Building a Strong Agency/Client Relationship (from the Agency Perspective)

by Susan Zweibaum on March 31, 2011

This is a follow-up to my recent post on the same topic, but I am tackling it from the agency perspective this time.   If you’ve read my post on the client perspective some of the same themes are valid here as well. (see below) 

Open and honest communication is the backbone of the relationship, but there are some other key tips to offer when building that all-important client relationship.

Decision Makers Are Rarely Key Contacts

This has to be one of the most frustrating situations an agency has to deal with.  Two scenarios emerge: 

  1. Your contact is the Marketing Services Manager – The role here is to filter information between the brand teams and the agencies, provide internal consulting to the brand teams and manage the overall agency activities.  This client role can be highly beneficial to an agency if the manager has strong brand relationships and is a good communicator.  They are the ones who speak the agency’s language and can provide further insights into brand comments or direction.  However, this person is almost never the final decision maker – that would be the brand team. 
  2. You primary contact is a junior brand manager – OK, now you have direct access to the brand team, but these people are often too junior to make any final decisions and usually don’t have the strength of strategic knowledge.  You often have to spend a lot of time training them as you try to execute a program or creative.

So, what are the solutions to both scenarios?  First of all, allow time in the timeline for longer decision-making.  Trust me, brand managers don’t want to be rushed into decisions, but they don’t want their programs delayed because of their own corporate indecision either.  Secondly, clearly communicate needs both verbally and in writing.  Always follow up with a meeting recap and key next steps in writing.    Additionally, initiate broad team meetings once a month or at key decision points that include the key decision makers to ensure that they can ask direct questions and you get unfiltered feedback. 

One warning:  Be careful of too much process and need for senior-level approval.  For example, I knew of a Marketing V.P. who felt he needed to approve all creative.   A process was started that had large creative approval meetings with all key approvers in the room.  In theory this makes sense and follows my suggestion above, but because of scheduling conflicts, these meetings did not happen as often as they needed, and the V.P. was approving creative that they just should have let the brand director approve.  It frustrated all parties involved and hurt the strength of the relationships between the agency and the brand teams.  In these cases, you can’t change the process of the V.P., but you can work harder to establish strong ties with those under the executive to ensure you are moving along the right path.

Build Relationships across All Levels and Disciplines

Following the above tip, build relationships with all levels of management, even outside of your primary contacts.  Your biggest ally may be the Marketing Services Manager, so do all you can to strengthen and build this relationship.   They provide direction and feedback on your performance as an agency and can smooth the way for issues relating to billable hours or project issues.  I realize that agencies understandably want visibility with decision makers and that sometimes these marketing services individuals can be seen as roadblocks.  Unless they have control issues, what seem like roadblocks are more often reactions to how much access the brand teams want to the day-to-day process.

Your primary contact may be a junior brand manager or brand manager, but make sure you also get to know the Brand Director.  They often have unique insights into senior management that you might not get otherwise.

Always Put It in Writing

I wish I could tell you that you can always trust the client to do the right thing or admit to having said or approved something, but unfortunately that isn’t always the case.  What’s more, it always comes down to the ultimate decision maker, and they can change the direction of a project whenever they want.  The easiest solution is to always – and I mean always – put things in writing.  Meeting recaps, effects of changes on the budget or billable hours, feedback on creative, etc. – if you have a conversation that impacts what you are doing or the number of hours you are working on a project, then make sure you know the client is on the same page.  While I believe that a certain amount of informality is important, there are times when process is crucial to achieving open and effective communication between the client and agency.

For example, I once had a client who provided direction to me verbally and followed it up in writing.  That’s great, right?  Not exactly.  In this case, I made the mistake of not making sure that I clarified my interpretation of this direction and providing an example of what I thought he wanted.  While I went beyond the initial scope and gave a more strategic presentation, the client still wanted all the basic information details in a particular format that hadn’t been clearly outlined to me in his direction.  The end result was that I had to go back and create a spreadsheet of all the backup data, spending more time than I had budgeted for.

Push for Creative Briefs and Clear Direction

Not every company can deliver a good creative brief, but they are so important if you want to ensure that you are delivering what they want.  Insist on having the client walk you through the brief so that you can ask questions and fill in any missing information.  Feel free to push back on anything that doesn’t make sense or is undeliverable.  Most clients want you to ask questions and dig deeper.  Express any concerns, because being realistic will be your key to success.  Unfortunately, sometimes the client just doesn’t understand what a realistic deliverable is.

If a client doesn’t want to write a brief themselves, then do it for them.  Have the same conversation you would have if they were presenting you with a written brief and then translate that conversation into a brief that you can then get their approval on.  Again, it is all about making sure you are both on the same page. 

One additional note, I have found many cases where the client doesn’t have a true creative brief format.  In these cases, I have provided to them a format that has worked for me and let them adapt it how they need to. 

Set Boundaries and Realistic Expectations

This may go against traditional agency thinking, but you can set boundaries for when you are available – unless you need to deal with possible crisis situations (as in PR).  Just because a client calls you at 7 p.m., doesn’t mean you need to respond to them at that moment.  I have often left an email or message for my agency in the evening hours with the expectation that they would respond the next day.  When they respond at that same late hour, I often wished I had waited.  I didn’t want them to assume that I expected them to be working at that late hour as well.  I was probably more sensitive, having worked on the agency side at one point in my career.  However, this attitude helped to strengthen my ties with the agency because they knew I understood what it was like from their side. 

We have all been there when the client has asked for something with a ridiculous turnaround time.  You want to hang up the phone and yell – I know I have.  Be honest with how quickly you can actually get it done without killing yourself or your team.  If you need additional time to collect information, be realistic, otherwise the client will have the tendency to get angry or frustrated when you don’t deliver.  As the client asking for the quick turnaround because my boss has asked for it, the last thing I wanted to hear was it couldn’t be delivered.  I didn’t want to tell my boss it couldn’t be done.  However, everyone wants to fulfill expectations, and it is easier to tell my boss that it can’t be delivered if there is a solid explanation for the delay.

In conclusion, if you look at both of my posts on the topic of building strong client-agency relationships you will see two key themes:

  • Communication
  • An understanding of how the other entity views things

The client is the ultimate factor in this relationship building, since it all revolves around them.  The agency wants the client’s business, needs to work with them to keep the business and gauges their success from the success of the campaigns they deliver.  So, while the client plays a role in making the most of the client/agency relationship and contributes to its success, how well an agency understands the client, their needs and the players within the client will greatly impact the agency’s chances of success.

Both parties need to make sure they are communicating well, are committed to working together and take the effort to understand the other’s point of view.  If you succeed in doing this, the results will be productive and effective marketing campaigns – and a long, fruitful partnership.

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