Strategic Marketing

The Death of Client Service in Advertising Agencies

Did you ever play charades with a long-time friend and he or she got your clue from one generic gesture? Or see a couple finish each other’s sentences while speaking? That kind of connection (dare I say intimacy?) comes from a deep knowledge that is cultivated over time in a mutually dependent relationship. The most effective agency-client relationships require the same level of depth and commitment.

The foundation of any relationship starts with listening and communicating honestly, and it builds toward caring.

  • Agency people: for you that means developing a deep understanding of the client’s business and industry, and truly caring about the client’s business and personal success.
  • Clients: for you that means allowing the agency to help you dig deep and truly solve a communication or business challenge, while caring about their business and personal success as well.

“Deep” is the key word for both parties as they attempt to move from simply supplying a service to building a relationship in which there is true, trusted engagement between both sides. The word “service” is far too transactional in a world where the inputs are always changing and agencies and clients need to partner, and remain engaged, for mutual success.

Engagement is a rare, but powerful state because it connotes intellectual and emotional connection between equals. Gone is the order-taker mentality (good riddance), replaced by a strong desire to be fully aware so that you can deliver the best solution, regardless of the path prescribed. Gone is the fear associated with taking risk, because both parties know the other has their best interest at heart and will share proactive input and honest feedback to deliver the best solution.

Engagement is not a new concept in the agency-client universe, yet it is still in its infancy. In 2008, Todd Sebastian wrote an excellent guide to “engagement” thinking in his book, Tell Your Clients Where to Go! A Practical Guide to Providing Passionate Client Leadership. This guide details the mindset shift and behaviors that make for excellence in agency-client relations, and is a good read for anyone in the profession regardless of experience.

In her recent essay, titled, “The Hero’s Journey – Navigating Agency/Client Engagement,” Chris Thalgott, Chief Marketing Officer for boutique-hotel brand Monteverdi Tuscany, and a former Director of Brand Design Strategy for ConAgra Foods, writes that, “Both the client and the agency need to shape the responsibility of the journey’s outcome.” It is only when they do this that they “will create an engaging experience and rewarding journey where we can all be heroes – for more than one day.”

Another example of the movement can be found in an address titled “Trends in Agency/Client Engagement” that Debra Giampoli, Director of Global Strategic Agency Relations at food-and-beverage giant Mondelez International presented at the Association of National Advertisers’ (ANA) 2016 Advertising Financial Management Conference.

In her speech, Giampoli points out that Mondelez International was creating a new program, called “Fly Fearless,” that would challenge existing models of client service. Fly Fearless is a mindset, Giampoli stressed, where “both the agency and the client need to be willing to collaborate, share outcomes, shed titles and check egos at the door” in order to find mutual success.

So why is it taking so long for service to die and engagement to become the norm? Personally, I think it’s because it’s a lot of work. In the end, achieving true engagement requires that both the agency and the client do the heavy lifting upfront and take the time to share the deep knowledge and detail that drives their thinking. Engagement is not simply about assigning and completing projects, but rather a deep, collaborative partnership that leads to more informed communication and, ultimately, more satisfying results. And it’s about having the bravery and resolve to quit doing “what’s easy” to focus on doing “what’s right.”

Every day when I walk into work, there is a big, bold wall decal at the entrance that reminds me to be ETERNALLY CONFIDENT. TOTALLY FEARLESS. Perhaps we all need not-so-subtle reminders to jump in and engage in building fruitful agency-client relationships.


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