Heather Evans | June 06, 2022
During my 30-plus years in account service, I’ve had wonderful client relationships and challenging ones. In all that time, it never occurred to me that I should write down all the lessons I’ve learned about what it takes to form a successful agency-client relationship. I figure now is as great a time as any to start.
My hope is that it will be a good frame of reference that keeps me grounded, and hopefully it’s useful advice for younger professionals starting their careers. Maybe it’s even helpful information for clients looking to get better work out of their agency.
So here goes.
The secret to a rewarding, long-lasting agency-client relationship is not so different than other relationships in your life. In fact, I think it’s surprisingly simple:
Sort of common sense, right? It’s no great mystery. So why does the average agency-client relationship last only 3 years?
Maybe both parties give up too soon. Maybe it’s just not a good fit. Maybe we lose our way, and we need a little refresher of the basics.
Here’s what I’ve learned throughout my career that hopefully will help you and your agency form an even stronger bond:
Clients, be up front about your budget. Marketing and advertising are all about scale. We can customize just about any solution to any budget. If we guess, it’s like we’re flying blind.
We aren’t trying to take advantage or be sneaky by asking for a number up front. Just like a well-written creative brief, a budget helps us tailor the right solution and helps prevent back and forth proposal and estimate revisions.
Sometimes you may not know how much to spend, and that’s OK. Be up front about that too. Be up front about your goals, your expectations and your timeline. I’ve seen our team turn around entire campaigns in days.
We rise to any challenge. We just need to know all the parameters up front.
One of the main reasons a project can run off the rails is because someone wasn’t all-in on the brief. This goes for agency and client teams alike.
The brief is like a beacon. A guiding light. Without a solid, clear brief, our teams can’t produce great work. So, account people, put serious time and thought into writing it. Clients, put serious time and thought into reviewing and providing input on it.
I’ve always abided by the phrase “Well begun is half done.” The brief is a giant leap toward the finish line, and it's a critical roadmap to happy clients and work the agency can be proud of.
I had a boss years ago who would say to clients, “If it doesn’t make you feel a bit uncomfortable, it’s probably not going to break through.”
A little tension can be good. Stay true to your brand and business objectives, but in this age of tremendous clutter and fighting for share of mind, be brave and try new things.
It’s easier said than done. Brands are under a microscope, and people share dissatisfaction openly on social media. But don’t give up. Take baby steps and learn and optimize as you go. Be smart about taking risks that help you differentiate and get noticed.
I’ve seen many projects go off the rails because there are too many cooks in the kitchen on the client side. Larger corporations often have multiple layers of management that need to review and approve the work. While it’s a reality that’s hard to avoid, our best clients have a champion that runs interference on internal disagreements and pushes for clarity when providing revisions. That way, we’re not wasting precious dollars trying to interpret feedback.
Dearest clients, whether it’s a creative concept, a media recommendation or a digital campaign, if something isn’t sitting right, instead of trying to rewrite it, please tell us what’s not working.
I know it’s human nature to fix what’s broken, but I promise it’s much more constructive if you resist the urge. Otherwise, it’s like a moving dart board, where we keep guessing at the solution. If you share your concern, we can explore all kinds of options.
And agency people, don’t be stubborn and don’t take it personally. Clients have great ideas too, and sometimes their input makes our work better. That’s a win-win for everyone.
No one has time to read long emails. What do I do when I get an email with paragraphs of text? I move on to the next one and come back later when I have time. If I have time. And I consider myself to have an above-average attention span.
Everyone’s busy and overwhelmed these days, so I try to empathize and be considerate of the reader. I make emails as short and sweet as possible. In those instances where more detail is needed, I’ll summarize those points in a bulleted list, a separate attachment, or better, I pick up the phone and have a conversation. Which brings me to my next point.
We hide behind email far too much these days. We may have gotten a little too comfortable being isolated during the pandemic. But talking to clients is an important part of investing in the relationship, especially when it may not be such a pleasant conversation.
I had a situation recently where our team committed a major blunder on one of our client’s campaigns. Of course, it wasn’t intentional. We basically took our collective eye off the ball. The easy thing would have been for me to send an email letting the client know. But I gritted my teeth, picked up the phone, and explained the situation to my client.
I owned up to it on behalf of our team, apologized profusely, promised him it wouldn’t happen again, and offered a freebie for some additional work at no charge. He wasn’t happy but appreciated my honesty and transparency. And it has made the relationship stronger.
One of the things I’ve become more comfortable with over the years is to inject humor where appropriate in my communications, whether it’s in an email, during a conference call, or a meeting. It lightens the mood and breaks the ice.
I also share stories of what’s happening in my life, whether it’s what I did last weekend, how bad I am at golf, a recipe I recommend, or an amazing concert I enjoyed.
We’re all looking for ways to connect with each other, and the more we share, the more we’ll find those connections. Keep it light, appropriate and most importantly, be genuine.
It’s OK to agree to disagree. Sometimes clients make unreasonable demands or request revisions that don’t make sense to you. It’s our job as account people to please our clients, but it’s also our job to provide expert counsel.
My advice is to take a stand with a clear point of view. If you disagree or have a concern, say so. Respectfully and as a matter of fact. If things get heated, try to remove emotion, and use phrases like “Based on our expertise, we recommend …,” or “I see where you are coming from,” or “Our point of view is that this doesn’t feel consistent with your brand.”
Remember, they’re usually trying to do what they think is best, or they may be taking orders from someone higher up. They’re not trying to make your life difficult. So, push back confidently. But in the end, if they don’t agree, get it done with a smile and move on to the next thing.
When a client complains or is unhappy, I try to see it as an opportunity. Anyone who knows me knows I am competitive, so I see these situations as a challenge to win them over.
I recently had a situation in which a client was unhappy with a project estimate. We had previously provided a much lower cost range, but after doing proper discovery and accommodating all their requests, the final project estimate came in nearly double the original figure.
After a lengthy discussion explaining all the reasons for the new estimate, I could tell he was still unhappy. So, after consulting with my senior leadership, we decided to honor our original estimate, hoping they would meet us halfway. And they did.
It was a risk, but I had a feeling they would be fair. He appreciated our generosity, and it immediately diffused the tension. I was reminded of an important lesson: Avoid dangling vague guestimates in front of clients. They fixate on them more than you think.
Client/agency relationships don’t have to be hard, and they don’t have to be short lived. They can be enjoyable and rewarding. In fact, I’d argue they can be downright fun. Whether you’re a young person starting your career, or a veteran remember that the relationship is a two-way street that requires a commitment to open communication, compromise, respect and trust.
Agency people: Work hard, be a good listener, advocate for your client, be curious about their business and get to know them as people. Clients: Share what success looks like, collaborate with us, be open to new ideas and show appreciation for our work.
Assuming we’ve earned it of course!
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Heather Evans is VP, Advertising Account Director. She has experience on the client-side in various marketing communications roles. Heather also has expertise developing innovative marketing and advertising solutions for B2B and B2C clients across a diverse range of industries, with a demonstrated ability to strategically translate client business objectives into marketing programs that increase revenue, brand awareness and customer engagement. Find her at https://www.linkedin.com/in/heatherevans/