The Agency/Client Relationship—From Both Sides of the Table

Times have changed. The way we communicate with agencies and clients every day is drastically different from what it was just five years ago, and nearly unrecognizable from a decade ago. Today, it is electronic, instant and demanding. It is really more about how quickly we communicate rather than how thoughtful, considerate and deliberate we are. We no longer have the luxury of a day—much less a few hours—to be more planful and personal in responding and reacting to each other. And to make matters worse, there tends to be less mutual respect and understanding than ever before—in both the personal and professional arenas.

To be sure, social media and its shortcuts aggravate this trend. But the electronic era is here, along with social media, and it is not going away. Nevertheless, while it may not be as easy as it was a decade ago, it is still possible to have a strong, productive and mutually beneficial relationship among client and agency teams. It is also more likely to happen if you understand what the view is like from the other side of the table.

I know. I’ve been there. On both sides of the table.

After spending more than five years as an advertising/brand manager for a large pharma company, I’ve spent the last 25-plus years on the agency side. And in both capacities, I can say I’ve seen it all. I’ve been part of some great teams with solid relationships that have accomplished wonderful things together. But I’ve also seen and been part of too many relationships that are counterproductive, unnecessary and that in the end, leave everyone bitter and jaded.

So how can we navigate this new world, interpersonal dynamic and the always challenging business relationship between clients and their agencies? In my experience, the best relationships are forged over time with evolving mutual trust, respect and admiration. They result from adhering to some basic human tenets that can make for a productive and valuable relationship with your agency/client.

Five core tenets for both sides of the table can improve every agency/client relationship.

1. Recognize That We’re Not in the Commodity Business

As much as procurement and central purchasing would like to make agency selection akin to buying a copier, rarely do brands thrive in these types of arranged marriages. I offer advice for both sides of the table.

The Agency Side: Let’s face it. As an industry, we’ve done a terrible job of demonstrating value for the money. It’s no wonder that purchasing professionals have stepped in to demand better. So bring value. Always. Make yourself invaluable by being so much more than your hourly rate or monthly retainer. Give your clients plenty of reasons to keep working with you and trust you with more of their business rather than forcing them to search for reasons to keep you.

The Client Side: Demonstrate that you value thinking, approach and experience as the guideposts of the agency selection by engaging in the business of running your brand as much as promoting it. Only then can you bring great agencies to the table that can make a difference to your brand—and not just your budget.

2. Collaborate, Don’t Compete

Bringing a brand to life and making it grow is challenging enough for everyone at the table. What all sides need is real teamwork and generous behavior that will make the results—and the subsequent success—more satisfying for everyone.

The Agency Side: Play nice! Surprise everyone by being the ultimate team player. You’ve earned a spot on the client’s team. It may not be everything you coveted, but you are at the table. After more than 30 years in this business, I can assure you that if you are as good as you think you are, you will earn the opportunity to show it. Until then, demonstrating anything short of mutual respect for all parties puts your integrity and your agency at risk.

The Client Side: Clarity of expectations and rules of engagement are crucial to effective collaboration. This is your job. The best strategies won’t get you to the goal without establishing a strong working environment with everyone pulling to get you there. The end product should be focused on everyone doing what’s right for your brand—and for your business.

3. Make it Personal, Take it Personally

The value an agency brings is the talent, experience, expertise and the attitude of its people. This is a people business, which is why relationships matter so much. Truncating the investment in personal connectivity by hiding behind email or text or WebEx or Lync meetings dehumanizes the entire process. Don’t let that happen. Place a premium on personal interactions. It will never be the easiest option. It will take time and effort and it will be inconvenient. But it will be well worth it.

The Agency Side: Yes, you want client time. We all do. We need it to do our jobs and do them well. But, we have to acknowledge and respect the myriad of demands our clients face everyday—the demands of their roles within the company, their jobs and their personal lives. No client is sitting around waiting for our email and/or PDF. Talk—yes talk—about the best ways to communicate, the mutual expectations, where the boundaries are and the purpose of every interaction the teams engage in. And then do it.

The Client Side: Creating compelling brand experiences, and ultimately, customer loyalty, is why you hire an agency, which makes your agencies’ loyalty to you just as important as it is to your success. There is no short cut for making this happen. It takes time, effort, honesty and sincerity. If you are not consistently making the effort to build your agencies’ loyalty to you, you will never get either great work or the great agency experience you deserve.

4. Labeling Your Relationship Status Is for Facebook

Everyone wants labels to assure themselves how great the relationship is, but at the same time, everyone does not have to be BFFs.

The Agency Side: Don’t ordain yourself a partner. Just because you aspire to be, and just because you claim you are, doesn’t make it true. So do yourself a favor: Don’t say it unless you earn it, and you earn it when your client says it while acknowledging, respecting and treating you that way. Take pride in being your client’s agency. That alone says a lot about their trust and your role at the table.

The Client Side: Don’t call your agencies vendors. Most agencies I know work too hard for your respect, care too much about your business, and invest too much blood, sweat and tears in bringing you the big strategies and ideas that can transform your brands and your career. Label them a vendor and you’ll get a supplier/vendor relationship. Treat them like part of the team and you’ll have a partner in every sense of the word.

5. RFPs, RFIs and Pitches: Don’t Let the Process Dehumanize the People

These are the bane of our existence—from both sides of the table. Too often these are long, drawn-out processes that fill everyone with angst and leave too many people disappointed along the way. What to do about it? They are necessary—we all get that. But these relationships can get off on the right foot with some sanity added to the process.

The Agency Side: I feel your pain. I know it often feels one-sided, but it isn’t. Read the RFP. Give clients what they want and then deliver what they need. Don’t “PPT” people to death. In fact, don’t PowerPoint at all. Rather, have a conversation, share your thinking and show your prospective clients what you can do for them and their challenges.

The Client Side: Manage your expectations. Be respectful of the effort and work, and by all means, be specific and direct about your expectations and the distinct things you are looking for to make a decision. It’s no fun guessing and speculating on moving targets. And then please follow your own rules. There’s nothing more frustrating for an agency than a client’s inability to make a decision or making a decision that has nothing to do with the stated criteria.

Somehow I wish everyone in this industry could experience life on both sides of the table. And I’ve come across many who have. But gaining some perspective from the “other side of the table” would be invaluable to everyone. In many ways, by seeing the situation from both sides, you realize that what this all really boils down to are some basic human courtesies and deciding to treat the people on the other side of the table as you would want to be treated yourself.

  • Joe Kuchta

    Joe Kuchta is Principal of Sandbox. Joe has been Chief Creative Officer and CEO of GA Healthcare Communication for 20 years. GA evolved into Sandbox in January, and Joe is one of the founding partners in this new independent agency focused squarely on clients and collaboration. 

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