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October 31, 2007
The 4 Myths of Agency - Client Relationships
 

If you want stronger, more productive, more stable relationships with your clients, you need to examine your agency's beliefs and assumptions about clients.

Why start there? Because your unexamined beliefs and assumptions are what truly drive the actions and decisions you and your colleagues are making, day in, day out. They also blind you to opportunities and festering problems. Cumulatively, those daily actions, inactions and decisions give you the quality of client relationships you now enjoy or complain about.

Coaching agencies and agency-client relationships across the country, I've noticed the same limiting beliefs and assumptions over and over. I call them the 4 Myths of Agency - Client Relationships. How strong are these at your agency - and what are the consequences?

Myth #1: This Client Will Be Different.

Take an agency person out for a drink and soon you'll be hearing complaints about clients. It intrigues me that from Seattle to Orlando, from Boston to Los Angeles, I've heard the exact same complaints. Yet we live with an illusion that if I just get on a new account, it will be different. If I just change agencies, it will be different. If I just move to a new city it will be different. I know if I become a client (!!!), it will be different someday!

But it's never different. There is in our industry an Agency - Client Dynamic that is unexamined and allowed to run rampant and it makes all client relationships the same: We meet our dream client during the new business process. We think: Now I'm glad those bad old clients left us. This client will be different! We win the business and the honeymoon starts. We set up the relationship the way we've started 50 others - three months later the honeymoon is over. And the complaints begin, on both sides.

What if you faced Myth #1 head-on and owned it. (Love the one you're with.) This client relationship will not be different unless your agency does things dramatically different from Day 1.

Starting with the pitch, set expectations clearly, early and often. (The trouble in most strained relationships began when goals, roles, expectations were assumed, not defined in the first weeks.) Find out the client's specific measures for success and then set clear written goals. Don't lie in the presentation. Don't bait and switch the team who will actually work on their business. Ask honestly and upfront for what you need to succeed. Don't ignore early warning signs of trouble. Instead address those signs early. Keep your promises, impeccably, so you build a bank of trust you will need later when breakdowns happen, as they inevitably will!

Myth # 2: Ad Agencies Know How to Communicate.

As a Creative Director I could motivate a million women to buy a new lipstick, but I couldn't inspire my clients to buy the work I most believed in. I struggled with how to bond with clients who had nothing in common with me, demographically.

As commercial communicators, we agency people are brilliant. As communicators to our clients and internal teams, we're lousy. We don't listen. We pout. We're defensive. We don't know when to stop arguing our point. We make pitches about us, not the prospect. Need I go on?

We need to admit we have a problem, and get to work. Learn to listen. Invest in presentation training. Invest in communications coaching. Take more responsibility for the outcomes of our communications, meetings and presentations, rather than blaming the audience.

Myth # 3: The Client Can't Hear What You Say About Them on the Way Back to the Agency.

Bad news: They can. They also can hear what you say about them in hallways. When they are on speakerphone and you're rolling your eyes and making faces. And in elevators, bathrooms, and reception areas of the client's offices.

If you are badmouthing, blaming, making wrong, keeping score or gossiping about any of your clients, they know it. So stop doing it and don't let people around you do it.

Don't be like the agency team I know who forgot to disconnect after the client conference call. They proceeded to wail about the client's reaction to the creative work and make snide comments about their cheapness all while the client group was still on the line.

Myth # 4: Relationships Are a 50/50 Proposition.

50/50 sounds fair, doesn't it? It might be fair, but it doesn't work. If you continue operating under the illusion that relationships are 50/50 you will not be successful. You'll be like a husband - wife doubles tennis team, arguing about each ball that bounces between them: "That was your ball!" "No, it was yours!"

I tell all agency people: It's 100% your responsibility to have the relationship work. (Of course, I tell advertisers it's 100% their responsibility.)

Think for a moment, what would you do differently if you took 100% responsibility -- not blame, but responsibility -- for having the relationship succeed, the work be great and the brand grow? What if you had to stand 100% by your results -- not your reasons?

These 4 Myths of Agency - Client Relationships are your entry point for stronger client relationships. How strong are these myths at your agency? What negative behavior do they foster or even excuse? What are the consequences? And what can you do to help your agency break free of them?


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Even ad industry bigwigs can benefit from some coaching, and that's where Trisha Scudder comes in. Described as “part princess; part pitbull,” she founded Executive Coaching Group in 1987 to bring executive coaching and teamwork training to the advertising and marketing industry. She knows coaching, plus she's also been in the game: a former copywriter, creative director, and the person behind the launch of Swatch.

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