What not to tell the client

In the first installment of a two-parter on improving client/agency relationships, Ad ROI's Rupert Brendon outlines eight things agencies should never say to clients - unless they want to remind them of everything they hate about agencies.

It’s ironic that communications agencies are so poor at communicating with their clients that they actually put those relationships at risk. The contributing factors are well documented: the short tenure of CMOs; the North Americanization of decision-making; the shift to fees and PBR; the increase in channels; and multiple agencies working for the same brand to meet 360 communication needs. Yet those sorely needed breakthrough ideas can only thrive if the relationship is one of trust and partnership. To help keep the peace, avoid the following topics:

1. ‘We lost money on your account last year.’

Usually said at the start of annual fee negotiations. This is never, ever believed, especially if the agency produces supporting time sheets. And if it is true, it only confirms the widely held view that agencies are fiscally incompetent. Try instead: ‘We’ve tracked our time costs over the last quarter and need to make some adjustments to our joint way of working if we are to stay within the scope of our current financial agreement.’

2. ‘We are your business partners.’ ‘Oh no, you’re not,’ thinks the client, especially given point one. ‘I want creative ideas, consumer insights, provocative perspectives, communications that drive sales. Do that spectacularly well and stop going on about trying to be what I don’t want you to be.’

3. ‘Our rates are low compared to management consultants, lawyers, accountants, etc.’

‘But high compared to digital, design, PR, media,’ mentally responds the CMO. ‘Get real, focus on whom you compete against.’ This reminds clients why in their eyes you’re expensive. It’s those glitzy offices, conferences in Cannes, award shows and lavish dinners.

4. ‘Sorry, but our president can no longer make your sales conference in Hamilton.’

‘Typical!’ the client harrumphs as he takes the call from the PA, thinking, ‘Now that we’re an ‘existing client,’ I never see the agency president from one fee negotiation to the next. When we were a prospective client, he did store checks with our sales manager.’

5. ‘We could still have the creative presentation, but the ideas are not quite crafted to the high standard we want; could we postpone it a week?’

‘Yes, I noticed you’re on a number of pitch lists,’ fumes the brand manager. ‘Where do we now rank in the agency’s league of clients? Doesn’t feel like the top five. And no doubt we’ll get stung with high studio costs to make a rush job look polished.’

6. ‘The account director is leaving next week, but don’t worry, her replacement is lined up.’

Few clients can complain about turnover when their own departments roll over faster than lottery numbers. But this means they value agency continuity more than ever (who said life is fair?) and expect to be involved in choosing who leads the agency team. Waiting to break bad news until you can gloss it over with a solution does little to build trust.

7. ‘The ASC won’t approve the idea/We can’t make this ad for the budget/We can’t get the celebrity/There’s an older ad for a competitor which is a bit too similar … I know it’s a shame, after all the development and research time.’

‘Something’s fundamentally wrong with your development process,’ rants the client. ‘This should have been checked out much earlier. You’ve cost me time, money, reputation, and I missed the launch date. I pay you to know this stuff…’ ‘Process slippage’ is what these cock ups are called, and clients hate them with a vengeance.

8. ‘No, I haven’t seen your latest ACNielsen, stock price, annual report, CEO’s magazine interview, etc.’

Which makes a mockery of ‘We’re your business partner,’ and is inexcusable. If the agency claims to want business partnership, it has to put its money where its mouth is. However, clients can’t have it both ways either, expecting a new low-base fee as well as the same old high service expectations.

For a better ‘partnership,’ know the client’s business inside and out; initiate breakthrough business-building communication ideas; behave ethically; and avoid all surprises.

Rupert Brendon is a principal with Toronto-based Ad ROI, the Canadian partners of APRAIS, which has measured, managed and improved over 2,500 client/agency relationships globally for 10 years. He’s a Marketing Hall of Legends inductee, founder of NABS and the MCET and former head of the Institute of Communications and Advertising. He can be reached at rtrbrendon@sympatico.ca.