Why Chief Experience Officers matter to design firms - a chat with Adrenaline's Gina Bleedorn

Barb Mosher Zinck Profile picture for user barb.mosher May 23, 2017
You might think design agencies don't need Chief Experience Officers - think again. Barb Mosher Zinck talks with Adrenaline CXO Gina Bleedorn about why design firms need to focus on their own customer experience, and that of their clients. In her wrap, Mosher Zinck explains why the traditional agency's days are numbered.

Gina Bleedorn is the recently appointed Chief Experience Officer for Adrenaline, an experience design agency located in Atlanta, Georgia. Why would a design firm need a CXO? It makes perfect sense when you talk with Bleedorn.

There is a fair amount of discussion focused on the need for marketing agencies to evolve to better support their clients. The need to adapt from a channel approach to marketing and advertising to a complete “omnichannel view” and the ability to adopt the right technologies to define better media mixes and web experiences. But one that I’ve not yet read too much discussion on is the need to help clients understand the customer better to create the best experiences possible.

That is what Bleedorn is tasked with doing. Think of her job as similar to a Chief Experience Officer in a large enterprise. The CXO is responsible for understanding the customer, their journey and how the enterprise supports that journey through the right set of experiences. Bleedorn does the same thing for her company, but also for her clients.

The internal CXO role

Bleedorn said she grew up with Adrenaline. She started as a designer and over the years advanced to senior designer, artistic director, creative director, executive director and now Chief Experience Officer. It has been a natural evolution for her. When I was reading her LinkedIn bio for Executive Director I saw, “I believe in a consumer-centric approach to branding and marketing, focused on creating meaningful experiences across all channel touchpoints.” And that very much sums up the job of the CXO.

Bleedorn talked about her role in driving the experience her company has with their clients, including things such as how they go to market, the shape and delivery of the services they sell, their strategy and their reputation with clients.

Gina Bleedorn of Adrenalin
Gina Bleedorn

In addition to her responsibilities looking outward, Bleedorn also talks about the employee experience, including things like onboarding and culture. She said it was important for the agency to live and breath the advice they gave their customers.

Much of the work Bleedorn is doing is not net new; it is work she did as an Executive Director. But she said as the agency gets ready to launch a new brand and a new positioning online, they wanted to show their commitment to helping clients shape their customer experiences across all channels by assigning someone in their C-Suite the role of making that experience seamless.

I asked Bleedorn what she was doing on the employee experience side. She talked about Adrenaline’s new culture initiative that will help employees feel a bigger part of the company and understand the importance of their role and future opportunities. People want to know where they fit, said Bleedorn. And they want to know that what they do affects the whole. The initiative she’s working on helps employees understand their purpose and aspirations, career mobility and helps build camaraderie across the company.

Still, in development, the initiative is receiving a lot of positive feedback, and she is committed to showing the company’s commitment to its employees.

The external CXO role

Bleedorn works with many of Adrenaline's biggest clients and one of the things she often sees is the struggle these companies have understanding the customer experience. She said there’s usually stakeholder misalignment, and often misalignment at the top. Part of her job is to help them get alignment and then define the right experience.

Research and due diligence work play an important role. This includes gathering and looking at data (when it’s available). Data can give a company a snapshot of customer’s perceptions of the company. Competitive intelligence is also useful because it helps a company understand how it fits within the context of its competition. Other data they look at includes demographics, psychographics, buying behaviors, competitive assessments and studies, and consumer research.

Not all customers have the data, but even when they do, there’s an element of ‘unrealized needs’ you’re trying to get at to create the best experience. That means the data can only tell you so much.

One example Bleedorn provided was her work with a major financial services company. This company put a lot of money and investment into their digital product but didn’t pay much attention to their physical space even though they had hundreds of physical spaces across the US.  Bleedorn’s role was to explain how her company approaches experience design and how they “make experiences real.”

Once they landed the client, she facilitated an ideation session and strategy engagement with the company’s executive team to help understand and define the purpose of the physical space. From there she provided guidance in how to translate the brand into the physical environment.

My take - the traditional agency’s days are numbered

Adrenaline doesn’t sound like your typical digital agency, and they aren’t. Bleedorn said that the traditional advertising/design agency model has blown up. There are too many touch points from social to physical and everything in between. Her agency’s goal is to connect all those channels, including the physical ones and you don’t see many agencies connecting all those dot end to end.

But there’s something more important in her role as CXO. Far too often you see an agency go into a company and focus on specific tasks - design a website brand, create advertising creative or build a WordPress website. Yes, some do try to understand the company at a higher level (you need to if you’re going to create a brand experience for the Web), but often it’s a siloed approach. The work happens in a bubble, the designs are done, and the website or ads are implemented. Then the agency moves on to the next company leaving behind some contacts and possibly a developer for support.

There’s no effort to understand the company’s customers from the customer point of view. It’s all from the brand’s point of view. That can be dangerous. Maybe the company thinks it knows its customers inside and out. But what if there is that misalignment Bleedorn talked about? Does the agency see it? Probably not. Most of the time they are talking to the marketing department, and that is only one piece of the customer experience puzzle.

Even if the agency isn’t brought in to help with defining the customer experience, it’s in the agency’s best interests to have that bigger conversation and understand it so they can infuse it into everything they are responsible for.

Bleedorn’s role from an internal focus is critical to any company today, and often not thought about in smaller companies. From customer experience to employee experience, everything a company does should map back to the strategy and expectations for both. Loyalty comes from a feeling of being important and considered valuable. Customers and employees demand you meet their needs. If there’s no one responsible for understanding them and delivering what they need, you will find it a long hard road to loyalty and advocacy.

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