There are any number of reasons why a client-agency relationship can go sour, but one we hear a lot goes something like this: “We aren’t getting any strategic thinking from our agency.” It’s the result of an oft-seen pattern: the agency and client get into a routine, churn out the work, and end up without any time for the ideation and strategic rigor that likely kicked off the relationship. Just as with any longstanding relationship, both partners need to re-dedicate themselves every once in a while to make sure things don’t go stale. Given who writes the check, though, it’s especially incumbent on the agency to step up and show renewed enthusiasm.
In any client-agency relationship, it can be challenging to take time away from the work at hand to, say, re-ideate, look at a potential new audience, run a competitive audit, or dive into any type of ad hoc work that might be above and beyond the core scope. Presumably you’re doing this work at least as often as new campaigns arise, but the trick is finding opportunities to show you’re thinking strategically about the brand outside “business as usual.” Here are a few ways to make it happen:
- Let the clients know you’re doing the homework. When presenting a campaign idea, communications plan, or media plan, show your work. This doesn’t mean diving into every bit of research you did, but creative agencies in particular have learned that presenting a campaign idea without context means you’re begging for a subjective, reactionary response from the client (e.g., “I don’t like that color”). Tell the story that got you to the idea to give it the right impact.
- Never report results without providing action items. One complaint we hear a lot is that, while a given agency partner may be good about providing results, they rarely give the client any insight or recommendations on what to do with those results. Injecting your POV after a campaign can be just as important as doing so at its inception.
- Earn a seat at the table. Your mileage may vary here, and you likely are already doing this. The not-so-secret truth is that clients usually want their agencies involved early, too. Whether it’s due to legacy processes, wary higher ups, or simply the reality of a quick-turn marketing calendar, getting the agency involved up front in marketing decision-making is often an item for the wish list that’ll get implemented “someday.” Advocate for this when and where it’s appropriate, because chances are the request won’t be a complete surprise to your marketing client, but rather just a gentle reminder.
Clients invariably want agencies who think and can put some stakes in the ground about where to go with their marketing. When we’re conducting an agency search, the “must-haves” clients have for the ideal agency include items like, “I want an extension of my team,” “I want someone who can push back and not just be an order taker,” and, “I want someone I can get on the phone and talk to about the challenges I’m up against.” All of these requests paint a picture of a true partner, one that acts not as a vendor, but as a peer who’s there to help solve problems and suggest best paths forward. Finding the right opportunities to prove you can be that partner for your client is key to making your agency essential to them and one they can turn to for years to come.
Barry O’Neil has led numerous agency/vendor searches and client/agency relationship management 360 review processes for clients such as CFA Institute, TrueCar, Logan’s Roadhouse, UScellular, Ulta Beauty, Clarisonic, CenturyLink, CustomInk and many others. He has also participated in corporate restructuring initiatives, client process realignment initiatives, and agency new business reviews and pitch/positioning consulting.