I’ve never liked the affectation some agencies practice of calling clients “partners,” or — for that matter — clients calling their agencies “partners.” True partners share the same goals. While an agency’s job is to help clients achieve the clients’ goals, the agency’s overall goals can’t be satisfied by any single client. And let’s face it: how many clients really care about their agency’s goals anyway?
It’s not that agencies don’t care about their clients, and vice versa; it’s simply a matter of priorities. That’s why the old analogy of an agency/client relationship being like a marriage doesn’t really hold water. How many newlyweds go on the prowl for new “partners” the way agencies do the instant the vows leave their lips? (OK, there are a few. But let’s hope they’re in the minority.) Figures differ on the average length of agency and client “marriages.” 5.3 years — and shrinking — appears to be a number that’s bandied about a lot. But given the average CMO tenure at a Fortune 500 company is now less than two years, that 5.3 year figure seems a little long. And clients never keep agencies around “for the sake of the kids.”
No, agencies and clients aren’t like married couples. They’re more like lovers, joined to milk precious satisfaction as long as the satisfaction lasts. Lest you consider me cynical, consider the value of a good lover (especially when there’s no spouse to tiptoe behind) and the potential longevity of a good affair. It’s not such a bad thing. In fact, it behooves both parties to consider not how to be great spouses, but how to be great lovers (figuratively speaking, of course).
Agencies pretty much know the game: be attentive, delight whenever possible, listen carefully, respond quickly, never call anyone an idiot. But most clients seem to be in the dark, assuming (like an inept lover) that it’s always all about them. Of course it IS always about them. But good clients — like good lovers — learn that knowing how to give the agency what it needs to please you can increase everyone’s satisfaction. (See how nicely this analogy works?) Here’s how they do it:
#1: They Tell You What They Need (“A little lower, a hair to the left, THERE, that’s the spot!”)
Decent agencies don’t need to be told how to do their jobs. But it doesn’t hurt to know exactly what would make the individual client happy before setting out on a project. Do you want to increase sales volume among heavy users? Increase new customer counts in the Mid-Atlantic region? Increase brand awareness among diabetic pre-teens? Cool. You say you want a new advertising campaign? What for? How will we know if it’s successful? If I had a dime for every time a client said “We just need to drive sales,” I’d be retired. Of course you need to drive sales. Everyone needs to drive sales. But where are those sales expected to come from? The late, great (and very profane) comedian Sam Kinison once did a bit about trying to please women in which he asked what it was they wanted men to do, finally screaming “Tell us!!!!! Just tell us!!!!” That’s the way agencies feel sometimes.
#2: They Give You What You Need (“What if we stayed at YOUR place tonight?”)
You want an agency to give you pleasure? Give them the information they need to do their jobs. Hit your deadlines. Give honest feedback. Don’t hide any agendas. Give them access to decision-makers, rather than hiding behind ineffectual coordinators. In other words, treat them like lovers, not prostitutes.
#3: They Trust You (“Handcuffs? Sure, have at it.”)
Funny how people try to live up to expectations. Expect someone to fail and they usually will. Expect people to do their best and they usually won’t disappoint. “Trust” is just another word for positive expectations. If you don’t trust your agency to bring back work that’s on target, they probably won’t. If you consistently second guess them in their area of expertise, you’ll soon find they won’t offer as much of it. Does this mean good clients never question their agencies? Of course not. Questions are healthy. But you need to find an agency/lover you can trust, then proceed to trust them. If you find you can’t trust your agency to act in your best interest, you should treat them like an untrustworthy lover — dump ‘em. If you find yourself incapable of trusting any agency, you will never be a good client.
#4: They’re Adventurous (“Will I do it here? Um, what the hell?”)
This is the flip side #3. You want some reward, you’ll have to accept some risks. It’s an adventure. Advertising legend Stan Tannenbaum used to say “great creative always makes clients nervous.” Great clients understand nervousness isn’t always a response to a great idea, but are willing to close their eyes and take the leap occasionally. If you trust your agency, you’ll
#4 1/2: They Call You in the Morning (“Honey, that was great.”)
OK, this only counts as a half because, well, it’s nice, but if all you’re after is a one night stand it’s not absolutely necessary. But if you want to keep a great lover, stay in touch. You want to keep a good agency, tell them how they performed and thank them for the effort. They’ll remember that the next time another project rolls around. Keep your agency in the loop. Call ‘em up from time to time to share results.