How to be a better client

Given the enormous amounts of money invested in marketing through advertising agencies, it is incredible that so little attention is given to how to be a better client, to motivating agencies to deliver their best performance.

How to get better client-agency relationships.

It may come as a surprise, but big-spending marketers don’t always get the best from their agencies.

Why is that?

One reason is that managing an agency relationship is like parenting: no one is trained, but everyone is expected to be capable.

You Get The Agency You Deserve

For his book You Get The Agency You Deserve, Jared Belsky interviewed over 400 client-side individuals and found that not a single person had received dedicated training on how to manage this sort of relationship investment.

“Managing an agency relationship is like parenting: no one is trained, but everyone is expected to be capable”

Kim Walker – Aprais

Belsky makes the point that ‘the vast majority of Fortune 500 companies have media or creative or consulting agencies with annual retainers that can be as large as $30 million per year in fees, with as much as $1 billion in media investment under management. Yet leaders are asked to sort of “wing it” in the management and stewardship of that investment.’

Why the lack of focus?

One of the main reasons marketing executives are not trained to be great clients is that their superiors rarely evaluate them based on how they manage agency relationships. There is little incentive to improve in an area that is not inspected.

Perhaps the most telling reason for the lack of client training is that there are virtually no repercussions for not being great clients.

Repair or replace – the cost-efficiency argument

Companies sometimes prefer to fire an agency rather than address their own internal issues. There is a prevailing sense among clients that ‘a new agency is highly motivated to deliver’. Not being great at managing agency relationships is not seen as a failure in many organisations, and the blame is often shifted onto the agency.

One of the other key drivers for a client to launch an agency review is cost reduction – yet recent research from ANA and 4A’s in the USA titled The Cost of the Pitch reveals the average total cost of an agency review to be $1.2 million.

Just like marriage, it’s better (and less costly) to repair the relationship than to replace it.

Belsky suggests we dump the normal Request for Proposal (RFP) process. The average client-agency tenure is just under two years, and AdAge reports that 40% of clients are searching for new agencies. Instead of the traditional RFP process, consider an alternative approach that fosters better agency-client relationships. The honeymoon phase, where agencies understand the client’s goals, can lead to more empathetic and effective collaborations.

Better relationships deliver better results

Is all the effort worthwhile? Aprais and WARC set out to assess whether better relationships deliver better results in a unique study that matched relationship evaluation scores with Effies award winners over a nine-year period.

The analysis revealed that teams that won effectiveness awards are stronger, on average, both when clients score their agencies and when agencies score their clients.

Becoming a better client

Belsky offers 10 practical lessons in how to be a better client. His advice addresses things like how bad master services agreements (MSA) and scope-creep can damage a relationship, and how to provide effective feedback.

But it’s the 10 emotional lessons where I think his book excels:

  1. Treat your agency as an extension of your team: Create an awesome environment where word gets out that it’s incredible to work on your brand and for you.
  2. Have the budget you say you have: Get as close as you can to the real number and know you are doing the right thing by giving as much transparency as you can provide.
  3. Ask better questions: If you ask questions that stoke the imagination, you will get bravery in return.
  4. Be aware that your agencies might hate each other because of you: The agency should be hungry to impress, while also clearly understanding their remit, standing and role.
  5. Appreciate the big investment you make in your agency: Recognise the type of leverage you have via your agency partner and put it to work while being accountable for it.
  6. Be open to tough love from your agency partner: To promote a successful partnership from both parties, you want the agency to give feedback. Feedback that comes only from the client limits opportunities for new ideas and real collaboration.
  7. Be willing to embrace two opposing views: Great clients can wrestle with conflicting thoughts and help a great agency forge a new path together.
  8. Great clients win with kindness: A client’s biggest, cheapest and easiest weapon.
  9. Avoid the perils of overplanning: As a client, you drive opportunistic behaviour when you signal to your agency team there is both a budget and mental room to try and do something new and bold.
  10. Always set the standard: Through repetition, a great client is able to remind an agency at every turn what matters most to the client, company and brand.
Better relationships, better agencies, better results and happier people.
Let’s talk about kindness

As emphasised in point 8 above, kindness – or call it civility – is a client’s biggest, cheapest and easiest weapon. Belsky conducted a LinkedIn survey among agency leaders around the question ‘What motivates you to work hard for a client?’

Out of 1,005 responses, the top response was ‘kindness’. He found through subsequent follow-up that the overwhelming and profoundly simple theme was, ‘I will absolutely work harder for a client that shows kindness and energy towards our team.’ While this seems very simple, it’s rarer than you might guess.

An article from Harvard Business Review discusses the importance of kindness in business both at the company and individual level. So there are benefits all round just for being kind. I would suggest the reverse is also true, regarding the negative impact of cruelty.

Marla Kaplowitz, CEO of the 4As (USA) goes further suggesting a call-to-action for advertisers to start treating agency partners with respect.

“It’s time for an industry code of conduct to ensure people within agencies are treated appropriately”.

Marla Kaplowitz, CEO of the 4As
Can behaviour be improved?

Aprais share Belsky’s belief in longevity of relationships. Our experience shows that unless corrected, bad behaviours repeat. So jumping from one agency to another is rarely a solution.

Belsky advises, ‘instead of giving up on your agency relationship when difficulties arise, invest time in nurturing it’.

Improve agency performance.

At Aprais, we have irrefutable evidence built on over 26,000 client-agency relationships we have evaluated, that with proper management, relationships do improve across disciplines and behaviours both for the agency and for the marketer.

The wrap

Being a better client involves understanding the nuances of agency management and fostering a collaborative, respectful partnership. This skill is often taken for granted, which is why there’s no specific training in the area.

Client-agency relationships can improve with proper management and the application of basic kindness. This leads to happier, more productive teams and better work.