Today at the eBev Conference, a number of client- and agency-side marketers discussed ways to get better work in the client/agency relationship. it made me reflect back over 20 years to consider great relationships I’ve had and ones that weren’t great.
Sometimes it’s basic chemistry: you and the client either click — or you don’t. Sometimes it’s poor communication on the part of one or both parties. Sometimes, like a previous personal relationship, you can look back and say, “if only I had…” or “if only we had…”.
Regardless, there are a few stumbling blocks that you can watch out for. Here are my own five “secrets” to getting better work from your advertising or marketing agency.
#1: Insist on account people who want to know your business – enable them to learn it – and help them fall in love with your offering
The account director role is absolutely key to a great client/agency relationship. In some agencies, account leads are scorned by creatives or planners as “order takers” who lack their skills sets. That mindset is mere tribalism. Great account leads act as the perfect conduit between client and agency. They provide a politically-independent sounding board for the client. They act a very important buffer, shielding the client from creative egos or planning preciousness, and shielding the agency team from changing priorities, micromanagement or whimsy.
One common problem is that agencies can attract account executives who have great people skills but often lack an interest in learning. Learning your business. Learning your category. Learning about your competitors, related regulation, stock issues, etc. A desire to learn about you is absolutely key.
And – I’m going out on a limb here – a great account director will not only want to know the details and nuances of your business but will actually become emotionally invested in your success. If they love what you do, they will truly act as your proxy within the agency. This is crucial when they run into the inevitable conflict of interest when agency management pushes them to sell you more work. Good account people will find a balance of your interest and the agency’s — they will bring interesting ideas and tools for your review but they will NOT push things you don’t need. They will win your trust.
How do you find this type of person? It’s challenging, but can be done in the initial pitch process. Ask the new business team who will run the account and insist on interviewing them. State your intentions up front. Often, they’ll assign someone with bandwidth who may not be the best person. Make the business relationship contingent upon them supplying the right account lead.
Once you find that person, provide them with opportunities to sit in on important meetings so they can become part of your internal team. Take them onto the factory floor or into the call centre or wherever the end product is created or delivered. Take the time to help them fall in love with your offering. They will do better work, defend your interests within the agency, and because they are not a part of your political structure, they can be objective enough – and hopefully honest enough – to see and alert you to potential issues that could derail your projects.
Beware the Account Waiter/Waitress!
One troubling trend I’ve seen over the years is the Rise of the Account Waiter/Waitress. These folks come out of university, have some people skills, but are only interested in moving up the ladder. They don’t seem to realize that to do so requires hard work and participation in the work. These “order takers,” like waiters or waitresses, will simply smile, take your order, go back to the kitchen and start barking at the planners and creatives. Like some waitstaff, they will make friendly noises while talking to you, but don’t really care about your business. This type of account lead will actually demotivate the rest of your agency team. Think Pete Campbell vs. Ken Cosgrove from Mad Men. Lacking leadership skills (and often any kind of creative or strategic talent), they will add nothing to the team or the work but a vague sense of decision-making entitlement. They won’t care enough about you, the client, to invest themselves in the planning, creative and delivery processes. I’ve seen a lot of this type of account lead, and it’s very hard not to despise them if you are a creative or strategist.
#2: Ask to see their planning process – and make sure you are open-minded to tough love
There’s a saying: “strategists would rather be right than be loved; and account people would rather be loved than be right.” For many on the agency side, it’s hard to speak truth to a client when it could impact their revenue targets, so they may “protect” you from the honest truth brought by strategists — especially if that truth isn’t pretty.
You can’t make good decisions with bad data. A good strategist will keep your business goals top of mind and give you the best data they have – and it may counter your own beliefs or other data you’ve purchased. Great strategists will be painfully honest about how your goals will match up with realities about the demographic, the market, the message, the offering, etc. THIS IS A GOOD THING. YOU WANT THIS. This person can feel crotchety or arrogant from an interpersonal perspective, but if their thinking is solid, they may be your most valuable agency asset.
