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Four Steps To Fruitful Client-Agency Relationships in 2020

We've made it to the final furlong of 2019! It feels like we should be winding down as the year draws to a close but, by all accounts, there are still a lot of briefs to tackle, and pitches to get through before we can down tools and usher in the next decade.

Strapped for time, we rarely take a step back and have the conversations that are necessary to address early frustrationsNew agency-client relationships will form and new campaigns will commence in the New Year, with all the optimism of a fresh new romance, brimming with ideas and enthusiasm.

But it's a depressing fact that the honeymoon period is often all too short. How long before the agency starts saying, "We've got all these great ideas, but our client just isn't listening to them"? How long before the client thinks, "The agency team just keeps asking the wrong questions"?

Strapped for time, we rarely take a step back and have the conversations that are necessary to address early frustrations. Instead they fester and infect the relationship... sometimes indefinitely.

Long-Term Versus Short-Term

The thing is, we are all in it together. And, ultimately, we all have the same long-term goal. Whichever side of the table you are on, you're invested in doing great work that hits the right objectives and earns you a virtual high-five from the people that matter.

However, it's all too easy to lose sight of the longer term goals. Agency teams quickly develop a laser focus for detail, for hitting weekly and monthly KPIs and diligently report back on regular calls. But it can feel like the client isn't really listening. In-house comms managers have got other balls to juggle, targets to hit and budgets to play for. And it can feel to them that the agency doesn't really understand their pressures.

If matters do come to a head, it'll probably be around a meeting table when one party is least expecting it. At which point, the agency will most likely vomit solutions onto the aforementioned table with embarrassingly little consideration of the end goal.

I'd hate anyone to interpret this as a general criticism of agencies not being strategic enough. That's absolutely not the case. But it is easy for agencies - and in-house comms teams, for that matter - to get caught up in the weeds.

Step Away From the Day-to-Day

It's fine to say: "This is my response right now, but I don't have all the answers.It would be easy to say the answer lies in listening better. It does, of course. But it's more than just keeping one's mouth shut for a chunk of the next conference call or meeting.

The canny account handler needs to think about building time into the programme to ask questions and genuinely listen to the replies. That probably isn't during the weekly conference call or even the monthly meeting or quarterly review. It might be a separate 1-2-1 call or coffee and a chat. The point is, we need to identify the opportunities to have an actual two-way conversation, not just deliver a download on the progress we've made towards hitting the KPIs.

Lose the Game Face

Such a conversation requires confidence. So often, it's too scary to acknowledge a failure; that something we've done hasn't worked as well as we thought it should. And that we don't have all the answers. So we ignore it, and try to move on. Then it comes back to bite us around that meeting room table when we're least expecting it, so we slap on the game face and try to solve the problem in the room.

Slow down.

Hemingway said: "The first draft of anything is shit." So much truth in that statement.

We need to give ourselves permission to be honest. It's fine to say: "This is my response right now, but I don't have all the answers. Give me time to reflect and I will come back to you with them." And then go away, consider the problem and work out all of the possible solutions. Only then should you try to discuss them.

Collaboration is What You Need

Once you take away the pressure of delivering an immediate "wow moment" response, the relief is palpable, and true discussion can take place. That's the point at which true collaboration begins between client and agency, and where each has mutual respect for the other. And surely that's the mark of a good relationship.

Good luck with all of those pitches, and make sure you take steps to ensure the honeymoon period isn't over by Valentine's Day in 2020!