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The Agency-Client Gap: Bridge the Divide by Asking the Right Questions

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An agency-client relationship is not unlike that between a film’s producers and its directors. When filmmaker Christopher Nolan spoke earlier this year at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, he summed up the ad land paradigm perfectly:

[It’s] a very paradoxical position. You are hired by people who then give you the appearance of wanting to control you, but they’ve hired you to resist them, they’ve hired you to have a point of view.

We’ve heard the story before: Everyone involved in a project seems to be pulling toward a common goal, but somehow, a tug of war ensues. The stakeholders pull the rope of productivity back and forth so often and so frequently that the project feels like it’s at a standstill.

Of course, no one is intentionally trying to make anyone else’s life difficult, but without a strong, collaborative relationship, projects can fall into this trap and stall, or worse, they can get completed with sub-par quality.

What’s the recipe for a successful and collaborative agency-client relationship? Both ​sides​ would probably agree the ingredients include competence, mutual confidence between the parties, and a willingness to listen and compromise.

Without baking these pieces into the cake, agency-client relationships are prone to a dismal set of the three M’s: miscommunication, misunderstanding, and mistrust.

Is there a way to quantify the three M's? A way to quantify agency-client relationships? According to the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), a healthy majority of agencies and clients (79%) actually trust one another’s decisions. This textbook 80/20 split in favor of trust is fantastic, but as we dive further into ANA’s recent findings on client-agency trust, we encounter a much more significant breakdown in the way these two partners perceive both themselves and their counterparts.

ANA’s survey tells us that 27% of agencies agreed that the assignments they were given by clients were clear, while 43% disagreed. In contrast, 58% of clients reported that they provide clear assignments while 43% of these clients disagreed. Put another way, these clients admitted to making unclear requests of their agencies.

What we can take away from this is that nearly half of the clients and half of the agencies surveyed believe that the communication they share with their partners could be improved. A lot of time and energy and resources is wasted on unnecessary churn cycles due to unclear or conflicting direction. When each side of the relationship sees nearly half of their efforts wasted, they are both at risk for falling victim to the three M's.

ANA does a great job of identifying this issue, but other than implying that “more effective communication is necessary,” the report doesn’t do a lot to walk us down the path of solving the problem. That’s where experience sheds light.

While there’s no silver bullet to the agency-client communication conundrum, the solution begins with agencies and clients engaging in honest and open communication with one another during their day-to-day business dealings.

If agencies take the time to build a strong relationship founded on light, meaningful, daily communication, true disconnects can be hashed out at the start of the project -- not the end.

Honest and open communication requires trust, and there are ways for agencies to build that trust. One method is based less on individual personalities getting along (it’s impossible to become best friends with all your clients) and more on determining the nature of the various factors driving the client’s actions. At IMM, we’ve found a lot of value in the simple premise of walking in the client’s shoes.

Every company has its own environment, hierarchy, and way of doing business. As an agency, our goal is to understand what our direct contacts face each day from the coordinator-level on up through to the C-suite. We directly align our incentives with those of our clients.

What does that mean? Obviously any agency worth doing business with is focused on its client’s bottom-line growth, but we’ve found that we work more productively if we focus on those incentives in our day-to-day interactions with clients.

We ask questions like: How is the person I am working with on a daily basis judged in terms of sales and KPIs? Is my contact working towards a promotion? What happens to them when there are losses, and how does their bonus system work? What sort of actions represent a safe bet and what types of actions are risky for them?

In short: What is driving them? How can I further help us by helping them?

Typically, we find everyone on the client side is ultimately driven by the numbers. If they put up big numbers, they are going to look great. To help simplify any guessing for our team, we actually customize our business model around whatever that specific “number” is. It can take many forms -- increasing overall revenue, actual units sold, leads generated, social mentions, or demos completed.

Once you align on the business goals, you can use that filter when reviewing project plans, creative briefs, and media buys to better understand the big picture and driving factors behind certain client decisions.

In the best cases and with the foundation of open and honest communication, the agency can effectively manage conflicting goals and priorities to drive the best end result.

Clients need to trust their agency partners and actually treat them like partners. If project direction is unclear or in conflict with larger goals, there should be an immediate red flag raised by the offended party.

Additionally, agencies also need to take the time to understand their clients -- beyond a title and email address. Both need one another to be successful, which means taking the time to pick up the phone and enjoy a conversation between partners as opposed to hiding behind automated tools like reporting dashboards and emotionless emails. The goal is to drive empathetic, rather than frustrated, responses from client and agency support staff alike, and that’s only possible when clients are comfortable telling you exactly what’s going on.

If we don’t want our jobs to be taken over by robots, we should stop treating each other like them. ​

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