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6 reasons agencies want to strangle clients

Andreas Roell and Sarah Kotlova
6 reasons agencies want to strangle clients Andreas Roell and Sarah Kotlova

Agencies and clients face challenges, competition, budget issues and, sometimes, each other. We all have our quirks, unique working habits and differentiating traits, and it is these characteristics that -- when combined -- either make for a seamless or frustrating partnership. When agencies and clients mesh well, the end results can be astounding and long-lasting. When the opposite is true, reaching agreements and getting on the same page can be challenging.

Every client partnership can be effective if approached in the right way, but since every road has its speed bumps, it is an agency's job to fix them as quickly and efficiently as possible. In this article, we have categorized clients into a few groups that have come up in conversations with agency professionals over the years. Taking it one step further, we outlined a few suggestions as to how agencies can align themselves with certain clients and possibly serve them more effectively.

The indecisive client
This client has final approval on all intermediate phases of projects. It is only when projects are approaching the finish line that the "higher-ups" get involved, and in more cases than not, this results in additional feedback and more rounds of revisions. Getting approval from all decision makers is an integral part of any client partnership; however, when valuable input is withheld until the tail end of projects, completing a project on time becomes a difficult task.

What agencies can do: Agencies can help keep last-minute revisions to a minimum by cultivating relationships with contacts at all levels of their clients' organizations. This way, if and when problems surface, an existing working partnership is already in place so a plan can be developed collectively. Please note: This isn't to suggest that agencies should go over the heads of the people with whom they work on a regular basis. But by understanding the internal infrastructures of clients' companies, agencies can at least be a part of the approval process.

On a side note, this client is why weekly status meetings were created. But it works in an agency's favor to document pending approvals and delays so everyone knows the new project timeline.

The tester
Testing is never a detriment to a campaign. It enables agencies to make appropriate adjustments and get the most out of every aspect of a campaign. But challenges occur when client budgets do not afford agencies the leeway to test everything the clients want. Testing is not free, and media fees are likely unavoidable.

What agencies can do: To accommodate this client, agencies should focus on only a few offerings and be cautious not to spread budgets too thin. Constant testing of multiple campaign facets will likely never generate the return this client is anticipating. For agencies, it is best to work these pain points out earlier rather than later.

The committee client
This client often leads off new partnerships by saying, "Our last agency said we were hard to work with." They know how frustrating their internal red tape can be, but at the same time, they know there is no way around it. This client is a cousin of the indecisive client, with whom approvals are a time-intensive process. Partnerships usually involve multiple layers of managers, product managers, points of contact and project coordinators. Communication among these groups is ineffective, to say the least, and this commonly results in longer-than-needed meetings and repetitive conversations.

What agencies can do: When working with clients like this, it is best to limit most communications to key points of contact, but keep all team members in the loop with weekly status reports. This way, day-to-day dealings will not be bogged down by "too many cooks in the kitchen," and the whole team will still be aware of progress. If necessary, have a conversation about noise versus activity. This will help keep the noise level down and allow the agency to focus on execution. Do the math and make sure the number of hours spent in meetings isn't at the expense of actual work. And by all means, be friends with everybody. Don't get involved in company politics -- agencies always come out the loser.

The client with internal team issues
Conversations at the beginning of meetings with this client begin like this: "Off the record, I talked with our IT team yesterday, and they do not agree with anything you have suggested." This client does not agree on much internally, and this can manifest itself in entire teams or just individuals. Agencies are tasked with reaching agreement with everyone, and unfortunately, this puts agencies smack in the middle -- exactly where they do not want to be.

What agencies can do: In these Hatfield and McCoy situations, it is important to focus on marketing. This will keep tangential conversations out of the mix as much as possible. It may be hard to ignore, but mending internal issues should not fall under an agency's scope of work. Concern yourself with delivering high-quality plans and products. Nod politely when teams vent about each other, and send deliverables up the food chain to ensure appropriate visibility.

While agencies are not responsible for contentment amongst clients' internal teams, it is partly an agency's responsibility to maintain positive and proactive relationships with all members of the project team. Make sure to concentrate on the work at hand and operate under a clearly defined scope of engagement.

The value-oriented client
These clients can be heard saying, "We love your viral idea, and our team of interns will execute it by Christmas. What other ideas do you have?"

The value-oriented client loves your ideas, but it wants reassurance that they are getting the best possible price. To do so, they tend to shop around and pass ideas through outsourcers, other agencies and vendors to make certain they are getting a deal. The hard part here is that to land business, agencies have to pitch ideas to potential clients. To a certain degree, this puts agencies at a disadvantage. Ideas are out in the open, and at the pitching stage, there is no promise of much of anything.

What agencies can do: To establish a productive working relationship with clients that are value-oriented, agencies need to show clients that they get what they pay for. If clients want your ideas -- but not your execution -- suggest a retainer with quarterly planning deliverables. This way, all involved parties will be on the same page about expectations regarding the client engagement.

The client that needs a caffeine boost
This client type often says, "I am sorry I didn't make the conference call I scheduled today. I had to tend to other obligations."

You know this client hired you because you have the signed contract to prove it; however, when it comes to returning phone calls or attending meetings, it seems like every other responsibility the client has takes precedent over you.

What agencies can do: With clients like this, it is easy to move them to the bottom of your priority list. But let's face it -- that is not the best way to keep clients. The most effective way to wake the dormant client is to be up front and honest about lags in communication and missed deadlines. Perhaps suggest switching up point persons to best accommodate their internal workload. The most important thing is to maintain communication, even if it seems like no one is listening.

Since agencies are hired by clients, it is the agency's obligation to quickly assess how to establish an effective working relationship to service clients in the best possible way. It is important for agencies to establish an internal understanding of the appropriate approach, as it might differ with the agency's own internal culture. Ultimately, an open, transparent and highly communicative relationship with a client is the healthiest approach to forming long-lasting partnerships.

Andreas Roell is chairman and CEO of Geary Interactive, where Sarah Kotlova is a strategic account manager.


to leave comments.

Commenter: Brandt Dainow

2008, December 10

yep - all too true! Brilliant list.

Commenter: Robert Taylor

2008, December 10

Great list. I would add another... the "never good enough" client. This is the client even when you establish goals and achieve past those goals, is always pushing for "better" results in an attempt to increase motivation.

I tend to handle these clients by reminding them of the previous goals, showing them the data that demonstrates success and asking to re-frame the discussion around going after more of the already good results. If they can't/ won't come around to that then it's just a matter of time before the relationship falls apart.