Clients, Get the Agency You Deserve

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There’s a saying in the ad biz: “Clients get the advertising they deserve.”

In other words, “good clients” get good advertising while “bad clients” don’t. But is there something more to learn by looking closely at this pithy phrase?

I have agency, consultant and client-side experience, and I’ve always been fascinated by the dynamics of the relationships. And I know first-hand that the quality of those relationships has everything to do with the quality of the results.

In the interests of better results for all, I surveyed dozens of contacts – ad agencies, PR firms, consultants, designers, researchers, internet shops and others (I’ll refer to the whole batch simply as “agencies” from this point forward) – and asked these questions:

One, what are the characteristics of the best client relationships you’ve had?

Two, how can clients get the agency they deserve?

So, clients, listen up. Here’s what they had to say:

Define thy objectives and roles at the outset.

Many agencies expressed a desire to be held accountable to clearly defined objectives. “No-one likes to fail,” said one exec, “so if you don’t know how success is defined, it can be easy to miss the mark.” Before any work commences, make sure everyone knows what success looks like. If you have multiple agencies, make it clear which agency leads any given initiative.

Respect thy agency.

Treat your agency like a partner, not a vendor. If you act like your agency staff is beneath you, they’ll come to resent you – and the work inevitably will suffer. Respect their experience, perspective and ideas – all of which may add to your arsenal.

Be honest with thy agency.

“Agencies can take constructive criticism,” said one agency director. “Tell your agency what you expect in clear and simple terms. Tell them what you like and don’t like, and give them a clear reason why.” Don’t hold back because you don’t want to hurt feelings; if everyone is focused on what is best for the business, honesty should flow easily.

Share with thy agency.

Bring your agency fully into your business. Give them all the info and insights they need to do the best possible work. And let them know when things change.  “Agencies get discouraged when they work on something for weeks, only to find out at the presentation that the business focus has shifted,” said one agency maven.

And if you have multiple agencies, help them share with each other, so they can cross-pollinate; as one local PR pro said, “Make sure your PR firm knows your ad firm knows your internet firm knows your branding firm.”

Trust thy agency.

“If you’re having open-heart surgery, would you presume to tell the surgeon how to perform the operation?” a creative director asked. “Yet many clients pay good money to agencies only to then dictate how to craft brand messaging, advertising, copy, and design.” If you’ve given them the insights they need to succeed, then let them.

Make it a priority.

I’ve heard (and – shudder – lived through) a number of horror stories in which clients take weeks or months to decide on an agency, schedule meetings or respond to work the agency has submitted. If it’s not a priority to you, how do you expect your agency to treat it?

You get what you pay for.

All agencies are not created equal, and the cheapest is often the cheapest for a reason. Sure, budgets are tight. But if you can’t afford to do the job right, it’s often better not to do it at all. And if you ask your agency to do more than your budget allows, corners will be cut somewhere.

Share thy passion.

A local agency vice-president said, “Clients who are passionate about their brands will instill passion in their agencies. When agencies are passionate, they do their best work. It is not the biggest brands with the biggest budgets that get me excited. It’s the clients who love their brands – no matter how big or small.”

This simple list can help you develop a stronger, more productive working relationship with your agency. Or as one strategist posited, “This buys the client that most elusive of things which I like to call ‘shower time’ … work important enough to have me thinking about how to solve it while I am not at work, important enough to me that I will keep pencil and pad near the bed in case I wake from my dream of riding the Giro d’Italia to write down that idea.”

Of course, turnabout is fair play. In a future post, my client friends will tell agencies how they can get the clients they deserve.

A version of this post appeared in the Cincinnati Business Courier on August 24, 2007, in the column “That Branding Thing.” Originally co-written with David Wecker.

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2007 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.