David Ogilvy, the much-quoted marketing guru, famously said that clients “get the advertising that they deserve”. Today, the marketing mix is infinitely more complex but his observation is still pertinent and applicable to all agency relationships.
Sadly, so many clients unwittingly or willfully behave in a way that engenders fear, confusion or mistrust in their agencies. For the record, I have no axe to grind here. I’ve been on both sides of the client/agency divide and have seen both atrocious and exemplary conduct from both parties. Design, development, sales, media buying or UX. Whatever the agency’s specialism, similar tensions can arise.
Sadly, there is rarely any formal tuition in etiquette for this strange relationship. Much of the the advice which is published about how to conduct yourself as a client is written by either vitriolic agency folks venting their spleens or smart-asses looking for a quick laugh.
So, here are some suggestions from a poacher-turned-gamekeeper-turned-poacher…
5. Keep your shortlist short
Tendering for new business is a time-consuming and expensive process for agencies. Only ask a prospective supplier to invest in a pitch once you’ve done some due diligence yourself. A very wise (and ruthless) client services director once told me that she never participated in a tender process if ‘the short-list was too long’. Her argument was that if the prospective client hadn’t spent some time narrowing the field, they were either unclear what they were looking or had not yet determined their criteria for success. She was right. Pulling in a dozen companies to tender typically means that you’re not really sure what you’re buying or that you’re just fishing for free ideas. Either way it’s bad form. The objective is to select an agency that not only has the right credentials but also fits well with your organisation. Asking a long line of agencies to perform like a parade of circus animals is time consuming and inefficient. Your shortlist should only include suppliers who you believe have a reasonable chance of delivering the goods. I’ve found it most effective to select a shortlist of just four companies, differing in style, scale, culture or core competency.
4. Show the bigger picture
Start with the clear intention that you want the vendor to succeed. While the core requirement needs to be expressed succinctly and precisely, it’s prudent to provide as much supporting information in a brief as you can muster. Explain some of the wider strategic goals, the managerial headaches, competitive threats and operational pressures. Share research data upfront (under NDA if the numbers are commercially sensitive) and cite pertinent successes – and failures – that might help the agency to plan and calibrate their approach. In short, frame your specific, immediate needs in a wider business context. If you’ve picked the right agency and given them enough information, they may just help you to solve a problem that you haven’t yet identified. That’s when the real magic starts.
3. Be careful what you ask for
When you provide guidance or feedback to an agency, aim to be utterly unambiguous. The best account team will hang on your every word and be eager to deliver exactly what you’ve asked for. Much of what you write or say will also be passed on to the rest of the team back at the agency. So, strive to make a clear distinction between the following types of comment:
- An Idea – “This is just food for thought.”
- A Suggestion – “You might want to consider this. I think there’s some merit in it but I might be wrong.”
- A Recommendation – “This is my proposed, preferred approach. If you have an alternative, you’ll need to convince me.”
- A Directive – “Please do this. This is a mandatory requirement.”
Ultimately, your task as a client is to fully utilize the skills, resources and experience of your agency. Sure, there are times when you need to be highly prescriptive. Sometimes it’s OK to issue a JFDI, firmly but politely, of course. However, a confident, assured client should be able to admit that they’re unsure which route is best to take. If your agency is worth its fees, they will excel when you grant an explicit mandate to apply fresh thinking to a tough challenge.
2. Be fair and reasonable about money
As the client ,you clearly have a duty of care to negotiate the best commercial terms with every supplier. This doesn’t mean simply getting the lowest price. I once had a client who would routinely argue about quoted costs. Each time she would shake her head and say that our proposed costs exceeded her budget. After I while I realised that this not a matter of prudence but rather her cunning stratagem. She would consistently slice 10% off every quote. We were always meticulous about margins and knew that we could not compete unless our prices were keen. You can guess how we resolved the issue.
If you want them to be supportive, productive and long term allies, it’s in your interest to ensure your chosen agency trades profitably.
Inevitably, some components of a project will evolve to cost more than anticipated. Assuming that your supplier will always be liable for any and all overspend, regardless of the circumstances, is just bad business. Contingency budgets, open-book accounting and fastidious project planning will reduce the number of unwelcome surprises.
Sometimes the results will fall short of your expectations. Remember that you’re complicit in both the successes and the failures. Yield modelling and intelligent forecasting should ensure that you’re ready for any outcome.
And just as you are responsible for managing a high quality of service from the agency, you’re also responsible for ensuring that they get paid. Promptly. Yes, you. Blaming your internal administrative process or passing the buck to finance shows a lack of backbone. Chase that invoice or at least ensure that someone in your team does.
1. Be true to your word
Trust is vital in the client/agency relationship. A good client’s word is his/her bond.
Unless you’re certain that there are subsequent opportunities, don’t make promises about potential additional work. Dangling an imaginary carrot in the hope that you’ll coax the agency into investing some discretionary (unpaid) effort will invariably damage trust.
Be transparent about deadlines. If you would prefer something to be delivered earlier than is absolutely essential make your intentions clear. Allowing time for scrutiny or assessment before the drop-dead-deadline is reasonable. Creating a false deadline that later proves to be premature will annoy the hell out of the crew who worked long hours to deliver ‘on time’.
Finally, honesty is a wonderful thing. If work delivered is uninspiring, say that you’re uninspired. If it’s shit, say that it’s shit. And if the agency has delivered work that is brilliant and has made you look like a superstar in the boardroom, acknowledge their success. If it’s sincere and warranted, a simple “Thank you” is one of the most powerful ways to motivate an agency.
Coming Soon: “How to be the Perfect Agency.”