How to Be a Good Client

Agencies’ prospects are looking up. New accounts seem more likely this year than last. With new accounts come new clients. Sounds like good news for all concerned, right? Well, unfortunately, these new relationships can bring new troubles, if those on both sides aren’t prepared. When you’re paying the bills, it’s easy to forget there’s a skill to being a client — a skill well worth cultivating, since good clients get better results from their agencies.

In a recent Conference Board survey, 31 percent of advertisers termed their relationship with their ad agency somewhere between “unsatisfactory” and “disastrous.” Only 18 percent said they were happy with their agency. More than a third (37 percent) said an agency switch was in the cards in the coming year.

Maybe you’re about to switch. Perhaps you’re planning to ease your marketing budget’s purse strings and hire an outside shop. Maybe your small business is testing agency waters for the first time. Based on personal experience, both as an agency executive and as a client, here are my tips on finding and working effectively with an outside agency, large or small:

  • Define needs before you call. Frame an elaborately formal Request for Proposal (RFP), or simply state your desire for a well-designed email template. Large or small, know your goals before you talk to an agency.

  • See exactly what you want? That’s bad. Don’t hire the agency that already built “your” Web site for another client. Look for creative, effective solutions to diverse client needs that address individual goals in pitches and when perusing portfolios. A good agency purveys couture, not ready-to-wear. Some successful shops have a reputation for signature creative. Avoid them. You don’t want logowear. You want your agency to promote your brand, not its own.
  • Get your house in order. Don’t spring an agency on your company. Brief management and appropriate staff. Explain why the engagement is sought and what the goals are. Create buy-in. Distance the agency from any and all office politics.
  • The sales rep is not your account manager. Unless you work with a boutique, the genial, easily accessible individual focused on getting you to sign on the dotted line will palm you off to an account manager before that ink is dry. Don’t just get to know an agency’s work and sit through the pitch. Meet the people you’ll actually work with. You’ll be seeing a lot of each other. (Regular meetings are imperative to keep things on track.)
  • Limit the decision makers. No more than four people — maximum — should approve the choice of an agency or that agency’s work. Two or three is even better. The candidates are: the day-to-day agency liaison; that person’s boss; the product manager or marketing head; and the CEO. That’s it. Basta. More, and you’ll get creative-by-committee. You’ll watch great ideas die the Death of One Thousand Cuts. It isn’t pretty when the CEO’s wife wanders into a conference room to cast her vote for an element containing the same warm peach tone as her new kitchen curtains. Yes, I’ve seen this happen.
  • Create a communications map. Who are the go-to people, on your side and your agency’s? Distribute a detailed list to both sides’ players, from C-level to mail room. Contact information is a must, preferred contact methods and times of day are a big help.
  • Never keep ’em hanging. Responsiveness is way up there on the list of what agencies want most from clients. While they bust their rear ends meeting tight deadlines, remember: You’re collaborating. Return calls. Answer email. Have internal decision makers lined up when it’s approval or sign-off time. When there is a delay, quickly inform the agency and keep your contacts abreast of when and how matters will be resolved.
  • They give as good as they get. Is it possible for an agency to have too much information about and from a client? Talk, and don’t stop there. Invite key account people to internal meetings. Add them to memo, distribution, and newsletter lists. The more tightly your agency is integrated into every aspect of your product, service, brand, and organization, the better its staffers can work. The more you make them think, the better they’ll execute.
  • Good contracts make good partners. Don’t want your agency to work for the competition? Ensure your creative belongs to you? (TBWA/Chiat/Day retained some rights to the sock puppet it created for Pets.com — that’s unusual.) Spell it out in advance. One company learned only after firing their agency that the proprietary code running their six-figure Web site belonged to the erstwhile shop. It’s unlikely to happen to you, but an object lesson nonetheless.
  • They’re partners. Trust them. In an ideal agency/client relationship, trust and partnership are a goal and a state of being. Never regard your agency as a vendor. Share sensitive information. Understand rejecting ideas is inherent to the process, not indicative of failure. Hiring a good agency is retaining a team of smart consultants.

This list is far from complete and is certainly one-sided. Something critical missing? Anyone from the client side want to weigh in on good agency behavior? Let me know.

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