A long talked about and debated subject is that of the client and agency relationship. How do the best ones succeed, how do the worst ones come to be and when are those key moments at which you must act quickly to maintain it’s integrity. Below are some insights into the experience I’ve gained along the way when it comes to really nurturing this relationship and getting the best out of, what should be, a long standing strategic partnership that benefits both parties.
Below, we’ll get into some thoughts on how we achieve the very best client and agency relationship – but first, let’s just remind ourselves of what makes human relationships good in general.
Good relationships: Honesty, Trust, Respect, Communication, Support and Transparency.
Bad relationships: Aggression, Possessiveness, Unreliability, Dishonesty and Misaligned objectives.
- Jump in, get involved and learn everything there is to learn.
Brian Herbert famously said “The capacity to learn is a gift; the ability to learn is a skill; the willingness to learn is a choice.”
This couldn’t be more relevant when it comes to the early stages of starting to work with a new client or agency partner. There should be a complete and utter commitment to learning everything about your new client’s business. How do they make money? Who are the key stakeholders (direct and indirect), Why does the business exist?, What are their goals and how are they planning to get there? Where do you fit into that picture?
The difference between the mediocre and the masterful when it comes to those in charge of these early stages is that the good ones promote this dedication to learning and meeting new people. The obligation however, is not entirely upon the agency. There should be reciprocation from the client in this process and they should:
- Expose the new agency to financial data and forecasting.
- Share previous experiences with other outsource relationships that haven’t worked.
- Share media performance data for non-agency managed channels.
- Share how the new agency will help them achieve their goals.
- Collaboratively set in stone communication lines and ways of working, early on.
- Let them meet other agencies you currently work with and promote cross-comms.
- Try to put in place a team of people that are skilled with relationship building.
2. It’s not all about rates.
There are some at the client side who have a fixation on rates and endeavour to negotiate the absolute lowest rate possible, regardless of consequence. There should certainly be a focus on how much you’re paying for services, however it cannot lead the conversation and must be taken under consideration amongst the wider picture of strategic value that the partner is adding.
Agencies, like any other business, need to ensure profitability in order to continue and I think sometimes that gets lost amongst the “they’ll make money off other clients not negotiating so well”, “they’ll be getting kickbacks from deals they’re negotiating with media vendors”, or “they’re part of a wider group that can support them”. It’s important to remember the wider impacts of negotiating such low rates and how, more often than not, the prioritisation of super low rates traditionally walks hand in hand with the “something for nothing” mentality that clients can often have.
a) You restrict the level of strategic support available from the agency. A lowly profitable account gets minimal additional support.
b) Your account becomes a “maintenance” account, whereby maintaining the income is the priority, rather than losing it. If all actions orientate around not losing an account, there’ll be no bravery or boldness in advancing your strategy.
c) Your account team, will likely not receive additional resource to service the account on an ongoing basis. This is account dependant and can lead to increased workload, stress levels and fatigue – ultimately increasing account turnover, which is never a good thing.
d) Account reputation is certainly a consideration and although you may not think twice about this as a consideration – there are brands within the industry that have the reputation of being fixated by paying as little as possible. Not only are there day to day impacts, but also future effects too.
When I previously mentioned that there must be people skilled at the relationship building in order to maximise the relationship – they must also be skilled in providing and maintaining focus.
A great agency partner can be rendered utterly useless without adequate focus and prioritisation so there must be emphasis placed on providing direction. What are the core priorities for the year / quarter / month / week and how to they ladder up to where you’re trying to get to, together? What are the core medium to long term projects and how will you manage their delivery? What are the day to day priorities and how will be communication points be structured to support?
At the agency side, this focus must be demanded of the client and translated effectively to the delivery teams. Client services or some form of planning department naturally own the accountability here and are tasked with ensuring the teams are given the direction they need to truly be effective.
4. Know when to lead and know when to defer
As an agency, the relationships that you maintain across your account set will differ. Some you will lead, you may even be tasked with Strategic direction as well as delivery and buying. You may be seen as that shining light of media knowledge that has one eye on the future and can guide more than just the direct channels managed by the agency. Alternatively, you may be seen as fulfilment only and have no access to the strategy.
The key thing to remember here is that the client has outsourced the work (whether channels / buying or creative) for a reason. They lack the resource and knowhow to be able to effectively deliver in house. Here’s what leading that conversation looks like.
a) Inspiration: Clients look to agencies for inspiration and ideas – sometimes outside of their own vertical. You should share learnings (anonymised) garnered across other clients within your set or across the agency network. It’s a key part of the outsource relationship and a key way to differentiate yourselves from other agencies. inspire and lead in your field – don’t just sell.
b) Case study development with media partners: Sometimes rather spend dependant, but you shouldn’t always rely on your own voice to show that you’re leaders in your field. Media vendors create case study tests and incentivised trials all the time. Partner with one, take it to the client – build a joint business case for the budget and execute it. This is a potent method of leading the conversation.
c) Don’t overcomplicate – simplify: Many agencies see complex systems of digital advertising or sequential serving of messaging as the very foundation of what it is to be an “industry leader”. In fact, client’s live extremely complex lives within their own ecosystem (a world you rarely see) and value simple, effective, well measured execution that is delivered successfully. Selling the success of this internally is much easier than an overcomplicated mess that may or may not have worked – who can tell which part was even incremental?
d) Let the agency lead on what they know: One for the client siders, but they should know when to defer to the knowledge of the agency and when to challenge. I believe this capability is refined over time – but make sure you give leeway, room to fail and breathing space. Don’t smother an agency and make them feel like you’re the only voice that matters and constantly question their motive at every turn. Empower them. As long as they’re good, they’ll shine.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading through the above and have taken some value from the points raised. The agency and client relationship is a fragile web of evolving nature, but like any relationship – those that invest time in improving its quality will reap the benefits of a long standing partnership.