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The client agency relationship – 5 things agencies hate hearing from clients

Client Agency Relationship
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This post is by David Angell, TrinityP3 General Manager and Head of Media. David has extensive commercial and media experience gained through a fifteen year career in media agencies, which he uses to help drive optimal results for TrinityP3 clients.

‘They said what now?’

Some months back, I wrote an article about the things that clients hate hearing from agencies, which caused a minor stir. Only minor, you understand; it wasn’t a Pullitzer prize winner. But it raised a few comments. 

Then, more recently, someone approached me with a challenge. ‘Great to talk about what clients hate hearing from agencies’, the person said. ‘But what about what agencies hate hearing from clients? I bet you wouldn’t want to write about that, seeing as how it’s the clients that pay TrinityP3’.

Well – au contraire. In a burst of bravery, I’m going to do just that.

I’ve said it before in posts and comments, and I’ll say it again now: whilst the clients pay the bills, we are fundamentally not doing our jobs as consultants, and we’re not providing value to our clients, if we aren’t objective.

We do a lot of work with clients, through our Evalu8ing relationship evaluation process, through our Media Agency Transparency, Performance and Value assessments, and through our Agency Roster Alignment projects, where part of the process is conducting stakeholder interviews, or obtaining stakeholder feedback, to supplement and give context to the data we gather.

These interviews are always private, constructive and the individuals are never quoted verbatim; we find that people tend to open up a lot in this environment about the good, the bad and the ugly.

All of which is to say that, without compromising anyone’s privacy, I’m in a great place to write about what agencies hate to hear from clients and why. And I’m not afraid to do it.

So – let’s list five big bugbears.

1. Client not taking responsibility for roster alignment

What the client says:

‘I want you as a group of agencies to go away, work out who’s doing what between you, and come back with an integrated solution.’

What the agency hears:

‘I’m going to put my head in the sand and hope that you can all go away and magic something up.’

Most agencies hate this approach for a number of reasons. First, there’s no clarity. Second, the grey areas between many different agencies mean that there will always be competitive threat, always be a degree of lunch-stealing, and invariably a great deal of stress, all of which leads to a solution that is neither optimal or objective.

The agency fights shouldn’t be the client’s problem, but multi-disciplinary agencies on the same roster being capable of doing the same jobs as each other is simply a fact of life. If the client wants the agencies to work together, said client needs to assume some responsibility for how that process is structured, segmented, scoped and paid for (there are a number of ways to do this, and we often find ourselves talking about this kind of thing in roster alignment work). The agencies should be open about challenging such a statement from a client, and seek the necessary clarity.

2. Client pushing for something too quickly

What the client says:

‘I know I’ve only briefed you today, but we need a response on this tomorrow, because my GM needs to see it.’

What the agency hears:

‘I can’t manage upwards, and I’ve been slow at communicating internally, so can you work all night to save my hide?’

OK, this one may be a bit harsh. But there’s no doubt that, a lot of the time, agencies feel pushed to do something too quickly for no good reason, then blamed for a sub-standard response. Clients – your agency team, like any team, needs time to develop its work (within reason, of course).

3. Client thinking that agency staff aren’t as committed

What the client says:

‘I’d love to work at an agency like you. You can be all care, no responsibility.’

What the agency hears:

‘I think my job is way harder and more complex than yours, and I also think that you’re able to just walk away every day without a backward glance.’

Agencies, make no mistake, can be hard environments to work in. This takes nothing away from the different kinds of hard associated with being ‘client side’; but if agencies were easy, we would not have so many challenges with staff churn, or finding and retaining new talent.

Furthermore, agency staffers would not be able to commit as many hours as they do to their jobs if they didn’t feel compelled by responsibility to do their best for their clients.

Finally – if you think that agency staffers don’t have internal ‘responsibility’, then you’re very naive. Any client who says something as de-motivating as this to an agency staffer should not expect that agency staffer to go all-out the next time help is needed.

4. Client asking for freebies that sit outside of scope

What the client says:

‘I know it’s not in your scope, but can you do it anyway, as a favour to me? Otherwise I’ll have to find another partner to do it.’

What the agency hears:

‘I don’t really respect you enough to pay you properly, but what I do know is that you’ll normally cave at the sound of the word ‘another partner’.

There’s obviously a lot to be said about the agency who gives in to this demand. But clients – please, agencies are in business too. They should be paid for the work they do and paid extra if that work is not in scope.

5. Client not following process

What the client says:

‘I don’t have a PO number right now, but can you book the activity/go ahead with the project anyway and I’ll sort something out?’

What the agency hears:

‘Can you just do it, without any financial protection?’

Mostly, everything turns out fine. Then again, I’ve been in situations in the past where clients have retrospectively refused to pay large sums of money, based on the fact that correct internal protocol at client side was not followed.

Often, the reality can be that day to day, junior agency staffers are put under pressure to ‘just book it’ because there isn’t enough time to do anything else. This is fundamentally unfair and lacking in due diligence. There should be a process; that process should be followed; the client should not attempt to circumvent it any more than the agency should.

So there it is.

As bugbears, they all sound simple and relatively low-grade, but then it is often the simple and low-grade things – the day to day injustices or annoyances, and the lack of understanding about how such things can be perceived by your agency partners – that can go un-checked over time, and ultimately cause high-grade damage to a relationship.

And that, it’s fair to say, is in no-one’s best interest.

TrinityP3’s Relationship Performance Evaluation service measures collaboration and alignment between marketing team agencies, offering insight and recommendation to maximise your collaborative output. More details here

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David has been a media agency practitioner for fifteen years, holding several senior positions in the UK and Australia. During this time, he has worked with a number of blue-chip organisations. David is the General Manager and Head of Media at TrinityP3. He lives in Melbourne with his wife and children.

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