Running an Agency Like a Sushi Bar

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a documentary about a tiny sushi bar in Tokyo with three Michelin stars. The owner/chef Jiro Sukiyabashi relentlessly pursues perfection in sushi at age 85. The documentary is a fascinating look at the personality and the process that go into serving the best sushi in the world. Since I watched the film, I have frequently thought about his model for achieving perfection and have come to realize that it is quite relevant for agency business, particularly for design agencies.

Jiro’s restaurant has only ten seats, and Jiro himself interfaces with all the customers. The documentary reveals what goes into preparing all the ingredients behind the scenes by a team of people. It becomes clear that the assembly that happens in front of the customers is just a final touch. (For instance, the octopus is massaged by hand for 45 minutes.) Now, why does he have to serve the customers himself? If perfection is about his products, it shouldn’t matter who serves them. In fact, he wouldn’t even need a restaurant; he could just perfect his sushi in his basement alone, like many artists do.

When speaking of perfection, we tend to focus on products, but I believe Jiro is reaching for perfection in something else: customer experience. In other words, he is a performance artist, and his restaurant is a theatre. His products are just part of his theatrical experience.

This is why I feel his model is relevant to agency business. Agencies too are usually evaluated by the products we deliver. For instance, no design awards (that I know of) evaluate client experience; they only look at the final products. But I personally believe that when we focus on products, we are missing the point of what agencies are about. We must be careful of what we measure because it influences people's behavior. When we misunderstand the true nature of our business, we tend to invite unnecessary conflicts. Even for our own sense of contentment, it is important to understand it properly. This understanding came late in my career, and I wish I had realized it earlier.

Products are indeed important, but agency business is ultimately about customer (or client) experience. The value we provide is in knowing how to manage the process to ensure a positive experience in achieving the goal. Clients hire us because trying to execute their projects themselves would not be a positive experience. Agency business is for those who are passionate about customer experience first and foremost. Thinking of it as performance art, not as object art, would yield a better experience for both parties.

This is why, I believe, after many decades of running a sushi bar, Jiro still handles customer interaction himself; everything else has been delegated to others. Similarly, in the agency business, owners and partners should have intimate knowledge of the products and how to create them but focus on client interaction.

This is not to say that agency business is all about being nice to clients. Performance art is a collaboration between the artist and the audience. Art is different from entertainment in that the audience is also expected to step up to the plate. Entertainment is a passive activity where the audience is fed what they want to see or hear. Art requires active involvement from the audience. They can’t just sit back and relax. Agency work is the same way. As the famed designer Milton Glaser once said, “Extraordinary work is done for extraordinary clients.” This is because agency business is not about the product, as misleading as it may be; it’s about the dance we perform with the clients.