Episode 012: Agency vs. Consultancy: What’s the Difference?

Hosted by:
With guest: Gregg Harrison
August 25, 2017

Mahtab   Welcome to episode 012 of The Crux of It. I am Mahtab Rezai. I am the Principal and CEO of Crux Collaborative. We are a User Experience Consulting firm, and we specialize in regulated industries, and today I'm joined by my colleague, Gregg...
Gregg   Hello.
Mahtab   …who is our Vice President, who is also my right-hand man, my fellow extrovert in a group of introverts, and as an extra bonus, he and I are both only children.
Gregg   Only children, indeed.
Mahtab   Yeah.
Gregg   We're actually, four of us of eight, 50%, only children. Which is kind of a high percentage.
Mahtab   Not kind of, yeah, definitely.
Gregg   But that's a different podcast.
Mahtab   That's a different podcast. Okay. What are we going to talk about today, though?
Gregg   Today, we're going to talk about the difference between agencies, or advertising digital agencies, and what we are, a consultancy.
Mahtab   Yes. So, what does that mean, a consultancy? When you explain what we do, what are some ways you explain it?
Gregg   Yeah, I think that being a consultancy means just that, that we do specialize. Specialization, that we do a very specific set of things, and there's a lot of things that we don't do.
Mahtab   Yeah, and so it's often easier to talk about what we don't do, and it's harder to talk about what do.
Gregg   Yes, agreed.
Mahtab   So, I think one of the things we say is, we specialize in experiences that are behind a login.
Gregg   Yep.
Mahtab   That's really clear. So when you're thinking of an online experience, there's the whole, everything that happens that's available for anyone and everyone.
Gregg   Marketing.
Mahtab   Yeah, to look at, and then there's what happens once you actually purchase a product, or enroll in a service, and you have to put in a user name and a password and get behind a login to do something. So we specialize in the behind-the-login part.

And then, regulated industries is another thing. Financial services, health care, benefits administration, implanted medical devices. Anything that has rules, and a governing body, and is constrained by data, and that can't just be pure imagination or ideas, but whether it's the FDIC, or the FDA, or whether it's the IRS.
Gregg   Or legal teams.
Mahtab   Or legal teams, or whatever it is that there's some degree of regulation around what's being communicated, around what's being done, around what's being represented, and so you have to keep those in mind. There's constraints.
Gregg   Constraints. And I also think that one of the key differences is that we're trying to help people complete a task, and in my experience, agencies are more trying to help people remember something, or connect them with some bigger emotional connection.
Mahtab   Absolutely, or convince them to buy a product, right? I mean, you and I, full disclosure, have both worked for agencies.
Gregg   We're both recovering agency people.
Mahtab   And I think that a lot of that is about getting people's attention, and then getting them to want something. To want a product, to want a service, to want to align with a group, or an idea, or a concept, but it's very much more emotional than it is tactical or logical.
Gregg   Yep, and I think that actually brings us to one of the key differences. Agencies really are focused on helping you remember something, or like I said earlier, developing ideas that emotionally connect people to a brand. So it's really about developing something memorable, about interrupting the person, making them think, making them feel something.

Where, when we're successful, the experiences that we develop are much more invisible. In fact, we've done our job well, somebody can find the information, can complete a task, without having to think about the fact that they just did it. It just happens, and it's intuitive, and it works the way they feel like it should.
Mahtab   Yes. Yeah, so being invisible is a plus for us, and being invisible, most definitely not a plus in marketing and advertising.
Gregg   Absolutely.
Mahtab   So, absolutely, that's a really good one. And then, another thing, I think, is this idea that when users are trying to do something that is task-based, and that's regulated, there's a level of focus, and a level of attention that they have only for the task at hand that's very different. There's not the same, I would say, curiosity or receptivity when you ... Think of the last time you found out about a new product, whether it was a new type of running shoe, or whether it was a new type of something for the grill.
Gregg   The new iWatch.
Mahtab   Yeah, something, that you get this level of curiosity and interest, there's a receptivity you have to learning, to watching video, to hearing somebody…
Gregg   To exploring.
Mahtab   …to exploring, to hearing somebody else's experience with it, to seeing how it's used, versus, think of the last time you went in to order more of something on Amazon, or to check your checking account balance, or to validate that your 401(k) quarterly statement is available, or whatever it is. There's a very different mindset that you have.
Gregg   And you're trying to complete a task, not explore a product. And I also think that's sort of one of the dangers you run into when you hire a marketing or digital agency to create these kinds of experiences, is that those user behaviors and perceptions are just not as apparent to them, because it's just not the kind of work they do, as they're trying to create memorable experiences. When they're trying to create ones that really should be invisible, they don't have a lot of those insights.
Mahtab   I think, so there's that perspective, and the differences from the perspective of an end user of a product or a service, but then there's the differences from the perspective of our clients.

