When agencies and clients learn more about each other, we all get better
Something cool happened when I moved to Seattle 18 months ago: I became much more aware of farms and food growers in the area, a result of regular visits to the weekly farmer’s market a few blocks from my house.
I learned that when I met and talked with the people who grow and cook my food, I appreciated it (and them) more. So would client-side marketers appreciate the people who create their marketing and advertising programs if they met more often? What’s the key to better client/agency relationships?
Nothing — not a 20-page PowerPoint deck, a two-page creative brief, or a conference report from an AE — can substitute for directly learning from the client or the customer.
Once, I went to a meeting on a Monday afternoon for some clients who made household appliances. Our clients held sales reports in their hands from Walmarts and Targets, taken from that very weekend. They knew, to the very unit, how many were sold, and whether the TV flight that was running had any particular impact. Only by witnessing their preoccupation with sales numbers did it really dawn on me what they cared about. The creative concepts I primarily focused on were only a small fraction of their concerns.
So why don’t we get deeper client/agency interaction on a regular basis?
Many agencies don’t trust a lot of their people to interact with clients. Conversely, many agency folks, particularly creatives, hate the idea of interacting with clients. But just like clients are often not trained to evaluate creative concepts, creative people are often not trained to talk business. The problems persist on both sides of the conference table.
It also comes down to money and profitability for many agencies. Time spent in meetings = time not spent making ads. While daily communication is the work of good account people, even major strategy sessions or important meetings aren’t attended by most of the people actually making the work every day. Still, building trust is key for all members of the team.
When clients do engage with their agency teams, it goes a long way. I once worked on a casino account where nearly every ad worked to promote their slot machines. Which got monotonous after a while. After several months of this, the company CMO came to visit the agency and brought everyone on the account — some 40-odd people — into a room. And to my surprise and appreciation, he took questions and addressed many issues. “Look, I know pictures of slots aren’t as sexy as imagery of green felt, dice in slow motion, or high-rollers at a table,” the client said. “But we make our profits on the slot machines. That’s why we focus on promoting them.” I had never heard that from anyone on our team, or theirs, before.
The closer we are to our clients, and our customers, the better off we’ll be. I truly believe that, and don’t think it’s incompatible with doing kick-ass work. I know some people believe there’s peril in big too close to a client, that it inhibits pie-in-the-sky thinking. That someone in an agency might say, “Well, I know our client won’t approve this,” or “She said such-and-such, so she won’t like that idea.” Sometimes, too much information is a bad thing to many creative people who prefer to fashion ideas out of thin air. But a well-established relationship can pave the way to selling great work.
The short-term nature of jobs now also inhibits deeper agency/client relationships. As a freelancer, it’s difficult for me to know my clients. I’m a hired gun, so agencies are often happy to take my work and pass it along. And with more agencies, and even clients, embracing short-term projects, freelancers, permalancers, “contract” positions, or whatever you like to call them, there’s less communication and less mutual understanding. Which in the long run isn’t good for anyone.
It’s time for agency folks and client-side marketers to come together more often. With ideas like pay-for-performance agency compensation floating around, it’s increasingly important for agencies to make themselves more valuable to clients. And that means immersion for everyone working on the account, not just the people at the top.
It takes work, understanding, and willingness on both sides. And it won’t always be effective. Just like I don’t buy everything I eat at a farmer’s market. But I appreciate the work of farmers more when I see who’s growing the food I eat.
Perhaps more advertising would be more appetizing if we all worked that way.
Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small.
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