What’s Wrong with Client Agency Relationships? There’s No Romance.


What’s Wrong with Client Agency Relationships?  Often there is no romance. It is as simple as that.

I’ve always used dating and relationship analogies in characterizing New Business and client agency relationships because I think there are simple analogies between both worlds.

I often say that New Business is akin to the pursuit of a new love while advertising is like being married.  Not that long term relationships can’t be kept first day fresh.

Pursuit is pursuit.

So what do I hear out there from my client and agency networks? Well I hear from many agencies that there haven’t been long term commitments from clients in the past year. It is project versus retainer work. This doesn’t build commitment and creates uncertainty.

In effective relationships both parties want commitment.

Showing up from time to time often doesn’t generate much fire.

In romance the question that would result from such as s relationship would be, “Are you committed to me or not?”

Using multiple vendors creates the same tension as saying that you want to date each other but also date other people.

Asking for the benefits that come with commitment when you only have occasional interactions can feel a little one sided.  Many clients have maintained the same high standards and expectation from their agencies while cutting their budgets and reducing their resources.

My client friends often tell me that they are frustrated because their agency doesn’t know anything about their business.  In romance that might sound like, “You don’t know anything about me.”

A simple fix that you solve by living and breathing the client’s business.  In romance it would be learning what’s important to your partner and then doing it with them.  Walking in your counterparts shoes for a while works in relationships and in the agency business.

Recently I talked to a client who was considering an agency review.  What’s the problem I asked?  They said that their agency didn’t bring them any strategic leadership.  I have heard the same words from different people many times over the years.

In romance that might sound like this.  “You don’t love me anymore.”

How do you avoid that happening in the agency and client worlds?  Yearly internal account reviews to senior agency management followed by a yearly retreat with the client and basically repitching their business.  Think of them as client innovation sessions.

In romance that might translate to taking your significant other on an unplanned vacation to a surprise location.  A little bit of extra effort in both worlds pay great dividends often.

Clients often tell me that they and their agency don’t communicate very well anymore.

In romance this might sound like, “We don’t talk anymore.”

In both worlds, it is not what you say that counts; it is what other people hear that matters.

When I talk to the incumbent agency at the start of a review some tell me that they were totally surprised.  I don’t think they were listening very well.

Other times both sides know that things aren’t going very well and there are no surprises.

The other factor that strains and eventually breaks down relationships in both worlds is money.  I often hear ladies talking about their partners to their friends and I often hear the dreaded.  “He’s cheap.” When both parties in a relationship aren’t on the same financial page, often tension and contention quickly surface.

A key factor that causes client agency relationships to crumble is compensation. A slow decline from acceptance often to resentment in the end.  I read something earlier in the year from a very smart marketer.  He said it succinctly.  “Marginal compensation leads to marginal performance.”

What is the secret of maintaining great relationships? It is passion.  The flame must burn strong and be reignited constantly.

What works in New Business?  Passion.  It is as simple as that.  That is why I call my New Business Development approach for agencies “Hank Blank’s Passion Approach to New Business.” It is all about the chase, the conquest, the pursuit, the creativity to impress.

Doing the routine, the expected, the norm, does not create much spark in business nor in romance.

Besides conducing agency searches, Hank also helps agencies build effective New Business programs.  He frequently speaks to AAF Chapters on Why Agencies Don’t Want New Business and Networking Your Way to New Business.  You can contact Hank at hank@hankblank.com

He has two CD’s on his site about New Business Development that has helped many agencies win more New Business.  Hank does not do relationship therapy.


32 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with Client Agency Relationships? There’s No Romance.

  1. I agree that there are many parallels between romance and the relationship of agencies and businesses. I particularly like the idea of re-igniting the flame with client innovation sessions. It’s a great way to make sure everyone is still on the same page and is chasing the right goals.

    Passion comes down to the correct communication at the correct time.

  2. Hank
    Great post. I’ve been in this business for over 35 years and can still remember the days when you did things on a handshake and there were truely marketing partnerships.
    Today with purchasing getting involved with reverse auctions, lawyers with agreements that only represent the interest of the client the marketing dept is the last in line. Bottom line is it eventually comes down to cost and can you do it cheaper that someone else. Of course the client wants your best work but isn’t willing to pay for it.
    There is no more romance just debits and credits.
    It’s a sorry state of affairs but it’s the world we live in.
    Keep up the great writing.

  3. I hate to say this, but I blame the agency culture. Agencies often reward account people for winning new clients, not for retaining existing clients. It isn’t love; it’s ongoing infatuation.