What does it feel like working with a consultancy versus an agency? And I think one of the main things we've observed that can be a surprise for clients is that we provide recommendations- we don't provide a lot of options. And if they're used to seeing three flavors of something to pick from, it can be disconcerting when we come back and say, "This is the approach we'd recommend taking," – and it's just one.
Gregg   Yeah, and we've found that recommendations work because you can predict, you can reliably predict how a user is going to be able to get through a certain task much easier than you can predict whether or not an idea is going to resonate with people.
Mahtab   Or, often you can have multiple approaches to an experience that arguably all work equally well. That's not necessarily true of something like a registration flow, or setting up a payment, or something that's very…
Gregg   Transferring money from one checking to another.
Mahtab   …yeah, there's a certain level of science, and a certain level of best practice, that in a lot of these experiences results in a single recommendation, versus multiple options, and that can be disconcerting at first, if you're used to working with an agency. When we typically present, we're coming with a recommendation. We're not coming with three different options, and then ... That's sort of like, we always say, "We bring the user experience expertise; our clients bring the business expertise." And so, part of that means owning our expertise, and having an opinion about the best approach, and not coming up with three and sort of putting that on the client, like, "You pick." We should know what’s going to work.
Gregg   I think that's actually a good segue. We have the user experience expertise, and our clients have the business expertise. One of the things I've noticed in agencies about the way they work is that there's this air of mystery to the work they're doing, to coming up with these ideas, and there's not a lot of looking behind the curtain until these big meetings with lots of people, and the creative team comes out with their boards, and everybody shows off the work.
Mahtab   And there's the big “reveal”.
Gregg   The big reveal. And everybody's supposed to "ooh" and "aah," and that ...
Mahtab   Well, when you've done it right.
Gregg   When you've done it right, yeah, there's a lot of "ooh"-ing and "aah"-ing, and we can't work that way because of the type of work we do. It's much more collaborative, and there is no big reveal, and there's got to be an open line of communication because of those constraints that we sort of alluded to earlier: the data constraints, the technical constraints, the legal constraints. Those are unknowable to us as user experience consultants, and we need our client teams to be providing the input on those things in order for us to be successful.
Mahtab   And the process of arriving at a solution, therefore, is by necessity collaborative, and therefore we are unable to sort of get the download, go away, and put it all together. Actually, if we do that, it's almost never successful, because in a regulated space, in a technically complex, transactional space, there are limits to what can be shown, how it can be shown. There are specific rules about the order of things, and the language that's used to describe things, and the number of things, and all sorts of stuff. And so, we can't just go away and reinvent….uh… banking, you know?
Gregg   And I think this is a lesson we've learned the hard way, with certain clients who would prefer that we are able to go off and maybe do a lot of this work without input from them, and that we didn't set the expectation up front that, "No, this going to be a collaborative effort, and we're going to need access to members of your team, and that these types of projects are not the type of thing that you can just expect to lop off onto us, and have us come back and be successful in those scenarios.
Mahtab   Yeah. Those are some hard-won lessons.
Gregg   Hard-won lessons. Yes, indeed.
Mahtab   All right. Thank you for listening, you can find us on SoundCloud, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher and on Bye.
Gregg   Bye.


Hosted by: Mahtab Rezai
Principal & CEO

Mahtab has spent nearly two decades as a user experience designer, researcher, strategist, leader, and mentor. She has designed user experiences for companies ranging from startups to the Fortune 50.


With guest: Gregg Harrison
Vice President

Gregg’s passion for all things digital started two decades ago as a project manager in the Big Apple. This was back before any of us knew what this whole interactive thing was about and well before we knew it would some day be considered old school to use the word “interactive”.
View Gregg’s Bio


Let us know your name and email address and we’ll send you our newsletter.

First Name

Last Name

Email Address



Thank you!