You will likely have one strategist assigned to your account. Insist on a strategist – not a planner. There is a difference. The more senior, the better. Aspiring strategists who are in reality planners will be great at planning tactical execution or understanding tools, but will not have the business savvy to create real strategies.
Is the strategist asking about your business KPIs, or merely thinking about channel KPIs? Will their work truly help your management hit their numbers and get their end-of-year bonus?
Ask to see their planning process. Is it done in a vacuum? Is it impartial? Who is involved? What inputs are utilised? Is the process iterative (beneficial), or done once a year during Account Planning Season (what you typically get)? Planning shouldn’t be one-and-done once a year. Markets, competitors, offerings and audiences change frequently. Ask for an iterative planning process – and make the time to participate.
#3: Immerse creatives in brand experiences
Creatives work best when they can experience something new. And let’s face it: not every client product or service is something to get excited about. Maybe it’s a new “lite” version of a beverage product. Or a new motor oil. Or a pre-paid mobile product. Exciting for you, perhaps, but not generally for truly gifted creatives.
One common issue is that many managers don’t understand the cultural aspects of Hype vs Craft. One of the best business articles I’ve ever read discusses how sales people – and often leaders – have one mindset – the mindset of Hype – while marketers, particularly creatives, live by the mindset of Craft. The way these cultures work is very different. Client management needs to understand that as Craftspeople, creatives need mental space and ring-fencing to do their best work. if you want to truly understand the creative mindset, read this article by Art Kleiner, editor-in-chief at PwC’s Strategy+Business.
Get agency creative teams interested by immersing them in brand experiences: what the customers go through, or what the product or service does for the customer. Immerse them in the lives of the demographic. Help them get into the head of the target audience. Consider the experiences that make you love your job, and find a way to get the creative team to live those same experiences.
I’ve been a part of P&G focus groups, for example, where we were not only able to follow our demographic around, but were able to learn their tastes in clothing, music, culture and social relationships. This was HUGELY valuable in the creative process – and it inspired our creatives to do truly great work.
#4: Ensure they have value talent
Most agencies are hired by marketing teams who 1) struggle to attract strong creative talent, 2) need specialty expertise, or 3) who simply don’t have the ability to add headcount. Because of this, the acquisition of great talent is a large chunk of the agency’s value.
Yet many agencies have no real talent retention plan. No mentoring programs. No continuous learning environments. No career path management. Many agencies are struggling. A peek under the covers might show there have been no raises for the last couple of years. Or no opportunity for internal advancement. Many are operating so close to the bone that the talent feels overworked, under-appreciated, demotivated, and are keeping a constant eye open for other job opportunities.
It’s hard to get inside agencies to understand if they nurture talent. It’s also hard to get an honest answer when you ask about talent retention. Before you sign with an agency, ask their management: do you have any formal mentoring? How do you handle talent flight? Do employees attend internal training classes? Are they sent to conferences? Are they given merit increases? Do employees get annual salary bumps?
Don’t get into a situation where you hire the talent and the agency drives the talent away. I’ve seen this happen many times. This is perhaps more important an issue than most clients realise.
#5: Be in touch weekly – or even daily
Finally, treat your agency like a real partner. You meet with your internal teams weekly, right? Just because your agency isn’t in the same building doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see them as one more critical component of your team.
Time Starvation will feel like your biggest enemy. “I have an entire team to run – I pay the agency so I don’t have to think about everything!” True, but the more you interact, the better the work will be. Ask for weekly touch-bases. It will make your agency team feel valued and will enable them to participate more regularly in your day-to-day work. You’ll get better work and a true partnership.
Really – a great client/agency relationship is just like a great interpersonal relationship. It’s partly chemistry and partly mutual value. Both parties get what they put into it. When I’ve had a great relationship, I’ve been able to maintain and grow those relationships across multiple agencies, building life-long friendships in the process.