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January 13, 2010
Client Personalities Direct Agency Effectiveness

Personality determines client behavior which is then magnified or minimized at any given moment by the individual’s status in the food chain, political clout, savvy, management air cover, P&L responsibility, intelligence, coping behaviors, industry insight, competitive pressures and stress from any number of sources. Baseline personality is to client behavior what gravity is to earth – a fundamental organizing principle.

A smart, strong and confident client will treat an agency similarly. An anxious, scared, weak or worried client will drive an agency crazy. An ambivalent, chair-warming bureaucratic lifer will stall, misdirect and baffle an agency. A flighty, tentative, ADHD client will spin an agency in circles.

In working effectively with clients it’s critical to identify and to understand each individual’s personality. And while its fun to play amateur psychiatrist and speculate about how and why they are they way they are; its much more important to zero-in on how they operate. Focus your powers of observation and your energy on interacting with them in productive and mutually beneficial ways. The myth of the “client from Hell” arises because agencies don’t identify and respond to the personality factors, which drive the agency-client relationship.

Across industries and functional verticals several species of clients occur time and again. There is a very high probability that agencies will encounter these archetypical client types; each of which has unique operating and handling characteristics.

The Mandarin. A senior client, usually a CMO or someone at or near the top of the food chain earning big bucks and big esteem. Mandarins can be fundamentally malevolent or benign based primarily on their sense of job security. In an environment where the average CMO lasts 23 months, there’s much less grace and much less psycho-demographic homogeneity at the top than there used to be.

Mandarins manage upward. Their primary audience is C-level players who generally undervalue their contribution to both the organization and the bottom line. They live and die by serving the CEO, even though most are the designated fall guys for CEO-initiatives that fall flat or implode. And they frequently battle with the CFO and the head of sales, technically a counterpart, but frequently a rival.

These clients focus on big stuff -- big ideas, big concepts, big scale and big rewards. They frequently operate in lavish environs and casually mention their perks, the number of corporate jet flights they’ve taken, their hectic luxury travel schedule, the tedium of gourmet dining with corporate leaders and their interaction with big names or boldface individuals. They rarely talk about marketing stuff and almost never discuss their own campaigns or plans choosing instead to sprinkle their conversation with stock price quotes, PE ratios and other financial slang, which they often barely understand. In many cases they are trying to convince themselves that they are bigger than marketing and play a broader role on a bigger stage, one more integral to the overall functioning of the organization, even if they just joined the organization last week.

They depend on the senior agency people to know everything that’s going on within their organization and within the agency’s world. Many will ask for details about people in their organizations and programs in their pipelines with the expectation of complete candor. In the same breath, they’ll inquire about IPG’s balance sheet, John Wren’s latest acquisition tactics or Sir Martin’s personal foibles and expect their agency counterpart to dish on-demand.

Mandarins rarely rock the boat. That’s both the reason they stay and the reason they go. But, they frequently want to know about and talk about best practices, big ideas, trends and campaigns garnering broad-based buzz. They see themselves as messengers and advocates of big ideas and they react viscerally and negatively when they get blind-sided or upstaged in this arena. They know and have the big ideas. You support them, feed them and remain unseen and unheard by the people they seek to impress. Agencies load the rabbits into the hat. Mandarins make the magic.

The Know-it-All. Usually a mid-level executive, know-it-alls come in friendly and hostile flavors. Both demand massive amounts of attention and acknowledgment. A know-it-all without an audience is a potential serial killer.

Agency people understand that like Wikipedia, what a know-it-all knows isn’t necessarily accurate, true or current. But that’s much less important than understanding this client’s need to control the conversation, surface critical data points and remain on top of everything going on. Validation, security and productivity are a direct function of knowing (and frequently reciting) for this personality type. You cannot win a KIA competition with a KIA. Agencies with KIA clients give them the forum and the attention they need and find ways to direct their energy productively.

Friendly KIAs want to share what they know and bring you into their circle. They see themselves as feeding the strategic and creative process. They figure if they didn’t bring a fountain of knowledge to the table the campaign, the program, maybe even the company would be lost and rudder-less. But they are eager to teach you and invite you to be in-the-know.

Nasty KIAs get off on busting agencies. They find errors and mistakes, expose exaggerations and overblown claims and seek out opportunities to embarrass and humiliate the people who are supposed to be helping them. They see themselves as fastidious keepers of the truth; mullahs charged with defending the faith and punishing infidels. These guys turn tidbits of data into “critical” variables whether they really are or not. These KIAs are angry, often loners, who can’t get out of their own way or let go of their own pathology. Agency people know to cut a wide swath around them and to work overtime to avoid their harassing behavior.

The Up-and-Comer. Ambitious, energized, focused on the prize, these clients are out to win the corporate game by climbing the ladder of success and reaping the riches at the top of the tree. Many have MBAs and all kinds of experience that they see as investments toward obtaining a goal they intend to achieve either with your help or over your dead body.

