Recently, there have been several industry articles written about the shortcomings of ad agencies when it comes to the needs of the clients they serve. What has been made clear is the need for the agency to shift better and faster from “business as usual” and focus more on being strategic rather than solely creative.
As the principal of a firm that does media planning but doesn’t produce creative, I feel we have a unique perspective on this topic. We have to work with creative shops or in-house creative teams but yet oftentimes by the time we’re brought into the equation, a strategy (or perhaps sometimes just a course of action that truly lacks strategy) has been laid down for us to follow. That puts us in a position of having to ask “Why?” a lot. While we’re used to this, it feels like many others on a media project are not or are uncomfortable with the proposition. But does this hesitation (or ignoring) of asking tough questions really serve the client’s best interest in the end?
Why You Don’t Ask “Why?”
Why does asking “Why?” feel so difficult…and how does this reluctance pose dangers to the overall health of the agency-client relationship? The answers may be rooted in fear:
- Fear of displeasing the client. When it comes to advertising and marketing, much as they may not want to admit it, the client is not always right, or is even just not in a good mood the day of the plan presentation. And yet the client is a powerful decision-maker who may also not like to relinquish control or be questioned. Are you brave enough to speak your mind regardless?
- Fear of looking stupid. No one wants to appear stupid in a client’s eye, but being afraid to ask common-sense questions – particularly those about the client’s product/service and audience – can only impede your ability to do good work.
- Fear of taking risks and being wrong. When you are supposed to be the expert, does that mean that all your ideas and answers have to be right or perfect, too? Does the fear of making a mistake hinder your thinking or taking a chance on something new, innovative, and yet unproven?
- Fear of losing your job. Some media planners do not work for great, risk-taking bosses and that you-know-what flows downhill. It’s not unfair, therefore, for a media planner to hold back if they’re not supported by their own higher-ups.
- Fear of losing the account. As the expert, it’s your job to question, probe, rethink, and analyze on-the-fly. Your own decisions can make the difference between wasteful or costly errors and huge success. You should be simultaneously trying to protect your client as well as yourself, and that can be a tough tightrope to walk.
Why You Should Push Back
Pushing back on clients (or, frankly, on your own internal teams too), done in a professional and effective manner, can mean the difference between a trusting agency-client relationship and one that’s just a contract for services. Help build this trust for these tough-love reasons:
- Clients can have misguided or inappropriate expectations and you need to level-set.
- The digital ad business is ever-changing and very few people, clients and agency folk alike, truly “know it all.”
- Publisher swag and client wooing gets in the way of good decision-making…but won’t make up for the lack of conversions/performance.
- New ad opportunities, properties, technologies, etc. pop up every day – don’t just buy from the same ol’, same ol’.
- Continuing to buy the same mix can lead to audience fatigue.
- Digital audiences change and age – how is everyone planning and adjusting for this? (And how well do you really know your clients’ audience going in?)
- A client-sculpted media plan can have too much duplication of audience reach.
- Conversely, a poor plan can have inadequate reach.
- Until you test an idea, you cannot be sure it will or won’t work – you don’t have to fail huge, but you can learn just as much if not more from failing than from succeeding.
- It’s not all about selling a new idea if you don’t think the idea will perform.
- A site’s traffic grew but the budget didn’t, and now your spend isn’t large enough to be effective.
- Publishers can only estimate impressions or clicks over a fixed future time. If they lose market share, it may take longer to deliver upon the buy.
- It’s time for a creative refresh and the budget’s been blown. Do you stay mum or make a great case for how and why to get it done?
- Having a Plan B drafted ahead of time in case the client doesn’t like Plan A (or Plan A is what the client asked for but Plan B is what you advocate) can save the day and prove you’re forward-thinking.
This brave new digital world calls for brave behavior. Are you ready to step up your game?