Tips For Agencies From The Client Side

Marketing NW 3

It’s been 18 months since I was invited to write the inaugural Client Commentary column for Marketing Newspaper - the long-standing publication that has served the Puget Sound regions communications industry since 1986. I was asked to provide a few "tips for agencies" from a clients perspective. My first offering came from a list of 25 top of mind topics. Publisher Larry Coffman diplomatically suggested that I might be wise to temper my unbridled enthusiasm and begin with my top five suggestions. In March, two more were published and the September edition will complete what has been pared down to a Letterman-like “Top 10 List.”

As a  reminder, the first seven suggestions for agencies to consider, from a client perspective, included:

1. Loyalty matters.
2. Commit to the journey.
3. The brand is everything.
4. It’s not your money!
5. There’s no such thing as full service.
6. When you sell yourself, deliver yourself.
7. Excuse me, but isn’t that “our” award?

Now let’s finish the list with tips 8, 9, and 10.

8. Collaboration Will Look Good On You.

Once you’ve come to understand and accept tip No. 5, that there’s no such thing as full service, it follows that successful agencies must learn to embrace collaboration with the various service partners selected by your clients. You won’t get a vote on who the partners are, the skills the client has asked them to bring or the degree to which each partner is engaged.

To use a familiar metaphor, your client is the chef and your agency is an important ingredient in the stew. For the dish to be as savory and satisfying as the chef intends, it will require a variety of important ingredients, and none can be allowed to overpower the flavor of the dish. Instead, each ingredient must enhance the flavor and bring out the best of the overall mix.

Being willing to collaborate and engage with firms outside your walls is the secret to long-term success in the new millennium. Collaboration is a behavioral skill that reflects well on those who are willing and able to put their own wants, needs and (especially) egos aside to serve the client’s interest.

Those who arrogantly or selfishly presume they’re the strongest partner or that they have more of the best ideas will not only be the biggest loser but ultimately will kill the partnership among the remaining agencies.


Consider the following for successful collaboration:

  • Clearly understand the client‘s objectives and your role in achieving them.
  • Become familiar with all the players and commit to enabling one another’s success. Assume that the client has hired each partner for a good reason… just as you were chosen.
  • Be curious and respectful of what others bring to the mix. You might learn from them.
  • Keep communication among agencies open and productive. Remember: None of you is as good as all of you!
  • Understand that the money will follow the work, regardless of where the idea originated.

Granted, collaboration can be much more challenging than a model that enables a single partner to exercise command and control. Leading brands no longer defer to a lone agency for strategy, creative and implementation. Now, more than ever, sophisticated and experienced brand marketers partner with agencies that value effective collaboration.

 9. Don’t forget the bells and whistles!

A client deserves your agency’s bells and whistles beyond your presentation that won the business. Extend it throughout the relationship. That’s often forgotten as relationships mature.

Early in my career, I worked with a Portland-based agency that had won our retail account long before I arrived. They produced campaign components that were consistent, affordable and in line with established expectations. Unfortunately, they didn’t invest as consistently in the emotional needs of the relationship. They had the account and were in autopilot mode. They delivered the steak, but seldom exposed their sizzle.

When the time came to refresh and relaunch our brand in a new marketing campaign, the incumbent agency and two or three hand-picked challengers were invited to pitch for the account. Two were exceptional and rose above the pack. One was the incumbent; the other, a smaller firm with everything to gain and nothing to lose. It was the challenger who brought an almost magical presence into the room.

The challenger’s presentation was inspiring, entertaining and just plain fun. It radiated enthusiasm and energy. Those people delivered the sizzle. They brought the bells and whistles.

In the days that followed, I wrestled with my feelings about loyalty and commitment, but couldn’t disregard the energizing appeal of the challenger. Ultimately, it was their enthusiastic presence that earned them our business. It was a great call to make and I never regretted the decision.

The incumbent was surprised and shocked by my decision. I explained that, while their concepts were solid and the strategies were sound, they lacked energy and passion during the pitch. I told them that of all the businesses that I worked with, I expected a marketing firm to be the best at selling itself—complete with bells and whistles.

In the following days a package from the losing agency arrived. It was wrapped in muti-colored foil and brightly decorated. Confetti and streamers filled the box. At its center was a ribbon tied to a handwritten note. I pulled the ribbon from the confetti, revealing a collection of bells and whistles. The note bore just a few sentences: “Thank you for the lesson about the importance of bells and whistles. Here’s what we forgot in our presentation. We won’t make another without them.”

10. Never forget rule Number One

Agencies that develop meaningful client relationships build more than a record of successful results along the way. They accept responsibility for occasional missteps, are transparent about their intentions and trust that when armed with relevant information, their client will make wise decisions on behalf of the brand.

Successful agencies work hard to ensure that they have the right people working on each of their clients’ accounts, have a healthy respect for the client’s chain of command and actively maintain contact with the leader. They’ve found a formula that—more often than not—delivers quality, timeliness and affordability in their solutions and they recognize that perfection is often the enemy of the good.

Rule No. 1, “loyalty matters,” is critical to a winning relationship. It’s a value that I place at the top of the list and strongly believe must never be taken for granted.

When an agency takes a client’s tenure for granted, communication often deteriorates, self-interest escalates and fees, balance sheets and contracts become discussed more than strategy and results. These are win-lose conditions. What was once a long-standing partnership is destined to crumble.

Add A New Comment

  • Ken Grant
    Sep. 24, 2012
    G'day Rod,

    I just enjoyed reading your recent Top 10 tips for agencies article in Marketing. Well done. Simple, affective, poignant. Having owned an agency for eleven years, I very much appreciated your thoughts and hope my old agency read a copy of it!

    I hope our paths will cross one of these days and keep up the great work!

    Ken Grant
    Motivational Speaker | Brand Advisor


  • Grant Jensen
    Sep. 13, 2012
    Hi Rod,

    Great article. I know that I have complimented you before on part 1, but your observations and advice are so dead on, it almost makes me want to re-open my old ad agency. Almost. Earning, maintaining, and growing the clients business is one thing; how you are treated is another. What drove me to move to the corporate side, and beyond, was the trend of being classed as a vendor not a partner. Sadly, that seems to be even more prevalent from what I hear.

    Hope all is well with you.

    My best,

    Grant V. Jensen
    Sr. Research Director
    Hebert Research

The Fine Print

Rod Brooks (that's me) is VP & CMO of PEMCO Mutual Insurance Company and serves as Immediate Past Chair of the Board of Directors for the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA).  It's important to disclose both of those relationships and to be clear that this is my personal blog where I share thoughts and opinions that are solely my own.  Contact me!

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