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Cognition

Show Your Work

There is no Angie’s List for creative service companies. No IMDb for project credits. No peer review requirements for blog posts. Our industry is out here on its own, and left to act on our collective best behavior.

As an industry we’ve grown in our capability to market ourselves. Among service companies, the playbook is 50% the “Win Without Pitching Manifesto” and 50% a growing marketing acumen. We’re all busy productizing our process, differentiating our specialization, and thought leading thoughts. We’re a robust enough industry that the patterns and forms within the way we introduce ourselves to clients and audiences have an established structure, and set expectations. At the same time we’re small enough that our industry escapes scrutiny and regulation. Some folks take advantage of the gaps and loopholes. Some stumble unknowingly into treacherous territory.

As we grow as an industry, risk mounts, and tensions can rise as projects and relationships are more valuable. I love my lawyer, but I want him protecting me from patent trolls, not other colleagues in the industry. I’m not proposing we adhere to a shared code of conduct. The last thing I want is to trade a risk of litigation for a sledgehammer of risk of collusion litigation. These are just the rules I intend Happy Cog to follow.

Attribution

Dan Mall does a good job attributing work. Most of the time, our work is a team sport. Dan takes the time to acknowledge all of the individuals who contributed to a project. The team and the agency behind the work are properly accredited. The team, including him, combined to create the work. The agency provided the opportunity.

In conference presentations, in blog posts, in interviews, be careful to share the spotlight with the people who contributed to, improved, or built your work. In most cases it’s as simple as replacing “I” with “we.” The sin of omission is a slippery slope. If an editor pulls proper attribution from an interview or article, fight to have those credits included. It’s easy to add a quick slide to your conference deck that adds context to the team behind a case study or a cited example. In your personal portfolio make sure you provide proper context.

We’ve added strategic partners back to the Happy Cog website in an attempt to represent the talented people we’re fortunate to call collaborators. Recently another agency reached out to us about a listed strategic partner to see if we would provide a reference. We were thrilled to endorse them. We represent an approach inclusive of strategic partners clearly in proposals to our clients, and make an effort to give credit where it’s due, whenever we can. We’re also working to improve the visibility of our beloved alumni’s contributions.

Accountability

Accountability is a problem at a macro level too. Recently I watched as another firm’s project struggled to reach the finish line. From a variety of second and first-hand accounts, this project had it all. Promises broken, deadlines extended, subcontractors hired, lawsuits threatened. It’s not noteworthy that the project traversed a rocky path. This is unfortunate, but it happens. What surprising me was that the agency who led the work (and shouldered the responsibility) published a glamorous case study touting their achievement afterwards. The client had little recourse if their contract allows for a case study to be written without their oversight (and many do for just this reason). The agency can omit the fact that they missed their launch deadline by over ten months. They can gloss over the support a partner provided. They can smear on some lipstick and greet new prospective clients with a glossy case study, if not an entirely clear conscience. There is no industry referee to throw a penalty flag.

We’ve had our tricky clients over the years at Happy Cog. We’ve likely had a few I’m not even aware of that predate me. In my opinion, what’s critically important is to cultivate a transparent portfolio. No top secret clients. No shiny case studies built on the carcass of a project gone wrong. If I can’t provide a client reference to speak to the success of our collaboration, I won’t showcase the project.

A Medium-sized problem

An intro to a Tom Goodwin TechCrunch article says it best:

“Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.”

Outlets like Medium look and feel like online magazines. They are held in high esteem and enthusiastically shared like scholarly journals. They grab a lot of attention. However, unlike a magazine, Medium doesn’t own its content. It’s not responsible to determine its veracity or accuracy. In the end it’s just a better looking blogging platform.

Many articles on Medium are well researched, have sources cited, and can withstand the deepest scrutiny. Many aren’t, don’t, can’t. The challenge is that the well-designed reading experience of the platform implies legitimacy. There is a kind of commutative property the platform’s successful UX implies to the quality of the content. And Medium isn’t the only popular publishing outlet lacking oversight of content out there.

We have a wonderfully open web community. Within that community we owe it to one another to scrutinize each other’s research, debate claims and assertions, challenge and discuss conclusions. I’m not advocating for witch hunts, but I do love a spirited debate. The benefit is that the better we get at defending our ideas among our peers, the more we sharpen our rhetorical blades. They sure come in handy defending a design idea, or an approach to a back-end build.

There is a ton of work out there, and countless speaking and writing opportunities. There is no need to take shortcuts. Many of my recommendations add a step or two, or make ownership of an outcome a little murkier, but it’s well worth the effort. While there is no PricewaterhouseCoopers scrutinizing our case studies like Oscar ballots, there is a robust back channel throughout our industry that holds people accountable.

Reputations are the currency we trade. Doing our due diligence, and acting on our best behavior is the only way to ensure this currency remains valuable among our peers and partners.

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