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September 10, 2003
What Clients Are Saying About Agencies

I am pleased that Talent Zoo asked me to contribute an article for its website and for asking me to write about one of my favorite subjects: client/agency relationships.

Today, corporate CEOs and other members of the 'C-Suite' are subject to greater accountability than ever before. A downsized corporate America is looking for agencies whose informed objectivity can provide support and directional input in making decisions, which affect the corporation's very survival. These clients want an agency whose principals genuinely know the difference between lip service and leadership in the communications business.

Clients need—and they are beginning to seek out—agencies that appreciate advertising as a part of an holistic marketing system, and who relate as business-people to the CEO's top-down view of his or her own business. This type of real involvement directly influences the way agencies sell themselves in new business presentations, as well as how they handle the business after getting the account.

Because so much is on the line, clients need to feel a comfortable rapport and trust for their agency partner. They have many fears—some valid, some unfounded—that must be assuaged if the relationship is to grow and prosper. While some of these fears may be unique to a given client, others seem to be popping up with increasing regularity. Among those voiced most frequently are concerns that:

  • agencies are more interested in generating big fees for themselves, rather than in the success of the marketing plan for the product/service;
  • leaner agency staffs mean key people are spread too thinly and not paying enough attention to their roster clients;
  • account team turnover is creating a loss of momentum for the brand, particularly when clients have to train and re-train agency personnel; and
  • agencies are scrambling so desperately for new business that they sometimes make promises they can't keep.

Unfortunately, dealing with such issues and making the client feel comfortable about the way you handle their business is only part of getting into his or her mindset. There is also the matter of knowing what your client is doing, in addition to knowing what you're doing. While successful agencies have always educated themselves about their clients' products, today they often need to learn the deeper underpinnings of the company's day-to-day operations if they want to excel. Only through comprehending the CEO?s agenda from top to bottom can agency people understand where they fit in.

I would recommend some fundamental changes in the ways an agency does business with their client-partner:

  • Devise new ways to do more with less-don't count on the economy increasing those weakened client budgets any time soon;
  • Focus spending on critical brand drivers, not just the benefits that are table stakes for anyone playing in the category;
  • Set priorities according to potential-your clients will be able to make better decisions if they understand what the marketing ROI might be on a certain activity versus another;
  • Deepen consumer insights—you're probably closer to the needs/wants of today's rapidly changing customer than the client, so leverage that knowledge in driving new business development-theirs, not yours!

The bottom line for agencies is this: clients need you to understand and stay on top of their entire business operation, not just your corner of it.

True, this means more of a time investment, more participation from key management, and more effort to serve as a resource for improving business, rather than as a narrowly defined vendor-partner. For you, true value will come from the delivery of effective solutions that move your client's business. For clients, those business contributions will be remembered long after they have forgotten a campaign theme.

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There is class, and there is classy. Jane Bedford is one classy and knowledgeable professional. President of The Bedford Group, Jane's firm assists a slew of notable Fortune 500 companies. From marketing and communications strategy to agency relationship support and more, The Bedford Group is a valued organization among many advertisers. 

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