When Account Management / Client relationships are too close

Over my years in agency-land, I’ve been fortunate enough to carve some genuinely close relationships with my clients.

Relationships where I no longer work with them but we’re still in touch ten years on, I’ve been to their wedding, or met their children, or…hell, written to them on Facebook.

Relationships where I spent so much time in their building I was given a desk or an office, and on a couple of occasions, got head-hunted by said client to jump ships.

Relationships where clients have unburdened personal issues, internal conflicts, career doubts to me, either in the office or out of it.

You get the picture, I’m sure. Based on what I’ve just said, it’s clear that I’m a client relationship guy, and (you may well think) pretty damn proud of myself to boot.

Or am I?

From hero to zero, to hero, to…

The thing to point out is that carving a niche as a big-account client lead in an agency is a double-edged sword.

You get looked up to as a font of knowledge about a particular client, but at the same time can be regarded as a suit, a generalist, a bag carrier.

You can be given plaudits by your boss for holding or developing the business, but at the same time, often miss out on broader agency recognition because you (generally speaking) aren’t always as heavily involved in the headline-grabbing new business development side of the business.

Finally – and this one is the hardest to overcome – you can be held up as an example of how to develop great relationships when the client is clearly ecstatic about the work you do, but at the same time can be privately vilified by senior leadership and your team because it’s perceived that you care more about the client than you do about the agency that employs you.

When you’re too close to the centre, you can’t always see out

More than one agency individual across the last fifteen years has criticised me for seeming to care more about the client than the agency. Sometimes, I think, unjustly, other times with good cause. In the past, I’ve shrugged it off. Now, with the benefit of hindsight and the broader perspective allowed by not actually working for an agency, I’m able to re-evaluate.

Whilst close relationships between agency account lead and client are always to be desired and aimed for, here are three situations where, in my view, the agency lead is ‘caring too much’ – with the result that ultimately, not enough is being done either for the agency, or, surprisingly enough, for the client.

  1. The agency lead is bending over backwards, to the point of no return

I find that this happens particularly with those agency account leads with less experience. It certainly happened to me early in my career. You just want to push so hard for them, you invest yourself personally in their issues, they ask you and your team to shoulder more and more work for them, they love you for it…but you forget that, as an agency, you’re in business too.

Going too far above and beyond is fundamentally unsound. It creates an unhealthy balance of power in the relationship, where the agency feels it can never say no because of the precedents set. It can stress teams to breaking point. And – here’s where the senior management vilification comes in – it can increase churn, reduce productivity and performance in the areas actually covered by the scope of work, and it reduces margin. None of which is good for business.

As a client – the extra mile is great. But mutually set the boundaries; don’t try and take on everything at once but prioritise those ‘special tasks’; be aware of the fact that both agency and client are in business for a reason, and reach a sensible compromise. If you pay or recognise an agency fairly, you’ll get better results over time.

  1. The agency account lead is trying so hard to keep the relationship strong that it feels like a stance of ‘client is always right’ has been taken

No, the client is not always right. In fact, the client is often wrong. We all know this.

One reason an agency is employed is to help guide and course-correct, and yes-people do not work well in this space.

Also, overly-defending the client or agreeing with an erroneous client can really damage the morale and trust within your own team, who will feel that you aren’t accounting for their position, or that of the agency. You must try to take a balanced view, without ‘we must keep this business’ or ‘I must not damage my relationship’ getting in the way of the facts. The strongest relationships are those that have capacity for big disagreements.

As a client, if your agency never disagrees with you, your relationship is, in my view, sub-par. Sometimes the agency account lead needs to be reminded or encouraged to do so; but the agency is not delivering optimally for you if you won’t allow them, or they aren’t able, to challenge your views, your strategy, your approach.

  1. The agency account lead can’t go on holiday because if this happens, things fall apart

Apart from the obvious issues with an individual not taking appropriate leave, this scenario represents one of the most common challenges – that of single-point sensitivity.

It is very tempting, if you’re an agency account lead, to want to be the knight on the white charger – the go-to-person. For the client, isn’t it great to have such a dedicated person running your account for you? But for both parties, it is a fundamentally unsound position to take.

Where there’s single-point sensitivity, agency teams feel stifled, useless or dead-ended in their roles; no proper succession plan is in place, which also restricts career development of the agency account lead; the client, in funnelling everything through the agency account lead, becomes unclear about roles and responsibilities; and if the agency account lead departs the business, the relationship immediately becomes unstable.

Other than this, from the agency perspective it’s just bad leadership, because it ultimately means that supporting members of the team are not given recognition or reward for toiling behind-scenes to deliver – not to mention the fact that the client is ultimately getting a myopic perspective, rather than taking full advantage of the broader skillsets and viewpoints sitting behind the agency account lead.

If you’re the client, insist on understanding your agencies’ roles and responsibilities and if necessary, develop a basic contact approach (who calls who, for what). And please, when you write a note of praise to the agency CEO, ensure that you know enough about the agency operation so that the right people, beyond the agency lead, are recognised for their work.

So there it is. I could go on. But if you genuinely want to optimise your close relationship, then I urge you both – agency account lead and client – to read this article together and use it as a start point to take a good look at yourselves, then move from your collective centre and take a look outside. You might be surprised by what you find.


To find our how TrinityP3 Marketing Management Consultants can help you further with this, click here.