The Best Clients Get the Best From Their Agency

The Best Clients Get the Best From Their Agency

Why do some clients get great work from an agency, while others at the same agency get only mediocre work?

Agencies as a whole provide very similar things, based on a unique, delicate combination of culture and communication. As such, it’s very often the ‘client’, not the ‘agency’ that makes the difference that ultimately determines the quality of output.

David Ogilvy famously wrote in his seminal book Confessions of An Advertising Man, “Every client gets what they deserve.” (In other words, “there are no good agencies and bad agencies, just good clients and bad clients.”)

While the quote is harsh, my partner, Dan Reynolds, and I have seen this happen over and over again during our marketing careers, and we see it now as the founders of a management consulting firm that works directly with marketers to find and manage their ideal agency partner.

What is it that sets the best clients apart? Here are some key aspects that we see in clients getting the best work from their agency:

Giving (presenting to and getting input on) a great brief to the agency is a must – but note that this in and of itself is not enough to unleash real creativity and innovative thinking.

The most important thing a client can do is to lead by setting the bar high: inspire the agency. Don’t be afraid to ask for the audacious, disruptive idea. Agencies, consciously or unconsciously, assess a client’s “comfort zone”, and will figure out what kind of ideas the client would be open to. Ask yourself: do you really have the stomach (or authority) for risk-taking – and, if necessary, are you able to push the agency to go further with the ideas they present the first or second time out?

Streamline the approval process – A. This is critical. There is nothing that dilutes engagement more than an approval process that drags on and on. Clients who ask for three or, even, four ideas to be brought to the first meeting to ‘cover all the bases’, and then advance them simultaneously down the path is simply not productive. A better way to approach this is to pick one horse quickly and concentrate on making that idea great. To do so, a good client will be decisive and kill-off ideas quickly without advancing them through the meat grinder.

Streamline the approval process – B. In our experience, great ideas are always watered down when the one who can say “Yes” to a proposal is not in the room during key presentations. It’s important that there is senior client hands-on involvement present at all times throughout the approval process, and not substitute with others who are empowered only to say “No” chip away at it. Keep the approval loop tight, consistent and top-level.

Provide Clarity. There should only be a couple of people in your company who interact with the agency. A group of ten giving direction is a sure-fire way of frustrating both your people and the agency.

Provide focus. Strategy is a sacrifice of choices, and to have a strategy (rather than vague aspirations) is to choose one path and eschew others.

Provide context. The more the agency understands the context for its efforts, the more likely it it will develop ideas that are genuinely fit for purpose.

Pay fairly. A ‘bargain’ is never really one in the end; you get what you pay for. Cheap work will cost a lot more in the long run; spend more for a good team and it will deliver results.

Emancipate your agency from fear. Insecure agencies are not likely to take the risks that are often the foundation of great, disruptive advertising. Great clients convey to their agencies an attitude of: “We’re in this together.”

After over 40 years in the marketing business, I’ve consistently found that an agency does its best work when there’s a client who believes that the work can actually solve his or her problem. Nothing will guarantee more, to ensure that your agency will fail, than projecting that you don’t believe that they have what it takes to succeed on your behalf.

Effective creative requires a substantial level of Client-Agency collaboration. Still, you and your team have an outsized influence on the outcome. The best clients succeed when they help the agency succeed.

Thank you to Forbes.com contributor, Avi Dan, for content of this post.