What Agencies Can Learn From Fine Dining Restaurants

Author: Chris Copacino

On a recent trip to New York City, I had the opportunity to dine at 11 Madison Park. The meal was incredible. I understand why the restaurant is deserving of its many accolades. I left the table full—yes, plant—based food can be filling—but moreover, inspired by the focus, artistry and masterful delivery of the entire experience.

The meal got me thinking about what agencies can learn from fine dining restaurants. I think there is a lot to take away.

They know what they do and they do it great.
Fine dining restaurants have a clear vision for what they do and how they do it—often stemming from the vision and art of a chef. The “what” becomes the sole unyielding focus of the restaurant (World-class plant-based fine dining in 11 Madison Park’s case).

Great agencies have a piercingly clear articulation of what they do and who they do it for. They then focus their “how” of their people, processes, capabilities in—service of that articulation. At CF, our agency positioning is focused on mid–size advertisers who deserve a great agency and seek integrated services–it’s a sharp focus that has made it clear what we do and who we do it for.

Friendly informality, underpinned by serious rigor.
All the environmental cues of 11 Madison Park made it clear it was a more formal dining experience. The staff was highly knowledgeable, on point, and rigorous in their delivery. But it wasn’t stuffy or off—putting. Instead, they were friendly and welcoming. There was an understated confidence to them that made you believe they were some of the best at what they do. It was never showy, patronizing or condescending.

I think the best agencies embody authentic friendliness and alluring casualness. This doesn’t mean coming off as lackadaisical. Instead it’s a disarming manner that creates strong, quick connections. This is then underpinned by rigor and being highly skilled at what the agency does—with talent, process and capabilities to deliver with excellence. At CF, we have been told over the years that we’re easy to work with. We love that because great client-agency partnerships should feel easy, even when it’s hard.

Strong intentionality and team connection.
We were fortunate enough to be given a tour of the kitchen. It was not a chaotic “yell fest” a la The Bear. Instead there was a quiet intensity, a feeling of connection, and strong intentionality inside the kitchen. There was a values touchstone on the wall of the kitchen when you entered, stating the restaurant’s values. Each time a new ticket came in, there was a collective verbal acknowledgement by all 30+ people working in the kitchen to bring focus to the ticket and an intention to put it out with excellence. The kitchen was organized, highly orchestrated, and each person had a very specific, important role. On the way out of the kitchen there was a simple sign that read “Make it nice.”

The best agencies do their work with strong intention and team connectedness. It’s easy for agencies to cast some work off as “another assignment” or to put arbitrary importance on certain types of projects. Do this at your peril. Every assignment an agency gets is a chance to “Make it nice” (read: “Make it great”), and clients often can tell when something is given short shrift.

An agency team that is tightly connected and pulling in the same direction is a force multiplier, as well as a differentiator. New business prospects notice agency team dynamics and often choose the agency that they feel best works with each other, believing they will get better work as a result. And they are often correct. Culture, values alignment, and shared ways of working matter—and it’s a journey that never ends, but the minute you relax on this within your agency, the misalignment can spell trouble.

Seek to deliver a great experience.
Everything involved in the 11 Madison Park experience–the room, the staff, the food, all of it—was about leaving an indelible impression. Even when things didn’t go perfectly, they made it ok. When we sat down, our table was a little wobbly. They tried to do an “in line” fix, but it needed more serious attention. A wobbly table won’t stand in their dining room. There was no stress, freneticism or over-apologizing. They kindly asked us to get up, go back to the lobby and give them a moment. They then escorted us back to the table. They offered a cocktail on the house for our “troubles.”

For as much as agencies talk about customer experience for their clients’ businesses, they talk less about their clients’ experience in working with them. Agencies are often less intentional about delivering a pleasing, rewarding client experience. Too often, agencies just try to get to the finish line via a path of least resistance. This creates too transactional a relationship with clients. It’s important to keep tabs on an agency’s client experience. That’s why at CF we utilize the Net Promoter Score (NPS) model with our clients and ask them to rate their experience with us. We then take actionable steps based on the feedback.

Play offense.
Throughout our meal, staff anticipation was on high. The staff continually surveyed the dining room looking for subtle non—verbal cues that diners needed something. When wine started to get low, it was repoured. When a course was taking an extra beat they checked in—not in a rote manner, but in an authentic way that didn’t feel intrusive. It was all about being in front of masterful delivery to facilitate a great experience.

An agency’s ability to be proactive, look around corners and anticipate is highly valuable. In fact, marketers have recently reported that this is increasingly important to them. There is no value in being an order taker. Instead, agencies need to bring ideas, thinking and opportunities to clients before they ask for them, anticipating their needs. And agencies must pave the way for a great experience, heading off potential pitfalls before they become issues. ”Playing offense” is a core value at CF and it’s a winning mindset in driving value for our clients.

Demonstrate gratitude.
11 Madison Park has a reason to be cocky in what they do and how well they do it. And they do have healthy amounts of confidence below the surface, because this is the engine that drives them. However, there was never a pretentiousness to it or a “you should feel lucky to have experienced this'' vibe. Instead, there was a persistent graciousness. There was appreciation shown throughout—from fun small talk with staff, to multiple solicitations for our thoughts on the food, and they even sent us with a takeaway gift. The owner/chef came over to our table to say hello and say thank you for dining with them.

Agencies should never lose their gratitude or appreciation for their clients—even the tough ones, even in tough times. Without clients, we don’t have a business. Graciously letting clients know that you appreciate them goes a long way. CF has always been a “please and thank you” agency, which has helped us cultivate and retain the several long standing client relationships we enjoy.

Fine dining restaurants and agencies: Seemingly two completely different things, unrelated to each other. But the underpinnings of what delivers an impeccable dining experience has many parallels with how great agencies think, work, operate and deliver. Something to digest . . .