Avoid Total Mayhem: 5 Ways to Build Solid Client Relationships

Stacy Janicki
Stacy Janicki



client-relationshipsRelationships are the foundation of every aspect of our lives. The success of a client relationship, a friendship, or even a marriage comes down to our ability to communicate and compromise.

Client relationships demand strong partnerships because advertising is essentially a people business. Agencies are comprised of ideas and space, and opinions on those aforementioned ideas are often subjective.

Agency veteran John Ward observed that, “Advertising is a craft executed by people who aspire to be artists, but is assessed by people who aspire to be scientists. I cannot imagine any human relationship more perfectly designed to produce total mayhem.”

In that regard, advertising makes marriage look easy. The average marriage in America lasts eight years, compared to the average three-year itch for client-agency relationships. Brands have also grown comfortable as serial daters, engaging multiple agencies on a project basis in lieu of standing AOR relationships.

Marketing veteran Barbara Ford once remarked, “While the marriage analogy is often used to describe the client-agency relationship, I actually think that if it was a marriage, it would be easy. My husband and I don’t have meetings where he presents recommendations that I then test. And if my husband has a bad day or misses a deadline, I don’t solicit input from other husbands.”

In the course of pitching new business, we often ask a prospective client why they are seeking change. Surprisingly, they rarely cite the work itself. Their frustration often centers on process and not feeling heard or valued. The Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and the 4As conducted a joint study to determine what issues advertisers feel affect their agency relationships. What clients want, after fresh creative ideas, are well-integrated agency disciplines that collaborate across departments, and in-turn, agencies working in a collaborative way with the client.

So while ideas are the most tangible output of the creative process, a strong relationship — often led by account management — is the rudder that has the ability to direct and guide the course of the process while in motion. As account managers, our job is to get people together to accomplish the collective goals and objectives of both sides.

On a day-to-day basis, there are several things account managers can do to build great client relationships. Here are five tips to follow.

1) Pay attention to the details.

Even the smallest details make a big difference. Plan ahead for disasters and how to avoid them. Anticipate concerns and problems before they happen. Prove yourself with the little things so you can be trusted with the big things. Create paper trails with conference reports and status reports. Follow proper project management processes to minimize disruptions.

2) Find smart and creative ways to smother clients with attention.

Ensure that your clients know that you’re thinking about them and their business. Listen to earnings reports. Know all the issues on their mind. Think of new ways to broaden your client contact. Find ways to celebrate client successes and milestones. Don’t avoid conflict — it’s inevitable. Great work comes from challenging one another to do better.

3) Commit to providing insightful thinking and inspired ideas.

Set aside time to get out of your routine (and away from your desk) and consider each client and his challenges and goals. Consider how to reinvent the way things have always been done. Find ways to add new value. Avoid reasons to say “no” to the client, and treat business challenges as agency opportunities.

4) Gain the trust of your client.

Be an active listener. Commit to what you’ve promised. Meet deadlines and budgets, and manage expectations. Learn to handle mistakes instead of hiding them. Plan ahead, be on time, and always come prepared. Get early and clear agreement on assignments.

5) Learn to express yourself well and persuasively.

Ask high-yield questions. When responding to client pushback, do not defend. Instead focus on probing, explaining, and proving. Tell your client what you know instead of how your feel. Learn to explain things simply and succinctly. Steven Spielberg once said that every movie should be able to be summarized in one sentence. Consider the subject of "E.T.": “Lost alien befriends lonely boy to get back home.” Test yourself to describe an idea to a client in the course of an elevator ride.

Remember: A great partnership can only happen when the client and agency collaborate with a clear respect for each other’s core expertise and a true belief that great work has the power to build brands. While that seems like a lofty undertaking, it all starts with some basic fundamentals that account managers can build into their daily routines and behaviors.

Topics: Office Politics

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