Creative Collaborations: The Client/Agency Relationship


Design has always been my passion. Early in my career, I realized that I could apply that passion to a much larger purpose: Making a difference in people’s lives and building valued relationships.

And while I’ve witnessed many changes in the advertising industry over 30 years, the importance of a strong relationship between clients and their agency, built on trust and respect, remains constant and vital to doing successful and meaningful work.

Clients want an agency that shares their business philosophies and brings a culture they can aspire to, feeling included in the “agency process.” That process might mean different things to both clients and agencies, but at the core is a personal and collaborative connection that continues growing though client retention best practices.

Building that connection takes more than a handshake and a vision, though that’s a great place to start. Here are some key elements that I’ve found make up the strongest client/agency relationships:

Industry knowledge
It’s pretty difficult to bring proactive ideas and solutions to the table if you don’t know the game that’s being played.

Clients expect a deep level of industry expertise from their advertising agency, or at least the desire to quickly get up to speed. Beyond that, clients expect the agency to stay current — and keep the client current, too.

In the day-to-day agency workload, achieving this takes time, discipline and smart planning. But it’s important that your agency positions itself as a thought leader in your clients’ industries, bringing solutions to a client’s problem often before it appears on their radar.

Quickly ask the right questions from the key stakeholders and plan for scheduled work sessions that can get to a collaborative solution. More than ever, agencies have the tools and resources that can help create the workspaces that provide smart, real-time thinking.

Not everything is going to work. But clients who want innovative thinking and passion for their brand will appreciate your effort and see you embracing their work with the same fire they possess.

Business Partners
Today, marketing touches every aspect of a client’s business. Because of that, clients expect their agency to understand their entire business. Part of a good relationship comes in understanding the problems a company faces as well as identifying solutions.

That doesn’t mean that your creative department needs to hire MBAs to work with clients. But it does mean that when the agency sits down at the table with a client, they need to have a strong sense of the client’s key performance indicators (KPIs).

Depending on the client’s industry, these KPIs can vary and often are specific to technical industry elements. Agencies aren’t there just to provide clients a service, but to work as a partner.

Accountability
Clients need their agency to do what they say they’re going to do. When the word “Strategic” is part of your agency’s name, you need to live up to that.

Accountability goes beyond that, though. It means bringing projects in on time and on budget. It means owning a problem until it gets resolved. It means uncovering key insights from research and delivering on results.

Clients also realize, and expect, accountability to be a two-way street. Many agencies are tentative to hold clients accountable, when often that’s what clients want from an agency.

By providing clients trackable and measurable metrics, agencies help their clients create their own accountability and, in doing so, nudge clients toward their desired goals.

Accessibility
It seems simple, but this is likely the most essential among all client retention strategies.

There’s no such thing as “M-F, 9-5” anymore. With mobile and digital connectivity, everyone is trying to do more with fewer resources and keep a pace that’s just one step faster. Clients are working longer hours, into the weekends and through all time zones.

Clients appreciate the need for their agency cohorts to have a private life and most won’t be too intrusive. But when they need to get a hold of you now, they mean now. Make sure you’re there to answer.

Passion
Clients may use the word “passion,” when describing their needs from an agency. But when probed, they really mean that they want you to care as much about their business as they do. They want to be your priority.

All clients, big or small, want to be your favorite and the one for whose problems you’re always seeking solutions.

Advice and leadership
Part of why clients look for an agency in the first place is the need to have someone help shoulder the load of their business needs.

That means someone who takes charge. Clients don’t want to dictate the direction and all the particulars. They need their agency to proactively bring them ideas, listen intelligently and ask insightful questions.

And even though they might not admit it, clients need agencies that are willing to push back when they think the client is wrong and, in doing so, may help drive the business towards achieving its goals.

They want “big idea” thinkers who provide a high level of inspiration and thoughtful guidance. Order takers and “Yes People” aren’t enough.

This can prove tough for agency owners to wrap their heads around, as it sounds great in theory but becomes difficult in practice. Owners might see pushing back or taking the lead with the client as a something that might put the account at risk.

However, taking an educated position (based on knowing a client’s needs and industry) will only help strengthen the client/agency relationship, bringing that informed outside opinion that your agency was hired to provide in the first place.

Consistency
Like any workplace relationship, an agency account executive and client can get into a productive rhythm together after working side-by-side for a while.

Building efficiencies, reducing re-education of new team members and understanding personalities and workstyles is incredibly valuable to the client/agency. Clients love it when their account team stays intact.

No Self-interest
Avoiding self-interest doesn’t mean clients expect agencies to not profit or benefit from the working relationship. In fact, when a client loves their agency they will go out of their way to help the agency do both.

But what clients don’t like is when the agency is serving two masters. It boils down to a trust issue. Are you recommending that media buy because it is best for me or because of the commission structure? Are you suggesting this creative because you think it will drive sales or win awards?

Cost Effectiveness
Clients know the agency has to make a profit. That’s not what this cost effectiveness is about.

Rather, it has to do with helping clients spend every dollar wisely. It’s about having a big picture vision so that all of the money and efforts are pulling in the same direction. It’s about investing where money needs to be spent and cutting corners, and finding a new way, where money doesn’t need to be spent.

With a strong client/agency relationship in place, that trust will be there. It will be easier to not only say “no” to a client, but to also say “why” to strategy without being second-guessed.

Putting it all together
There’s nothing more profitable to an agency than a long-lasting client relationship. Getting past the short-term transactional relationship and building the elements that give that relationship its foundation takes time.

Creating an environment where clients not only want but need to stick around means training your team (and yourself) on these client retention strategies in order to deliver on these items. Make these strategies the things that set your agency apart. Otherwise, for many clients, they’ll be the deal breakers when they’re missing.


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