When we’re talking to new clients and we ask them what they’re looking to get out of our partnership, ’collaboration’ is one of the words that comes up most often. Nobody would disagree that collaboration is key to a successful business relationship - but what should it really mean in the context of a client / agency relationship?
To understand this, we should think about why clients hire agencies in the first place. Clients choose agencies because they are experts in their respective field, and because they have a broad external perspective. Usually the agency will be doing something that the client can’t do in-house and in many cases, the agency will find themselves working with clients with little experience of similar projects. That is not to dismiss the contribution that clients bring to the table - an agency will never understand the clients’ organisation, products, competitors and customers as well as they do. We need our clients’ input to properly understand the context in which a project or a brief exists, the pressures and tensions they face and what success looks like.
To get the best work, client and agency should respect each other’s abilities and roles within a project. This means that clients must know when to take advice and be steered by their agency partner. It also means that micro-managing the agency team might not always be the best approach - the best result will usually be achieved by giving the agency the freedom do their job while providing relevant guidance and input. Of course, no agency should be beyond healthy challenge - both agencies and clients must know when to defer to the other party’s judgement. The best results are accomplished when we collaborate in a way that makes use of our respective strengths. Good communication is key.
“Avis will never know as much about advertising as DDB, and DDB will never know as much about the rent a car business as Avis.” - Bill Bernbach, DDB
Another thing clients often tell us is that they want to be ‘challenged’. One of the trickiest paths for an agency professional to negotiate is the fine line between keeping a client happy and becoming a “yes man”. What happens when there’s a disconnect between what a client’s asking for and what we, as an agency, believe to be right? We have to remember that clients pay us for our thinking, our opinion and our point of view. The effectiveness of a great piece of work will easily outlast the discomfort of a difficult conversation.
Challenge and debate is part of a healthy client / agency relationship, but dogmatism should not be. Telling a client “it’s right because I say it is” isn’t going to cut it, nor should it. When we challenge a client, we need to explain the thought processes behind our arguments, present alternatives and give a clear recommendation based on logic. But we also have to know when to give up. Continuing along a road that the client just doesn’t want to go down will not only annoy the client but will ultimately eat into agency profits. Sometimes we have to lose a battle to win the war.
The client is not always right. But sometimes they might be.
Adrian Smart, client services director, Dragon Rouge London