Why Doesn’t My Agency Get Me?

In a recent leadership group discussion with CMOs and CCOs, I heard questions and comments such as:

Why doesn’t my agency get me?

Stop selling me.

Don’t tell me about another methodology, everyone has one.

These are fair comments that do not signal a strong partnership between agency and client, and frankly, the client isn’t the only one complaining. Why is there frustration on both sides? This got me thinking about relationships. A client-agency relationship should be no different from any good partnership, personal or professional. The good ones are mutually beneficial, communicate truthfully and treat each other fairly. When it comes to business partnerships, companies don’t choose companies, people choose people.

Let’s Blame the Client First

The breakdown can begin early and is sometimes the fault of an organization and its process for selecting an agency. Often this process is shrouded in secrecy, doesn’t provide any meaningful interaction among the people who may be working together in the future, and the problem is exacerbated by being procurement-led. The most important part of getting to know and understanding someone is the time spent talking with them. Meaningful interaction has different meaning to different people, especially in a time of texting, tweeting and emailing, but old rules still apply: face-to-face interaction helps build trust. An important aspect of those connections is the sharing of pertinent information. For some reason, there is a prevailing thought that the client can get to know the agency by “testing” them. Perhaps there can be a benefit to the idea of putting a potential agency in “test” mode, but this is not realistic of how the agency and client will work together in the future. So why is it done during the most important time in relationship building? The best outcomes are realized through shared planning and discussion. More information and aligned expectations allows the agency to show their best work and the client to choose the best fit for their organizational culture and business needs.

Chemistry is a Science, Not a Feeling

Meeting at the formal presentation for the first time is the most peculiar and detrimental action of all. No one in that room — the client team judging the presentation or the agency presenting — are in a “real” working environment behaving how they would day-to-day. Sometimes these formal meetings are called a “chemistry check.” Really? Chemistry is the branch of science that studies the properties of matter and how matter interacts with energy — one meeting or interaction is not an effective way of measuring positive or negative energy — nor does it represent the many different scenarios or personalities that will be working together in a long-term partnership.

Now Let’s Blame the Agency

After all, the agency is the one getting paid; they should be on their best behavior. Agency teams mean to behave appropriately, but are not set up to do so. The misalignment in operational and financial structures are often the culprit. A fragmented P&L structure, either by geography or practice area, does not encourage collaboration or making the right choice for the client. This structure has agency leadership worried about “hitting a number” instead of putting the needs of their partner first.

Lack of scalability and having to keep everyone billable affects quality of service, often putting “who is available” on the business instead of the right talent. It often builds an atmosphere of nervousness to remain billable no matter what, and can lead to doing the wrong work. Additionally, the billable hour encourages clients NOT to call its agency. It may be time to rethink the compensation model for a true agency-client partnership.

Adding to the frustration felt by clients is the agency’s need to entice the client with methodologies that are all about “our process.” I can’t think of the last CMO or CCO that wanted to hear about how the agency sausage-making works. Spending time focused on solutions to business challenges or telling clients something they don’t know is how the C-Suite wants to spend time with its agency, not learning how it gets done. Methodologies should be about adapting solutions to problems and leveraging new tools. Talking about it is exhausting; integration and operational excellence to get the job done is all the client wants.

A Partnership that Communicates

A strong partnership needs consistent, open communication right from the start. The client should set the stage with a selection process that includes an investment of time spent providing information and building a relationship. The agency needs to fit the client’s organizational culture and stay focused on listening and solving their problems. Together, the client-agency relationship can flourish into a true partnership that results in a mutually-beneficial outcome.