As a long-time agency account management gal (and when I say “long-time,” I mean a very long time) I’ve experienced a broad range of client-agency relationships—from “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” transactional engagements to true partnerships, and everything in between. Today at IM Partners we’re blessed with a cadre of terrific clients, based on mutually beneficial relationships cultivated over time.
Needless to say, working with a client that considers the agency an essential part of its team is usually far more fulfilling for the agency. And—I daresay—these clients generally realize much better results from their agency.
When it comes to client-agency relationships, sure, there are intangibles that have a bearing on the way work gets done—personalities, individual backgrounds and expertise, corporate culture, job pressures. But upon reflection, the most effective partnerships share five important characteristics:
- Clear Goals
- Collaborative Spirit
- Cross-Team Accountability
- Earned Trust
- Mutual Respect
One might argue that you can’t have one of these characteristics without the others, and in some ways that’s true. But a quick examination of each is a good way to turn them from general concepts to actionable priorities.
First and foremost, like any good team, the best client-agency relationships are based on clear goals. Without them, despite best efforts, it’s quite possible that the agency and client will be inadvertently working at cross-purposes. If the client doesn’t offer up their goals, any agency worth its salt will ask the right questions well before starting any real work. What are we trying to accomplish? Why? What’s the backstory? What will success look like? Only by understanding the whys and wherefores can an agency do its best work on behalf of the client.
Another characteristic of positive client-agency interaction is a spirit of collaboration. Holding an agency at “arm’s length” often results in a series of fruitless monologues—not a productive dialogue. Face it. The client has institutional knowledge that the agency will never have, no matter how long they work together. And the agency brings to bear objectivity, domain expertise and experience with different organizations and industries. Working together, they’re a force to be reckoned with.
At the end of the day, nothing gets done without cross-team accountability. As an agency, it’s our job to proactively meet or exceed the requirements of our clients’ programs—taking it off their desk and making it as easy as possible for them to run a successful initiative. But try as we may, we can’t do it alone. We’re dependent on our clients for everything from solid briefings and access to subject matter experts, to prompt responses and the approvals needed to keep a project on track. As in any good relationship, the dependencies are endless.
Trust may be the most important asset we have in business, and relationships between clients and their agencies are no exception. Generally, it’s an earned trust—the product of treating each other fairly, being above board, and doing what you say you will, when you say you will do it. It’s quite simple, but how many times in our business lives have we seen that trust compromised? Sometimes intentionally, as when agencies hide fees or clients are less than forthcoming about their intentions. Sometimes it’s unintentional, like dropping the ball on deliverables and putting your partner in a tough spot. Either way, it’s nearly impossible to win back trust; the trick is to do your best not to lose it in the first place.
And finally, what do we all look for in any relationship, business or personal? Mutual respect. Getting to this nirvana is a culmination of many of the things we’ve talked about already: a focus on common goals, collaboration, accountability, and trust. Agency people will walk over hot coals for clients they like and respect. And clients often bend over backwards to foster and empower an agency partner they value. If you can get to a place of mutual respect, it’s a win-win for everyone.
Relationships aren’t easy. They take work. Effort. But with a focus on these principles it’s hard to go wrong. And the benefits of great client-agency relationships are, without a doubt, worth it.
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