Contemporary literature and business magazines are filled with these personality types from Horatio Alger to Bill Gates or from Michael Dell to Sammy Glick all convinced that they can realize the American dream. U&Cers can be divided by sensibilities and the ethical lines they’ll cross to get what they want. Most are cautious and appropriately respectful of laws, ethics, customers and SOPs. Some are willing to do whatever it takes, cut corners and/or undertake a scorched earth policy of death and destruction to reach the top.

Understanding what an U&Cer genuinely wants, their risk appetite and how they define success is key to working with them successfully. Some are playing the short game. They want to survive the next re-org and get the next level promotion. Others have found a tribe or a rabbi and are looking to game the system or to jump multiple steps in one move. And still others are looking for greatness and global domination; seeking to be plucked from the middle of the pack, their success rewarded with much greater authority, responsibility and hard cold cash. Working with these clients requires assessing what they want and their likelihood of getting it and then calibrating agency behavior accordingly.

In many cases, one hand washes the other. The agency helps them and they return the favor. In some cases the agency provides the insights, the intelligence or the springboard for these guys to succeed. In other cases, the agency is a threat since agency performance can retard their trajectory or risky agency recommendations can potentially backfire to their detriment. Up and comers spend a lot of time reading the board, identifying likely allies or antagonists, calculating their moves and evaluating scenarios.

Agency partners need to be in this head game and do the same, usually with a 90-degree difference in perspective. This type of client can cement an agency relationship and drive endless new business opportunities throughout a long career across business units or geographies. Or with equal ease, a U&Cer client will throw an agency fatally under the bus without warning or apology. If someone’s got to take a bullet – it will always be the agency.

The Lifer. The polar opposite of the Up-and-Comer is the lifer; once a robust and healthy species now smaller in the age of outsourcing and downsizing. The Lifer lives outside of work and warms a chair in an organization to fund his or her real life. They are entirely focused on staying around. Completely risk adverse, they do as little as possible, hide, avoid any situation that could draw either attention or blame and are generally happy for an agency to do their job completely. It’s all about the paycheck, the benefits and a pension. Nothing else matters to them. They will torpedo anything that threatens this holy trinity.

Lifers are the human and corporate equivalent of those small creatures living in coral reefs that have amazing camouflage and who spend their whole lives hiding from predators. They have no expectations for creativity or productivity, though they know that self-preservation is often a function of meeting timetables and budgets. They will default to process compliance in every situation. They have zero interest in innovation, in new tactics or in making any perceptible noise.

Lifers can be great clients because they are genial and are masters at not giving offense to anyone over anything. They don’t want to be too bored and are more than happy to work with you, have countless meetings and work sessions, dine out frequently and give you access to others so long as you (and they) leave no traceable tracks in the sand. They are masters at creating motion, which gives the illusion of forward movement.

Agencies can’t be faked out by the form and must focus on the function. Lifers will get you whatever you need but cannot be counted on as allies. They are generally nice people who are used to pleasing those around them. They are pleasant companions, good traveling partners and really try to connect with individuals on a personal basis. They will happily cue you about internal personalities and politics as long as you don’t disclose the source. Just don’t ask them to stick their necks out or put them in any posture where they can be exposed or judged.

The Nerd. This client is buried deep in the details. Rather than get something done, they want to dissect and understand all the working parts. Entirely focused on process at the expense of creativity or productivity, Nerds want to go to school on your time and on your dime. Grasping every detail is their ultimate pleasure. They will slow you down, tie you up and make you crazy, if you let them.

Nerds have a need to know. The impact or import of knowing doesn’t matter to them. They want to master the process and will insist you tell them and show them everything on their terms and on their timetable. Unlike the KIA who might question the answer, for Nerds the answer itself is enough. They are the company fact-checkers, the last line of defense against randomness and chaos.

They live in an ethereal world of sketchy concepts and half-baked ideas secretly thinking of themselves as philosophers and prescient observers of the human condition who have unique perspectives and deep mystical understandings of the fundamental forces in the universe. More likely they are nudniks and outcasts who use their leverage as clients to monopolize your time and attention and to focus on things that don’t, won’t or can’t matter. They never got over the brutalization they endured in high school and are just as likely to be locked into the same dated behavior, aesthetics and vocabulary.

Nerds won’t help you until you pay the information toll. Working with them requires that you acknowledge their needs and feed their appetitive for trivial details, the inner workings of each campaign asset or data set and as much gossip as you can serve up. Successful agencies pair a Nerd with a Nerd to run interference and to establish relationships, which can be surprisingly productive.

These archetypes are gently exaggerated for emphasis but they illustrate actual personalities frequently encountered in agency life. They are the clients that you will have to work with and through to achieve your personal or agency objectives. Understanding the underlying personality type and making agile adjustments will help you be more productive and have more fun.

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Danny Flamberg, EVP Managing Director of Digital Strategy and CRM at Publicis based in New York, has been building brands and building businesses for more than 30 years.Prior to joining Publicis, he led a successful global consulting group called Booster Rocket, as Managing Partner. Before becoming a consultant, he was Vice President of Global Marketing at SAP, SVP and Managing Director at Digitas in New York and Europe and President of Relationship Marketing at Amiratti Puris Lintas and Lowe Worldwide.
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