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Agencies, clients and the art of conversation

Published on Wednesday, 21st September 2016, contributed by Gioconda Beekman

Clients. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them. We’ve all heard this phrase at least once right? Or perhaps we’ve even experienced the sentiment. I know that I have in the past.

So I wasn’t overly surprised to hear that the words battle, conflict and fight are the most frequently used words when describing client-agency relationships. This, according to a presentation by Prof Tim Hughes and Dr Mario Vafeas from Bristol Business School, UWE, hosted by the Bristol and Bath Marketing Network last week. The findings were the result of a research project looking into the current state of the typical client-agency relationship.

I recognised most of the feedback that was presented, from both a client and agency point of view, having worked agency side for the majority of my career in client focused roles. What concerned me though, was that the answers to the problems posed were so obviously staring us into the face when displayed side by side. Yet, given the recent new updates based on client feedback when asked - what do you want from your agencies? – some areas have seen little improvement, while others remain unchanged.  

To give a few examples:

  • When asked about the brief, agencies say there is a lack of focus and information, while clients say there is a lack of interrogation by the agency.

  • In respect to knowledge and skills, agencies say there is a lack of understanding of the creative process, while clients say there is a lack of understanding of the client world.

Given that my background is in communications, I guess it’s natural for me to wonder if anyone out there is actually having a decent conversation? And if not, why not? Is it lack of time? Are agencies too focused on “billable hours”? Is the use of technology stopping us from gaining a true understanding?  In truth, it could be a combination of all of these. Every situation is different.

While the agencies included in the research are from the broader creative sector, I think there are commonalities that we can all learn, regardless of discipline. For me, it comes down to the fundamental skills of building good relationships - listening and learning, as well as talking.

There clearly is a need for better communication and closer collaboration between agencies and their clients. In my view, agencies need to understand not only the client’s business, but the individual’s internal environment around them. What are the challenges? How – as an individual consultant within a broader agency team – can you personally make your client’s life easier? What useful information can you share with them? What makes them tick?

This, from my experience, is how you get the most out of a client relationship. I once flew to India and back just to have one face-to-face meeting. Madness? Probably. Exhausting? Definitely. But – in this particular instance - it was the only way to get things done. I never said it was easy.

The latest round of client feedback as part of the research presented supports this view. Clients say that face-to-face time is important and that agencies should take the opportunity to educate the client. They want to learn. They expect agencies to integrate with more than just the marketing department and show how they can really make a difference to their brand.

Finally, while I agree with the statement that clients ultimately buy ideas, not agencies, I do believe that people and personality should not be overlooked when selecting account teams. Making sure there is a “match” between individuals so both parties can get the best out of the relationship is surely worth the investment for the longer term? What do you think? I would welcome people’s views on how we can all work better together.

Image copyright: Chris Guy

* The findings were taken from an ongoing research project which first commenced in 2013/14 based on 482 practitioners from both agencies and clients. The first round of researched focused on design and advertising agencies with the most recent research covering agencies in the broader creative sector. The client base surveyed includes a range of small businesses to large organisations.