Agency Client Conflict

Perception is Reality In the Agency-Client Relationship Game

by Susan Zweibaum on February 13, 2012

I came across this poster in one of my LinkedIn groups and it made me wonder – if these perceptions are accurate it may explain the generally dysfunctional relationships clients and agencies have with one another.  It may also explain why it appears so difficult to get things done in an agency.

I have spoken before about how to improve these relationships, but I guess we need to go to the beginning and ask why do these negative perceptions exist in the first place and what you can do to correct them.  Maybe by understanding the perceptions better you can improved the relationships.  I’m going to start with the client perceptions since it always seems to come back to the client.

The Client

You didn’t know your agency thinks that way about you?  While not all agencies think this way about their clients, I have known plenty that have.  I recently spoke to a former vendor who informed me that people within her organization refused to work with one of their clients as this specific manager drove them to drink.  The client had no idea!  All the agencies literally danced on their desks when she left the company.  These negative perceptions exist because the clients often treat their agencies like servants instead of partners.  They made demands and expect the agency to jump.  They change their minds which causes significant rework by the agency.  On top of it, many client managers delegate down to their junior brand managers who have never been trained in how to manage an agency or how to get the most out of them (and it isn’t browbeating or demanding obedience).  The client thinks they know everything.  Realistically, they may know more about their product than their agency, but it is their responsibility to train them so they can provide the best solutions for their stated goals.  They rarely do that effectively and they don’t know more than the agency does when it comes to advertising and promotion.  Most clients are generally poor communicators and don’t know how to write an effective creative brief that will help the agency deliver what they want and need. 

So, the solution is simple – communicate well, treat your agencies with respect and try and walk a day in their shoes.  If the agency isn’t a good fit for the organization, it is better to cut the cord then make everyone miserable and if you love them, show them the love.

The Account Manager

OK, I have to admit it.  Whenever my media or advertising agency came for a meeting from NYC, I always felt inferior.  They were always dressed perfectly and they all seemed to be more attractive than me.  Maybe it was the NYC factor, but they all seemed to exude that agency attitude.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I loved them and had a great relationship with them, but I just wasn’t as chic.  They felt they had had an image to project and, in reality, they did it well.   Reality is, the client just needs to change their attitude about the perfectly dressed and chic account team.  (I tried and eventually got over it.)

 Now, as it relates to the internal folks’ perception of the account team – there are multiple reasons.  First of all, there is the idea that shit rolls down the hill.  The client makes demands and asks for unrealistic deadlines, the account manager says they will make it happen and making it happen means additional work for the creative and planners under often unrealistic deadlines.  They are pissed at the account team and the account team is annoyed at them for being so uncooperative.  Secondly, there is the role that the creative teams plays vs. the account teams.  See, the creatives like to give the account team a bad rap because it seems that all the account team wants to do is to squash the really cool, really big idea!  It really isn’t fair as the Account Team is putting the realism in the idea.  They are trying to translate how they feel the client may react to the idea and they have to monitor the overall budget.

 Solution:  Be realistic with your client as to what is achievable in order to not put your creative and planners in a difficult position with you or with them.  Treat your creatives with respect and acknowledge what you are asking of them.  Finally, creatives throw big, brash ideas out there which may not mesh with the client’s needs.  Give credit for the great ideas, but work with them to find appropriate creative solutions.

 The Creatives

Where would we all be without the Creative Manager?  They are the energy, the ideas and they can make everyone frustrated.  From the account person’s perspective, the creative team doesn’t always follow the creative brief well and these great ideas don’t always fit the client’s goals.  I realize the creative team thinks they do, but the ideas are big and not always realistic (and the brief not clear enough that it leaves things open to interpretation).  The account manager should know what the client likes and how they will react so when they give that constructive criticism to the creative it is not unrealistic for the creative team to think the account manager just doesn’t get it.  Then comes the hissy fit by the creative team and that is why the planners look at the creative as children.

 The client loves creativity and when the creative is big, bold, achieves their goals and is in their budget they can’t help but love the creative team.  However, I can’t tell you how many times the creative idea doesn’t achieve the goals or doesn’t fit the budget.   That’s when the client decides that the creative team was probably smoking dope when they came up with this brilliant idea.  Nonetheless, I will give the creative team one out on this one – the ideas can only be as good as the direction that comes out of the brief and if the brief sucks the client can’t blame the agency for the off-track concept.

 Solution:  The creatives need to get off their high horse and realize that good ideas come from many places and that the idea is only as good as its ability to affect the public’s perception of the product and meet the client’s goals.  The client needs to make sure they have a well- written creative brief and are open to new ideas.  Finally, the account teams need to treat the creatives with respect and learn to offer constructive and useful input.

 The Planners

It is the planners job to bring it all together, think strategically and work with the client to help determine the best strategic direction for the creative.  They are there to really help ensure that there is a strategic link to the brief.  If they have a good relationship with the client, then there can be that buddy feeling.  If they don’t work well, then the planner will all but be ignored.  Sort of like the friend who has been shunned by the group.  The creatives have the same feelings about the planners that they do about the account team.  They bring reality into the situation and the creatives want to be free to come up with the coolest idea.  The account team thinks the planners are just there to make their lives nuts and get frustrated about who really is running the show.  The planner pulls the whole presentation together – the creative, the strategy and the execution – all in nice tidy bow that the client will buy into.  Truthfully, the planners are often in the toughest position in the middle of all of these competing internal interests. 

 Solution:  The Planners need to make sure they communicate completely what they know to everyone on the team.  They need to do their job without strong arming everyone and they need to make sure they keep everyone on track – with respect.  Additionally, everyone else has to give the planners a little slack and realize they are doing their best to keep it all on track.

 Do you see a pattern?  It is the idea of respect and communication.  That is why I think the relationships are often so dysfunctional.  There is a lack of good and effective communication.  Both the client and the agency need to be trained on how best to communicate with each other effectively.  The client needs to get off their pedestal and the agency (everyone at the agency) needs to learn how to truly meet client expectations by helping to set them.  It is ok for an agency to push back if it is in the best interest of their client, but they have to know how to do it and the client has to learn to be open to something other than what they thought was correct.  If everyone does these few things then maybe, just maybe, we can have better functioning agency-client relationships and agency-agency relationships.

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