Agencies, Get the Clients You Deserve

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An earlier post, “Clients, Get the Agency You Deserve,” was a guide for clients looking to get the best possible work from their agencies. This time, I surveyed friends and colleagues on the client side, asking them to tell me about the best agency relationships they’ve had.

So agencies, marketing vendors and suppliers of all stripes, listen up – here’s what clients want.

Be a thought leader, not an order-taker.

Or, as my friend Todd Sebastian says, “Don’t be a bag-carrier!” This was the top request of the clients surveyed. “The common thread shared by agencies I respect is they challenged me,” said one marketing director. “They spoke truth to power, and we were better off because of it.”

And to speak truth, you have to dive deeply into your client’s biz. Said a London-based marketing exec: “Understand my business needs first. Then give me creative new ways to achieve those needs.”

Clients don’t just want “ideas.” They want big ideas grounded in strategic insights.

Mind the details.

Here’s the dichotomy: As agencies and vendors, we’re supposed to be in the “big ideas” business. But we’re also in the details business.

Clients want seamless project management. That includes clear, frequent communication, up-to-the-minute timeline management and value-added deliverables.

And the biggie: “When it comes to billing,” said a local marketing maven, “the client should never be surprised by an invoice.”

Bring the right attitude.

The business world grows ever more complex, challenges more difficult to solve. On top of this, client priorities sometimes change on a moment’s notice.

When the road gets rocky, clients look to their agencies and vendors for inspiration. One local marketer puts a premium on “the ability to stay positive and light-hearted while working through issues.” We’d add “clear-minded” to that list. The agencies that focus on the end goal, igniting new thinking when the chips are down, are the ones that build strong relationships.

Go above & beyond.

The billable-hours model has more flaws than I care to discuss. One major pitfall is that it implies that your assistance comes only with a price.

Consider this from a marketing director with plenty of agency-side experience: “I believe in finding people you know and trust. If an agency or vendor goes to the mat for me when I am in a bind and need something minor but urgent, it builds trust and loyalty for me.”

As a supplier, are you actively seeking ways to pitch an assist whenever possible? Or is your focus only on your profit margins?

Enough about you.

Agencies like to talk about themselves, their processes, the awards they’ve won, the interior design of their offices. Clients don’t want to hear that stuff. Clients want to hear about how you’re going to help them. This means you have to ask and listen before you speak.

When I was brand manager for Airheads candy, I led a national search for an advertising agency. After narrowing the field, I sent identical, limited brand backgrounds to the three agencies invited to make final presentations, noting that I was fully available to field additional questions.

Only one agency called with questions. That agency, GSD&M, had an account supervisor named Jenny Buschhorn who called me twice a week, for six straight weeks, with questions. Good questions. She and her team knew the Airheads business cold before they presented a word about themselves. Barring a creative team of drooling idiots, Ms. Buschhorn’s group had won the account before it walked in the door.

The takeaway? Put yourself in your clients’ shoes; treat them like you’d be treated. Instead of merely reacting, find ways to help them be proactive in their ever-changing environments. Act like you have some skin in the game, and help them win.

A version of this post appeared in the Cincinnati Business Courier on October 19, 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.