Preventing “Death by A Thousand Cuts” in the Agency-Client Relationship

There’s a reason many corporations prefer hiring communications professionals who The Business Lab ending toxic Client Relationships on a positive note - representative and consultant Katherine Hennessy-resized-600have experience working on both sides of the table: as a client and for an agency.

Perspective.

If you have ever been the client, you know what great and lousy client service looks and feels like.  And if you later made the switch to the other side of the table, to a public relations or other type of agency, you then had the opportunity to serve clients with the same level of customer service excellence you expected (and perhaps actually received) from your agency when you were the customer.

Also, it pays to be familiar with the pressures and challenges of working on the inside and you can only get that from working on the inside.  Too many agency employees have an inaccurate picture of what their clients are up against because they have never walked in their shoes.  Perhaps the subject of a future post.

As for me (thanks for asking!), I’ve split my career down the middle with half of my experience as a client and the more recent half serving clients from big, medium and small agencies.  During the client years, I saw agency-client relationships disintegrate in slow increments.  Typically, it was death by a thousand cuts vs. the result of a single infraction. And sad to say, I witnessed the same phenomenon while on the agency side.

In almost every case, it was the little things that built up over time that led to divorce.

If you are currently working at an agency and have never worked on the client side, here are a few timeless tips — in addition to outstanding results, of course — that will help keep the relationship with your customers on the right path:

  • Acknowledge that you received your client’s email or text with a simple “got it” or “will touch base with you on this” or anything that sends the message you are available. A client’s imagination can run wild when their attempts to communicate with you aren’t reciprocated in a timely manner.
  • On the other hand, don’t get upset if your client doesn’t get back to your emails or calls in a timely fashion. The agency-client relationship isn’t always a two-way street and that has to be OK with you or you will make yourself crazy.  Clients spend lots of time away from their desks, confined in conference rooms for meetings that go on and on and on.  And they have their own internal clients to serve and politics to play. Cut them some slack.
  • Call your client.  Email and team conference calls are great and have their purpose. But some of the best engagements and ideas come about when the account team lead and client chat live. Clients enjoy hearing from their agency, even if it’s just a call to check in.  So pick up the phone.
  • Remember that the client hired the agency, not you.  Show leadership by encouraging all members of your account team to be heard on the weekly group client call. Clients want to hear how every member of the team is contributing.  For a client, there’s nothing more uplifting than when on one of these calls a junior person begins to “get it” and shares a brilliant idea.
  • Get the agency’s most experienced people involved with your client’s account.  Invite them to an occasional brainstorm, especially around the bigger initiatives, and then tell your client about it. Most clients recognize that agency management isn’t involved with their account on a daily basis, but many have the fair expectation that senior agency leaders are making a contribution beyond invoicing.
  • Share bad news with your client sooner rather than later.  Whether it’s a missed media opportunity, the resignation of a key team member, etc., clients have the right to hear about it as soon as possible because it impacts their business.  Too many agencies procrastinate when it comes to sharing negative developments with a client.  Most clients, however, realize that despite best efforts, not everything is always going to go as planned. Work together on solutions.
  • Encourage your client to occasionally recognize the account team’s good work. They need and most often will appreciate the heads up. And your team will do their best work for the clients who appreciate them.

Agencies Make Their Internal Counterparts Better, And Vice Versa

collaborationMore corporations are taking some of the responsibilities previously handled by their public relations and advertising agencies back in-house. Regarding PR agencies, it’s no longer breaking news that many clients have taken their social media activities inside. But a recent report by The Association of National Advertisers (ANA) says that the expansion of in-house marketing and marketing communications capabilities includes bringing creative strategy in-house as well – a red flag for ad agencies.

A few highlights from the report (courtesy of Michael Lee and his Forbes.com article, “Can In-House Agencies Ever Be Great?”):

  • About 60 percent of the clients who participated in the ANA study say they are using in-house marketing capabilities vs. five years ago when 42 percent reported the same;
  • More than half of the clients polled say they have taken assignments that were traditionally the responsibility of their agencies back in-house;
  • 40 percent brought creative strategy in-house, which as Lee points out “has been a key agency capability and attraction to clients,” and
  • Almost 70 percent run their social marketing programs in-house.

For those of us experienced enough to have seen the rise and fall of in-house agencies, and now their apparent resurgence … well, it’s been an interesting ride.  During my years with once great computer manufacturer Apollo Computer, Inc. (acquired by HP in 1989), I was part of a dynamic in-house marketing communications team that had a level of enthusiasm, sense of purpose, work ethic and urgency as impressive as any agency I’ve seen since.

The team was as big as some small to mid-size agencies and included:

– Up to nine PR pros handling all corporate communications, all media and industry analysts relations and support at events and trade shows.  We didn’t call it “content development” then, but the PR team was largely responsible for developing a significant amount of the marketing content, from by-lined articles to white papers and speeches to press releases and customer success stories.

– another half-dozen or so copy writers, designers and other creative people.  All sales literature, customer brochures and product sheets, other promotions, themes for trades shows and employee conferences, etc., all done in-house. While there was an advertising agency on retainer, that agency acted as an extension of the internal team.

– a significant events team produced and set up every trade show, from negotiating trade show booth space to overseeing the unions setting up the booths on the showroom floor.

All were part of the same team and reported into the same management. It was a great model that worked at the time. Despite its great run, however, a similar model today would have more disadvantages than it does advantages.

Lee makes the point that an in-house agency works “right at the heart of a brand” vs. agency staffers who are outside looking in.  Somewhat sarcastically, he calls power, influence and control the “eternal Corporate Aphrodisiacs.”  And he’s right.  

But at the same time, in-house agencies can be at risk of becoming too internally focused. For those of us who have spent any amount of time on the client side, we know that the eternal meetings, time spent building consensus, bureaucracy and politics can chew the days and weeks away and relegate the creative process to the back burner.

One of the greatest advantages of working with an outside agency is the broader, external view and opportunity to learn from the campaigns of the agency’s other clients — best practices and also the campaigns that went bust, so what not to do.  In addition, agency people make it part of their business to know what’s coming around the next corner, marketing trends and new technology platforms that can help propel a client’s campaign.

And finally, an agency team makes the internal team stronger and vice versa.  An ambitious and competitive agency team can push an in-house team to stretch outside its comfort zone, and the best in-house teams will respond in kind.

What do you think? Do external agencies make internal teams do their best work?