Getting the Best from Your Agency

(Hint: It has nothing to do with the size of your budget)

I often marvel at how some of our clients have mastered the art of working effectively with an agency team. It’s common agency speak to proclaim that good clients treat agencies like partners, but that’s not very instructive, is it? I find there are specific behaviors that, over time, create an environment where great work happens.

Here are four of those behaviors — all are which are indelibly etched in my mind from firsthand experience.

1. Go the extra mile to tell us we’re going the extra mile.

After a particularly grueling few months of helping our client manage a difficult corporate merger, our account director mentioned with a smile that his client had just sent flowers, not to him, but to his wife. A head-scratcher at first, in retrospect, this was a brilliant move. Our account director had put his family life on hold, and our client realized that, but she also recognized that his young wife, home with three preschoolers, had taken one for the team as well. She couldn’t make up for the missed dinners and bedtime routines, but she could express her gratitude in a memorable and sincere way. And make the at-home conversation a little easier for her account director the next time duty called.

That’s just one example. In other cases, clients have sent a note to the team’s supervisor, when they hit a home run — a 10-minute investment of time that yielded endless goodwill.

Of course, it’s never necessary to send flowers or a note to the boss, but all good clients know when and how to acknowledge their agency teams.

2. When we fall down, help us get back up.

Our best clients not only understand their own internal politics, they help the agency to navigate them, too.

When a new SVP first joined a longstanding client a few years ago, the relationship hit some serious speed bumps. We weren’t used to his communication style and sensed that there were some issues with what had always been a very solid agency/client bond. Our exasperated account director was ready to appeal directly to the CMO. Then she received some quiet advice from another key player on the client team: extend an apology to the SVP and try to clear the air. She understood the new SVP’s position better than we did, and our willingness to accept responsibility for the rocky start just might hit the right note.

It did. Soon, we were sailing past those first-90-day issues. Without receiving that timely advice from our client and agency friend, I’m sure the situation would have gone from bad to worse.

3. Give us a box so we can think outside of it.

It may be counter-intuitive, but the best creative thinkers at our agency are in their element when a client can provide a crystal clear focal point for ideation. From inexperienced clients, we may hear, “I don’t want to hold back your creativity, so just bring me big, breakthrough ideas. Don’t put any limits on your thinking.”

When we hear that, we know we’re being set up (albeit innocently) to fail. As one of our creative directors says, “You can’t think outside the box unless you know where the box is.”

Effective clients draw a very clear “box” for us to break out of. They’ll tell us what’s worked and hasn’t worked for their brands. What they see happening in other categories that gets them excited. What their KPIs are — which, after all, are how our breakthrough ideas ultimately will be judged. Heck, they will even share that box of boxes — the budget reality that we’ll have to deal with.

And that’s when the most powerful — and executable — ideation begins.

4. Keeping us involved = keeping us engaged.

It’s no coincidence that our most successful accounts are those where our teams know as much about the client’s brand, customers, channels and products as our clients themselves do … or almost.

The clients who consistently get our best work create an environment where great work can happen. That starts with team Involvement, which leads to team Understanding and team Commitment. Our CEO has dubbed this “the IUC factor” (pronounced “yuk”) — and by the way, it applies to employee engagement as well.

What does an engaged agency team look like? They take part in your annual sales meetings because there’s no substitute for hearing your sales team recount war stories from the front lines. They’re invited to shadow a sales rep or visit a channel partner to hear the unfiltered
“voice of the customer.” They’re given strategic plans and presentations for the added context they provide.

Our most engaged agency account teams do all of this and more. The result is a flow of proactive thinking and solutions for problems that our clients sometimes haven’t even articulated yet.

There’s More Where That Came From 

Navigating the politics. Engaging us fully. Acknowledging outstanding work. And knowing how to frame a challenge so that we can deliver breakthrough ideas.

Our best clients do all of this and more. As a result, the work we produce together is every bit theirs as much as ours, because they’ve created the conditions for it to happen. And because, in simple agency speak, we’ve treated one another like partners.