2nd May 2019

Some agencies set themselves up to fail

You’ll recognise them I’m sure:

  1. I wish the client could write a proper brief
  2. Why does the client keep changing their mind?
  3. They won’t pay for good work
  4. Agency deadlines are sacrosanct, but clients’ deadlines seem to be immaterial

This is where a good agency, and a strong client services function in particular, starts to differentiate itself from the pretenders. Some agencies have the mindset and culture which breeds success, rather than setting themselves up to fail.
A true client partner (you know the kind of agency I mean; they offer solutions over services) will reframe their thinking before taking the easy approach and blaming external influences. They’ll take a hard look at the customer-consultant relationship and strive for continual improvement.

Kaizen (改善) is the Sino-Japanese word for “improvement”. In business, kaizen refers to activities that continuously improve all functions and involve all employees.

In the spirit of continual, iterative improvement I’ve penned some thoughts on these everyday agency grumbles.
 

  1. I wish the client could write a brief

Many clients can indeed write a succinct and effective brief, but if the brief provided doesn’t give sufficient detail to ensure quality of delivery an agency has a couple of options:

  • Work with the client to refine the brief.
  • Use your knowledge of the client’s business and their industry to fill in the gaps and refine the brief yourself – present back an updated version.
  • At the very least… pick up the phone and try to resolve the issue.

What you absolutely should not do is try and press on regardless. In a futile attempt to save face the execution will ultimately suffer and you’ll be left complaining that the client can’t write a brief. If you can’t help the client refine the brief, perhaps you’re not the right agency for them.
 

  1. Why does the client keep changing their mind?

This is an easy one. Why does the client keep changing their mind? Because they’re human. Because they’re subject to forces beyond their control. We all change our minds or have them changed for us. Ever returned some new shoes the next day? Exactly.
You probably bought those shoes in the first place because you didn’t know exactly what you wanted. Unclear brief? See point 1. If external forces are “to blame” for the change then adapt and refocus.
There are many routes to the optimum outcome and the route taken isn’t always (and seldom is) direct. The role of a good agency is to use their experience and judgement to guide a client through the decision-making process, not make the decision for them or to berate them for changing their mind.
 

  1. They won’t pay for good work

This is one of my favourites. Easy to complain about but difficult to diagnose. There are many, many reasons why a client is resistant to paying what you think a project is worth. Consider the following:
Is the work you’re delivering a commodity? A service rather than a solution. Is the client seeing a finished product but not the knowledge and years of experience required to deliver it to your standard?
If the conversation is one-way, if you’ve accepted briefs that aren’t a good fit, if you’ve delivered work exactly to spec without applying your experience, then perhaps you’re now pigeonholed as an external production house.
The client-agency relationship should be a value-exchange.
Suddenly it’s easy to see why a piece of work feels over-priced when “I can get the same thing on People Per Hour for half of that”. An agency, particularly in 2019, needs to be ever-conscious of their value proposition. If you decide not to specialise, then you at least need to differentiate. Know your craft and add value.
 

  1. Agency deadlines are sacrosanct, but clients’ deadlines seem to be immaterial

Deadlines are about process. Delivering the optimum outcome in an efficient manner, whilst maintaining profitability (value-exchange).
Deadlines change; people aren’t machines. A good project manager will anticipate that. Even when delays exceed contingencies, a strong, well-managed team can adapt and re-focus.
An open and transparent relationship with the client will ensure that even when there are delays, expectations are managed from both sides and a slipping deadline (the HORROR!) isn’t a shock to anyone.
The mistake a lot of agencies make is being afraid to communicate the impact these delays will have on delivery. If an agency can pick up the slack and still deliver on time then fantastic, but that should never be the expected approach when comms channels are clear and honest.
 


 
There’s a lot more to say about fostering the right collective mindset, but I’ll save that for another post. Instead, I’ll leave you with these wise words from some experienced agency professionals:

  • Do what makes you proud.
  • Take every possible step to learn as much as you can about the client’s business, but also the industry they operate in. That’s not just the parts of it that affect the work you do with them, but all areas of their operation. Spend time with people from across the business.
  • Don’t limit yourself by geography.
  • Know what you want from your job. Understanding what your own success looks like and the path/steps and goals you will need to get you there will be key in underpinning your purpose and drive.
  • Understand the importance of saying “no”.
  • Always be honest with your clients.  Harder than it sounds but will avoid you getting into sticky situations when things inevitably go sideways on a project.
  • Relationships will always matter.
  • The power of listening, integrity, accountability and knowing your client.

 
Check out the full thread here.