A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of accompanying my colleagues for a one-off meeting at a client’s place. I say privilege, one, because I’m rarely ever invited by my own team for these anymore. And two, because that’s what it really was - a privilege. It was an hour and something of what was a genuine effort by both sides to be collaborative, empathetic, polite and constructive. The room had a welcoming air of ‘we’re here for the common good’ all over it. No egos. No personal agendas. No showing who is boss. No fear of being proven wrong.
On our way out, it hit me how truly rare these kind of agency-client interactions have become. To the rest of them there, this was routine. Over the last few months, they’d all gotten to know each other as people, and to them, there wasn’t anything unusual in what had just transpired. At first, I confused this with friendship. Maybe it’s because they’re all in a similar age group with similar interests? No, let’s not be reductive. This dynamic was something else at play. And whatever it was, it turns even sterile meeting rooms into gardens of purposefulness.
On how we begin
An R3 report from a couple of years ago pegged the industry average for the length of an agency-client relationship at 3.2 years. Tell any agency boss at a pitch meeting that he or she’d have the business for only 3.2 years and they’ll take it with both hands. 3.2 years is probably enough time to do a lot of good work and possibly even have meaningful impact on the brand. But why end there? Could the trick be in how we begin? Why do most pitch processes resemble a scamper? You spend a good portion of the last two weeks leading up to a pitch hurriedly assembling your best people to produce work that is hopefully a great representation of your agency. You probably have an hour to make an impression with people sitting across the table that half your team possibly haven’t even been introduced to or they’ll never see after. What could go wrong?
Maybe the problem is not so much the time that was being spent on pitches as much as what our clients and us believe we could be doing with that time.
“Do send us a presentation introducing your agency. Please also share client names (past and present) for reference checks. Based on the above, we will shortlist agencies for a round of Chemistry Meetings at the agency office. No creative presentations will be necessary at this time. We would like to spend time interacting with the agency team.”
This is a small bit of my favourite RFP email from the recent past. It screams of a super-client who understands that they’re not just choosing an agency and its reputation, but also trying to select the right people. Think of all the time and energy we’d save if we all just sat down across a table and had a conversation over a few hours and see if we have ‘chemistry’ before signing off on those pitch budgets.
On retainers as subscriptions
Somewhere along the way, agency folks get lazy and a client on retainer begins to resemble a subscription you renew every year. Many of us have taken client relationships for granted thinking that if we keep doing more of the same, they’ll just come back for more. The truth is, that every day, they’re choosing to be your client; or not. Super-clients challenge you to be your best pitch-win day version always. It’s tough, but that’s the price.
Newer, younger agencies probably understand this better than most. These are smaller shops that have grown up on project work. Fighting so hard for a seat at the table that because they were always pitching, they developed a skill of consistently working hard at relationship building.
On using appreciation as a gateway drug
It’s almost embarrassing bringing this up, but having consulted a few colleagues while writing this, I was surprised how consistently the word 'appreciation' featured while they described their favourite client. Appreciation and its close cousin, 'gratitude' are embarrassingly rare. Which also means that they could be the single most important source of loyalty and meaningful effort. The super-client uses appreciation as a gateway drug to build empathy, share ownership and forge trust in the long run. “The best teams are more credit sharing than credit seeking”. Seems easy enough.
On expecting service not servitude
It’s a maxim many in the agency business need a reminder to. When you’re on the side of the equation always focused on ‘deliverables’, it’s easy to get stuck in a checklist mindset. Meetings become more about coming out of them unscathed rather than being purpose-driven. The new breed of super-clients understand what it takes to get the agency to tick and perform at ‘pitch-day’ potential consistently. It’s about sharing the pressure. It’s about appreciating the good times and being respectful through the down times. It’s also about knowing the difference between expecting a service mentality and not one of servitude.
On creating and respecting safety nets
Conflict is unavoidable. But working through it constructively needn’t be. The super-clients I know have always created an environment where both sides can withstand friction and strong differences in opinion. They’re the ones who use sentences like ‘let’s discuss this’ or ‘why don’t we talk it out’ more than ‘this is how it needs to be’. It is important for the agency team to not feel that they’re at the risk of losing the account every time something doesn’t pan out the way it was intended to. Super-clients create a safety net and good agency teams respect it and know not to take it for granted.
On ‘merchandising’ purpose
Scott Belsky, author of The Messy Middle & my favourite book from 2019, introduces the concept of ‘merchandising’ purpose. Let me explain. Often, us folks on the agency side either don’t understand or bother with larger impact of what we do daily. What is this one JPEG file I’m emailing out at 10pm even going to achieve? Belsky speaks of great leaders also often being great story-tellers. It got me thinking of some great CMOs I’ve been lucky to work with. Super-clients who have been great at selling larger perspective even to the youngest at the table. The ones who draw attention to outcomes without losing focus on the importance of purpose.
Agencies, you get the super-client you deserve.
Think of all the clients who came to your mind as you were reading this. So much of professional communication is about how your colleagues and others experience themselves around you. Great agency and client leaders have always made other people feel bigger in their presence. In advertising, we often underestimate the power of simple things. The power of genuine listening. Our openness to perspectives of others. The possibility that somebody else is right. The creative business thrives on subjectivity and in that reality could there be anything more important to its success than the tenacity of our relationships?