Richard Barrett
Richard Barrett 23 May 2018

Why frank conversations deliver the best work

Great work requires positive, honest relationships between agency and client. The sort of relationships that facilitate frank conversations, which in turn lead to the best possible outcomes for any given project. But in order for this to be possible, there must be trust client-side and the confidence to challenge agency-side.

All too often, these key components are missing. It's worth exploring why, and how to effectively address the resulting gap between need and delivery.

The elephant in the room

In an ideal world a client would have harmonious relationships with all their agencies. The reality is, of course, never that simple. Inevitably, in a working relationship there are many different challenges that might need to be addressed, all of which involve different types of solutions. Potentially the trickiest of all is when a project requires a total change of approach. It’s particularly easy for relationships to be damaged in these situations.  

A good agency will always be ready to push back when they know it’s the right thing to do. Simple ‘yes men’ will never stretch boundaries and deliver top-class results. That said, only doing this when absolutely necessary, and doing it in a sensitive way, is a fine art for agencies to master. When handled correctly a client will often respond positively, but not always. If suggestions are met with resistance, thorny situations can develop and that’s when projects, and ultimately even the best relationships, can stall.

Clients can be resistant for a wide variety of reasons, but the biggest, and most common, barrier relates to the seniority of contacts client side. Senior team members understand the value of taking a truly collaborative approach with their agencies. Years of experience have given them first-hand knowledge of the benefits of collaboration, and being well established in their careers and their roles often affords them the flexibility to respond to challenges receptively. In contrast, more junior clients face an entirely different set of pressures; they just need to get things done. This naturally leaves them less willing to acknowledge when a change of direction might be required. That’s completely understandable, and in those instances it’s the job of their agency to persuade them why a new way forward is necessary.

Getting it right

Meeting that need comes down to one thing and one thing only: having the right team in place agency side. At Initials, we’re all about seasoned brains and youthful vigour – we’re intentionally more top heavy than many agencies twice our size. That’s for one very important, strategic reason. Senior people are better able to guide clients, whatever their level, when a change of approach is required. When challenges arise senior management need to be able to demonstrate that they care, and that they are directly connected to everything that’s going on.

Standard commercial models for agencies fail to take this into account. There are lots of reasons for that, fear of the wages bill being a key one, but it’s a false economy. You need to nurture the right talent in the right way to have the right conversations with clients. Openness, imagination, intelligence and commitment are vital, at any level. Having the right culture is too. This means a culture where there is no fear of asking questions, one where you learn from each other, one where more junior members of staff are always more rounded when they leave than when they arrive. If you don’t foster that type of environment, and have those people in place, closing the gap won’t ever be possible.

Happy families

Positive client / agency relationships facilitate truly collaborative working, where challenges are easily identified and quickly dealt with. In these instances if a change of direction is required that’s what happens, and everyone benefits as a result. Our work for The Gap Partnership is a great example of what can be achieved in such a situation. Like many successful companies their marketing had evolved over time, with no single-minded proposition grounding it all. We went on a multi-stage journey together.

What was initially a project to redesign the client’s website evolved into something far greater. The seniority of the team at Initials meant The Gap Partnership was open to a dialogue that went beyond the initial brief. This, in turn, allowed us to highlight the wider issues we knew they needed to address. It was not, nor ever should be, about blind upselling. It’s about figuring out where your client needs to be and then looking at the best ways to help them get there.

Ann Marie Costelloe, Chief Marketing Officer at The Gap Partnership: “Some aspects of the work, in particular the new magazine, ended up being one of the most successful pieces of brand marketing we’ve ever done. Achieving that level of output requires honest conversations, a genuinely in-depth understanding of what you’re trying to achieve, and the ability to spot misdirection early and steer things back to where they need to be”.

Working as a trusted extension of their internal team meant we were able to challenge them at numerous points along the way – from giving them the confidence to be selective about the information they were providing on their site, to justifying why taking a big leap with their rebrand was the right way to go. All of this comes down to having real conversations with each other, rather than blindly responding to whatever brief has been put in front of you. This is the only way to successfully close the gap between what a client needs and what an agency delivers.

As Ann Marie put it, “The right agency will know what you’re looking for, and be confident about the expertise they bring to the table. We were able to quickly establish an equal partnership, with respect on both sides of the table. It all grew from there”.

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