most important. We ask for evidence and impact, and how the client will measure the result — how they will know if we’ve succeeded when we’re done. We require input from all influencers and decision-makers, in the beginning and throughout. Then we develop the solution that exactly fits their needs.

We keep our clients involved with every step, respectfully and firmly keeping the process on track, using the following framework to develop:
• The steps
• What will be decided in each step
• When the decision will be made, with approvals and input gathered
• Who will make decisions
• How decisions will be made, the input and process involved

By using this framework, we help the client work through a complex process, one which they don’t often follow or isn’t part of their core business. This is valuable for both of us. We learn who’s involved and what they’ll do. We gather input from everyone in a timely, systematic way, avoiding late input that can derail or hamper progress. We all know the project is on schedule and where it’s headed relative to other business activity. When things change, we can look at issues of scope, schedule or outcome with time to make acceptable decisions. We watch for new opportunity that surfaces during the process, remaining flexible to take advantage. And lastly, the process creates confidence in the initiative for everyone.

When it’s working well, the process feels like a dance. People observing from outside can’t tell who’s leading. It just flows. It feels good to the client, because the consultant knows where it’s going and where to take it. In fact, one of our successful offerings is an assessment of current activity and practices, in which we point out what’s working and what can be improved. If we do this well together, the client gains confidence and allows us to develop other projects and programs. With no experience working together, there is no basis for trust. It’s that simple.

Most businesses that consult in addition to providing a service have built their processes over time to smooth the delivery of their end product. It wasn’t the business they started in, but it’s become the business they currently run. And it adds value to clients who don’t do this type of work every day. So what is more important: product or process? I’d say it’s a bit of a ‘chicken and egg’ question, and I wouldn’t want my firm to come up short on either.