    At the same time, the agency is so terrified of losing an existing account that they encourage bland, “me-too” thinking. One of the most common phrases the creatives hear is “the client won’t buy that!” — even though the creative is 100% on-target.

    The client hired the agency because they either don’t have the staff to do in-depth marketing analysis or they prefer the expertise of a company devoted to creative thinking. They want their agency to be their partner, not a vendor.

    I also think that agencies, scrambling to be relevant, focus on Internet and social media to the extent that they have forgotten the big picture. People still watch TV; they still read magazines and newspapers, and they still get snail mail.

    It wasn’t too long ago that agencies had a deep, abiding love for their clients. Nothing was too good for them. The agency team thought about their business night and day. I saw the change begin when AEs started to come from business schools rather than a hands-on sales or other marketing background.

  4. This can also apply to vendor/client relationships.
    I constantly throw ideas; products; articles that are relative to their business industry to keep the romance alive in my relationships with clients.
    By not nuturing a relationship; it is like not watering a plant. It will look good on the surface for awhile but will slowly die underneath and eventually will show on the surface. The sale process really starts after the contract is signed!

  5. Good points. However, just because there is (or ideally there is) passion, enjoyment, loyalty, open communication and even caring does not make this a relationship where both parties are equals. I think you’re looking for love in the wrong place. The relationship, while it needs to work for both sides to be sustained, is inherently unequal. Otherwise one side wouldn’t be paying the other, like in much older professions ; ) Don’t get me wrong, unbalanced though it is, both parties should treat the other in ways that ensure mutual satisfaction. To one of your points, compensation can often be a sore spot. Arranging the model to that it aligns both sides rather than makes them adversaries goes a long way. See the following for more on this topic: http://pm2pm.blogspot.com/2009/01/advertising-agency-compensation.html

    For what it’s worth, as both a guy w/agency and client-side experience, in this unbalanced relationship, much of the burden for making it work is the agency’s. Many agencies take their client relationships for granted. They stick one senior person on the biz, who is inadequately supported. Agency executives lamely respond to the client’s unspoken and spoken voice finally piercing their own tone deafness falling all over clients and making empty promises, which quickly recede.

  6. Ramiro Sosa

    There are issues on both sides:

    With regards to pitches, for the most part, shops set themselves up for failure right off the bat by only showing their very best work as opposed to showing range. Showing everything the agency does, not just the best, will give prospects a good idea of what he can expect by averaging the best and the not so best. We all know that not every idea or creative is a home run, so why conduct pitches showing just what you want to show to impress a client and get their business. This is where disappointment begins. Be real, show range, don’t over promise. If you are dealing with a client who’s been around and who’s looking for a real partner, not a rock star, he will respect that. The key is to be able to deliver consistency and that’s what a pitch should sell.
    To keep an healthy agency-client relation, in my opinion, consistency is key. Whether what you promised during a pitch was rock star work or consistency, live up to the promise.

    There are many factors when it comes to clients. I’ll just share a few:
    One of the most common problems is that usually, the one who has to give the final blessing is one of the big bosses, and often times, big bosses not only don’t fully understand communication – some do and very much so – , moreover they’ve little or no contact with the brief, objectives or even the strategic discussions leading to the creative work. So even if the creative is good and on brief, more often than not, campaigns are judged and rejected by someone who had little exposure to the process that may have taken months. This leads managers to begin a downward feedback process with the agency that leads to frustrations on both sides and end up ruining good relationships. Bosses….pls be more involved, don’t just wait to see the final work!
    Other problems begin at the briefing: unclear objectives, unmeasurable objectives, big objectives and small budgets and the list goes on….

    I can go on and on but will leave it at that for now.

  7. Nice piece, I agree with many of the parallel, with the exception of one major premise … I am on the client side and am not, and will never be loyal to one agency.

    To address your article, if your agency does not understand your business … get a new one … NOW. Also, it will become project based if the agency waits for work and does not bring anything to the table. I have the opportunity to interact with many agencies in town and tell them all … bring opportunities to me, bring something new.

    As far as loyalty, let agencies do what they are good at, and only what they are good at. I have one agency that does package design, they are very good at food packaging, have other clients in food packaging and came highly recommended for food packaging. A second agency that does SEO, PPC, web design and maintenance … they are good at that and specialize in that. The third agency does a little bit of everything, email, video, print design and just recently brought a large proposal to me that brought them a huge piece of my agency cash pie.

    As far as the romance … All three are 20 minutes from where I sit, I see them weekly (or so) and I love all three.

    • Thanks for participating in the discussion Chad. I think offering clients ideas that have promise is a way to grow an agency’s business. The trick is not to give it away for free. Hank

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