If you are in the agency business, you know what a client is and if you are a client you also know what a client is. Here is my perspective on what a client used to be and how this role has evolved during the 25 years of my professional life.
I started my career as a client and worked with globally aligned agencies during my time at P&G. I learned early on that as a marketing or brand management professional your agency is your partner to brand success. I realised that there were no good or bad agencies; in fact it boiled down to a good or bad client and you got what you deserved. Working with globally aligned agencies, I believed in the virtues of a long-term partnership and learning the art and science of getting the best out of your agency, and if there were issues with your agency, these could be ironed out through feedback. All agencies respect the relationship and want to improve and keep it going. Changing agencies was not an option and the onus was on you to make your agency the best one. I also learned that the consumer is the only king and both client and agency have to serve and delight him with our products and insightful marketing and encourage him to buy our products. Then, I moved to the agency side and worked for many clients and experienced a new world that both mirrored and challenged my beliefs and values about clients and agencies. Today, every agency has old-time clients and new clients, and every agency wants more old-time clients rather than the new type client.
The old client
They are probably among one of your first or oldest clients. They are your favourite clients; those who have given you and your agency a variety of challenges that helped develop you and your agency. They believed in you, which is all an agency asks for. In return, you and your team gave them your heart, mind, body, lives and souls serving them. The work you did for them was noticed elsewhere and this helped you engage with other clients. These clients gave you the breadth and depth of opportunities that helped you develop the all-rounder marketing nature in your agency DNA.
This client always meant dealing with three to four people maximum in the marketing or brand management function chain, starting from the assistant brand manager and moving up to the CEO. You don’t have to deal with anyone else in the organisation. They will not allow any other function (such as finance) to rub you the wrong way. They realise that you are creative people and you cannot be treated like any other vendor. You are willing to work at any price for them. You trust them and don’t negotiate prices. Any agency will burn the midnight oil, ruin their weekends and sacrifice their work-life balance for such clients. No wonder that business, brand results and awards always highlight the value of a great client-agency partnership. Those are the clients who make you love the agency business and keep going. Today, most agencies would at best have about a third of such clients. And then some things changed. Times. People. Values. Beliefs. Systems. Client organisations. A new client came into being and you see a mass production of this species, to the extent that you wonder whether they will dominate the future and turn the old clients into endangered species.
The new client
These clients come from a totally different school of thought and at the heart (if they have one) of them is the belief that they are the only king; agencies are their servants and consumers their dumb republic. With such clients, you don’t only deal with brand management people, but with many other marketing services support functions, including finance and procurement. At times, you wonder who your client is. If I were to paint a picture of these clients, the best reference point is of a five or six headed god; the heads being marketing, procurement, finance, marketing services and so on; each one passing you on to the other one as per their convenience.
The purpose of this article is to make clients value their agencies. As I said, no agency is good or bad, it is the clients who make them that way. Agencies are made up of creative and sensitive people. If you treat them well, they will give their lives to you and help bring fame to you and fortune to your brands. If you treat them badly, you will lose out in the end.
The paradox of the agency business today is that you cannot live with these clients, nor can you live without them. You need them to pay your bills, which is why you pitched to this king; yet, after winning the account (or they selecting you) you realise you can only pay the bills if they pay on time, or pay at all.
You have to quickly adapt to their ways of doling out pain and torture. They are the masters and they know best. Their people will only show them something after everyone down the chain has given their feedback, and the chances are these kings will not find it worthy and everything goes back to square one. Needless to say, during this process, the assistant brand managers and brand managers are as clueless as you are. So you find solace together and carry on.
You will also find a variety of talent and characters chosen by these kings. The agency goes through a learning experience that lasts a lifetime. Rounds and rounds of presentations and nothing seeing the light of day is usual. The agency is almost killed in the process before the launch and re-launch – and all the energy and passion that was there when you won this account is gone. It is part of a learning process these clients want to impart to their agencies.
After the pitch, you have the opportunity to meet the king a few rare times, and every time you do, you cannot decode them. It is as if they have a new password each time – and the agency is left in the hands of all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, whom they believe are good enough to put Humpty Dumpty (brand) together again. Yet, we always can sense what is coming. The brand and the business keep struggling. The once best agency, carefully chosen during a 10 agency pitch process is now deemed the world’s worst agency and must be changed. These clients hide their own inefficiencies behind an agency change, and so a new agency is brought on board through the same process only to be given the same rollercoaster ride of this amazing client’s kingdom.
As for the sacked agencies, if justice were to prevail, they will find another old time client to remove all the mental pain and torture they went through. And if further justice were to come to be, you will hear after some time that the king has been asked to leave. This will make you smile because now you know who is the real king.
To conclude, the purpose of this article is to make clients value their agencies. As I said, no agency is good or bad, it is the clients who make them that way. Agencies are made up of creative and sensitive people. If you treat them well, they will give their lives to you and help bring fame to you and fortune to your brands. If you treat them badly, you will lose out in the end. As a client you may not realise this as no agency will tell you this to your face; they don’t have a choice in this tough business environment. However, agencies – because they work for so many clients – can clearly see what type of a client you are. Be human. Be good. We can do wonders for your business if you take care of our peace of mind.
Shoaib Qureshy is CEO, Bulls Eye DDB Group. email@example.com