I recently returned to Ketchum, and agency, after eight years client-side. It’s felt like a coming home in many ways, especially since Ketchum gave me my very first break in PR, back in the late noughties.
What I’m especially excited to bring back is fresh perspective of the client experience; eight years as a client also means eight years of employing agencies, including Ketchum, along the way.
It’s a huge superpower to have perspective on both sides of the client-agency mix, and I can already see how it gives me a rare double-headed-beast (in a good way, I like to think) approach to account work and the client–agency dynamic overall.
So, with that in mind, I’d love to share with you my top tips to client-agency nirvana.
No matter how clever, charismatic and persuasive you are, most clients (and frankly most humans) can sniff out spin a mile off. If you don’t believe it and aren’t fully behind it, it’ll come across.
Don’t really believe in your product? Don’t think the company is all it’s trying to be? Haven’t done your research and are trying to wing it? It’ll wiff, trust me.
Add to the mix that most clients have comms backgrounds—and many have even earned their stripes in agency—and it’s like trying to pull off the plastic thumb trick to the Magic Circle.
Do the legwork, find the angle, believe in what you are recommending, be authentic on the potential and the outputs and be real. And, if you truly think the brief, account or product is a stinker, think again about representing it in the first place.
Be the client
Even if you’ve never had a stint client-side yourself, you need to have a bash at putting yourself in their shoes. Only then can you even come close to understanding what they want and need, not only for the project in hand, but also in terms of their reputation and internal standing in their company.
Is theirs a company that gets comms? Do they have to sell on your ideas and need your help doing so? What is their measure of success for you? How are they measured on success themselves? What are the hardest things for them after your work comes across to them—bandwidth to review it? Getting it approved by internal parties? Showing relevance to senior leaders? Or simply managing their workload?
And get under their skin on what makes them tick, personally. Are they super systematic? In which case, ensure your approach is. Do they prefer emails, spreadsheets or a simple phone call for updates? Do they work part-time? Are they juggling numerous other projects, all of which are ticking to an end-of-week deadline, and you could help them out significantly by simply making your delivery deadlines on Wednesdays, lessoning the Friday load?
Take the time to get to really know your clients—their needs, wants, preferences, rhythms and personal foibles. They will appreciate it, and it’ll help you tailor both your work and approach to maximise success all round. You might even become great friends!
Don’t be a yes person
One thing that drove me a bit bats whilst a client was when an agency always agreed with me. I’d suggest something and they’d trill over the brilliance of it or immediately start totting up budgets to deliver it. Very flattering at first but then increasingly suspicious and even disconcerting.
Most clients worth their salt want to discuss, debate and know they’re paying for thought not just action. Build on their suggestions, add your own viewpoint and make sure it’s co-creation. Only then can you build confidence and, frankly, make yourself invaluable.
Far too easily, without this, client–agency relationships can slip into too transactional a rhythm. But where’s the fun in that and, frankly, where’s the mutual respect? Most clients want you to come up with ideas, not just execute their ones. And many may even become exhausted by feeling like they are doing all the hard thinking work in the first place.
Which leads me onto my next and final point…
Keep the pitch fervour—always
My very biggest niggle as a client was being wowed by a pitch, appointing an agency and never seeing the pitch team again. Make sure you field your best, but also be clear on what you are selling—and that includes the people, not just the ideas.
If you’ve just been wooed by the agency equivalent of Pierce Brosnan (this reference may be dated but, sorry, he’s just eternally divine), then you don’t want a low-grade Timothy Dalton lookalike (sorry, even more dated) to rock up. Catfishing is a big fat no.
Just as bad is dropping the ball once you’ve landed the pitch. To continue with the 007 analogy, if you get a Bond, you expect him to perform as a Bond, continually. Keep the pitch fervour. Stay on your game. Stay hungry and keep delivering. In fact, keep having new and fresh ideas, even flexing your original pitch plan if it’s the right thing to do. Because you can bet your bottom dollar, if you drop your game, Jason Bourne is ready and flexing in the wings and happy to take over.
So, in short, stay sharp, be authentic, get to know your client and, most of all, work on what you love and believe in and avoid what you don’t. Nail all this and you’ll shine more brightly than even Pierce’s beautiful smile, and that’s really saying something.