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What should the ideal client / agency relationship look like?

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Michelle Patel

“Who’s your dream client – and why?” I sometimes ask that question at the end of a pitch. It’s not what people expect, and it’s very revealing. Fortunately, no-one has yet been glib enough to answer ‘you guys, of course’… that’s not what the question is for. I really want to know. I don’t expect it to be us, that’s ok. It’s interesting to see if people pick an amazing brand (someone once said ‘Amnesty International’ – they had me at hello) or a type of person, or what.

It’s to tease out your values, what you understand, what you think is important and whether those are things we can share. It’ll tell me whether you’re thoughtful or not. It might even tell me if you’ve been listening. That tells me whether you’ll be a person I can trust to get under the skin of my brand, my product, my audience, and my problem, and make them your own. If you’ll tell me the truth. If you can do that, there’s really no need to blow smoke up my ass. You don’t have to. You just have to be intelligent and understand where I’m coming from, and I’ll do the same for you. An intelligent agency will tell me when I’m wrong, and prove it.

They’ll understand that I need to show a return, so it’s not just a case of faith in the beauty of the creative, or how many followers the spokesperson has, it’s a case of evaluating the outcomes honestly – and having the brains and the guts to say ‘this didn’t work, and we know why now’. The flip side of that is they’ll have my trust – and my business. They’ll be a strategic partner to me, and I don’t mind paying for that. I won’t stiff them on the pennies, because the work will be worth every single one.

Over nearly twenty years in this game, there are a few agency people (I can count them on one hand) who I will hire over and over again, wherever they are working. They are among the smartest people I’ve ever met. (And yes, you hire the people, not the agency, unless you’re scared and want to hide behind the big name if it goes wrong.) Some are now too big and successful to take on the little public sector bits I can offer. Many still take them because it’s challenging and enjoyable – or as a favour to me. One person, for example, who is a Board director now in a global agency in New York used to say she preferred to take a tiny difficult public sector campaigns that barely covered the fee over the huge beauty ones she ‘also’ ran, because the work had to be better thought through, the audience was more recalcitrant, the media were more hostile and the clients were nicer. I really loved working with her, because that’s how I feel about it too.

For the most part if you have the dream relationship with an agency person you also can be the dream client. On a big campaign, you’re carrying an awful lot of responsibility. On a small one, it’s even more responsibility because it’s all you’ve got. Many clients are inexperienced and the power drives them a little nuts. Sometimes people in this business are very young. And then, when the cookie crumbles, the fear drives them even more nuts. Some clients clearly don’t know what to expect or what’s achievable, and yes, sometimes things go wrong. So I guess alongside a plea for an intelligent agency should be a plea for an intelligent client. If something goes wrong, you and your agency will be bending over backwards to sort it, that’s the job. If they are not, change agencies. But don’t be a dick to the people who are working with you to fix it. It pays dividends in the long run if you are not. After all – who would you rather had to save your ass at 6.30pm on a Friday night, your agency, or your boss? If you are a reasonable human being to deal with, your agency just might pull it out of the bag for you.

I think the problem is organisational and cultural. In this business, the clients bash the agency when something goes wrong (which isn’t fair, and we should be ashamed of ourselves), and the agency slags off the stupid clients behind our backs (don’t think we don’t know), and so the world turns. But none of us are dumb – you don’t last long in this business if you are. Some of us have done both sides, and done them pretty well. How about if we come at it from the premise that we’re all intelligent, decent people who want the same thing: to nail this campaign and look amazing. Let’s have a conversation about how we’re going to do it, and how we’ll know when it’s done. Start from that and it all might change for the better.

 

Michelle Patel

Michelle Patel is an insight, strategic campaigns and communications expert who has worked in central Government since 2001, led multi-million pound and multi-award winning integrated campaigns, built the professional skills of the UK Government’s communications network across 100 countries and been Chief Communications Officer for a brand on the front page news agenda most days. Her work has created behaviour change that has saved millions of pounds and hundreds of lives.

She lives in Brighton, likes to make pots in her spare time and is a huge nerd about research, behavioural insight and evaluation.

Michelle is currently leading the Social Science team in the Food Standards Agency.

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