The agency discovery process – what is it and how do you charge for it?

I wrote an article and an accompanying checklist about the agency discovery process over on the Smart Insights website.

Discovery.. what’s that then?

The term discovery features (as the first ‘D’) on a lot of agency 4D or 5D process charts.

Those charts you’ll see at a pitch if you are a client or in an induction if you just joined the agency.

The stages seem to vary (and putting project management methodologies to one side) but 5D is Discover – Define – Design -Develop – Deliver.

So what’s involved in a thorough discovery process?

I believe the purpose of any discovery stage is to ensure we produce websites, marketing assets and campaigns that are:

relevant, engaging and effective.

And for either the agency and its own endeavours in attracting and retaining clients (e.g in pitches or account growth). Or for the customers of the client themselves.

So keep that in mind as you start to chase down lots of research and data sources.

The Discovery Process Microscope

Who should lead on the discovery stage?

In the Smart Insights Agency Guide to Discovery and in workshops I run with agency clients, I walk through a checklist of the areas that constitute the discovery process for clients.

In those workshops I’ll work with a few account handlers and / or planners.

The lead on the discovery stage itself will usually be a planner in larger agencies or a senior account handler.

For the smaller agency, it will probably be the agency principle – basically those people with enough experience and a strategic mindset.

Not that they’ll do all the desk research: they will commission others in the agency to pull a range of research findings together.

They are the conductor of the research orchestra, if you’ll go with my analogy.

Whoever that conductor / discovery lead is, they will ensure:

  • Everyone is clear on what hypotheses or research objectives are being looked at for this  particular engagement.
  • Each team member knows where to look and what for, to pull findings together
  • That the findings are triangulated and the insight from the various research and data sources is pooled.
  • That actual insight is generated, as you don’t want to present a range of disparate facts and raw data to the client. You need to provide value, that’s what the client is paying for.
  • The discovery stage stays inside the pre-agreed timeframe and the budget agreed with clients. And any external research costs are monitored.

Agency Discovery team meeting Startup Stock Photos

How do you charge for discovery?

I’ve been asked a few times if you can actually charge for the discovery stage.

The feedback from some folks I talk to is that they feel it is a bit ‘cheeky’ to charge for it.

But it’s the groundwork needed to generate great briefs, impactful creative ideas or spot-on website Information Architecture and content – all will result from that due diligence research.

Of course you should charge for it.

Some agencies are nervous that if you ask the client to pay for discovery they will be unsettled, as discovery in itself is not a tangible end-product.

But discovery has value, so you the agency should be paid for providing that value.

But you need to explain that value to the client, so be clear about what undertaking the process will mean for them, how it will help them build an excellent campaign, site or brand.

And if you are adding a paid discovery stage into a pitch process or Request For Proposal and you are nervous about adding it as a line item, you can explain that the discovery process can be a standalone stage. e.g the client can pay for that as commissioned piece that leads to a brilliant website / app / campaign brief – that they can take elsewhere for execution.

The discovery stage should be framed as an investment from the client.

Carrying out discovery leads to more effective marketing. Full stop.

Here are a form of words I used in the guide (see link above to full guide) which are tweaked a bit here.

Something like these words can form your initial conversations with the prospect or client:

“Discovery enables us (or insert your agency name here) to formulate robust insights about your business and brand objectives, your marketing endeavours to date, your end customers and your place in the market.

We want to serve you best by eliminating hunches and subjective views from either of us.

We are aiming for sound, defensible rationales for the marketing approaches and proposals that we will be producing.

And discovery will lead to well-written briefs by us (whether that’s creative, content, technical or media).

So we’ll be building effective content strategies, SEO strategies, websites or inbound marketing campaigns and frameworks (delete as appropriate).

Which in turn will lead to the most effective, brand-building, revenue-generating creative and marketing outcomes possible for you.”

There you go – get charging for discovery.

Okay, there are times when you’ll actually be better carrying out a ‘discovery-lite’ (non-chargeable or minimum fee applied). Which I talk about in my workshop.

I also cover off in detail the 9 areas of activity that could form discovery.
These include:

  • Defining client goals and objectives (not always as obvious as you think)
  • A Comprehensive Content audit
  • A Customer and Stakeholder audit
  • Specific media and link audits

And more.

Do get in touch if you would like me to run this workshop for your agency teams.


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