How to improve user adoption at agencies

Change. Everyone hates it. Everyone drags their feet. Everyone complains. Everyone enjoys the status quo. For the most part, that’s true of every human on the planet. Getting people to adopt new things and new ways of doing things is a challenge. Sure, there’s a small percentage of restless souls for whom change fuels every fiber of their being. But, for most, it’s a hassle.

Agencies are no different. I reached out to several folks in ad agency space and asked them how they face change, deal with feet-draggers and successfully convince and inspire people to adopt the necessary changes an agency faces as it grows, wins new clients or gets acquired.

Allow change agents to take charge

Change can bring out the worst in people, but David Baldwin, “lead guitar” at Raleigh-based Baldwin&, believes it can bring out the best – and he has a great approach to making change happen smoothly. He tells us, “Here’s our simple way of dealing with changes or improvements: if someone comes in with a better way to do something, we just put him in charge of leading the change. This does one of two things: Nothing – in which case any complaining usually stops – or he or she owns it and makes it work. I love the accountability. It’s not like there’s some department in charge of fixing things. You are the department of fixing things!”

He’s right. Change agents can come from anywhere, and why not let those who come up with a great idea, take charge and advocate it across the agency? Baldwin& took this very approach when one employee, Mattias Davidsson, noted the agency’s digital asset management system was a mess. He was placed in charge, given the ball and told to run with it. Over the next few months, he gleaned input and buy-in from stakeholders; the agency has since rolled out a new system which everyone loves.

Don’t drag it out

This sort of buy-in can be crucial, but it’s not always the best approach. New York-based Darling Agency (whose CEO Jeroen Bours was half of the creative team behind Mastercard’s “Priceless” and Liberty Mutual’s “What’s Your Policy?”) found this out when it upgraded the creative department to Apple’s Lion OS. The agency thought it would be a good idea to make the change on a few machines at first to see how things went before rolling the change out to the entire agency.

Big mistake, according to president Kelly Platt. “Around the water cooler, the ones who were upgraded complained – not because the new ways were bad, only because they were different,” says Platt. “But it was enough to make everyone else in the agency thankful they still had their old system, and fearful they’d lose it. IT people were ostracized. Keyboards were even taken along to lunch.”

Her solution – and what they should have done in the first place? “Quietly, over a weekend, we implemented the new OS across the board – which made for some unhappy campers come Monday morning. The whole debacle could have been avoided if we’d simply upgraded everyone. Like ripping off a Band-Aid, implement change swiftly for the least amount of pain.” Lesson learned? The less time you give people to notice and complain about the change, the less time they will spend complaining about it… and they’ll just get back to work instead.

Don’t make assumptions about who will champion change and who won’t

Which folks inside an agency are most difficult to convince when it comes to change? Consensus typically varied when it came to position, but not so much when it came to age. Stereotypically, older people are seen as the feet-draggers while younger people are all over it.

That wasn’t the case among the agencies I spoke with.

San Francisco-based School of Thought co-founder and creative director Tom Geary says the notion of older people dragging their feet is hogwash. He notes, “Here, Joe [Newfield, co-founder/CD] and I are enjoying the most birthdays, and we’re the first to say that nothing is set in stone.”

Platt reinforces this notion, saying, “We see early adopters of all ages. I’ve given up trying to predict who, and at what age, is going to embrace the next technological breakthrough. In my experience, it’s not at all uncommon for an older person to jump at something new, while a 20-something hangs back out of habit.”

With this in mind, it seems to make good sense to take Baldwin&’s approach. If someone has an idea for change, no matter their age or department, hand them the reins and let them run.

How about the oft-cited notion that creatives are the slowest to change? This is where opinions differed. Cleveland-based Marcus Thomas senior VP King Hill (that’s really his name) doesn’t agree that creatives hate change and says, “Creatives aren’t that different from other people. Change is change, fear is fear; and everyone deals with it differently.”

Pittsburgh-based Brunner president Scott Morgan says, “Some of history’s most innovative change agents were creatives, and were considered half crazy (think Van Gogh’s ear, Picasso’s distorted likenesses).”

Over-communicate everything all the time during change

Morgan’s opinion regarding the pace of change differs from that of Platt’s all-in, all-at-once approach. “You’ve got to handle change in digestible portions no matter where in your organization the talent resides,” he notes. Communication is key. “Share the need for change, communicate the vision for the change, and then over-communicate the change and the ‘what’s in it for me’ factor. It all comes down to the ‘why’ and the ‘how’… and no one gets hurt, self-inflicted or otherwise.”

To sum up:

  • Get buy-in
  • Allow change agents to take charge
  • Don’t drag out the change
  • Don’t make assumptions about likely champions or roadblocks
  • Most importantly: over-communicate
Post by Steve Hall

Steve Hall is a marketing professional, publisher, writer, community manager, photographer and all-around lover of advertising. Steve has held management positions in media and account service at Leo Burnett, Starcom/Mediavest and others, working on such accounts as Reebok, Marriott, and Marshmallow Fluff.