Blog: Improving the client-agency relationship

After almost 15 years in event marketing roles client-side, Ben Atherton joined WRG as client director and finds that the client and agency sides aren't that different after all.

An insight into client and agency relationships
An insight into client and agency relationships

Two years ago I decided to make a change.  I’d built excellent relationships with agencies over many challenging projects all over the world and felt I could bring something to an agency serious about its growth and its market proposition.  

It’s fair to say a number of people advised me against changing sides. Well-intentioned comments about pressure, targets, work/life balance and the apocryphal 2am ‘crisis calls’ from clients all pointed to staying put. But I made the jump and two years later, I’ve learnt a lot about how client-agency partnerships can be improved and how similar both sides are after all.

Order-takers or partners

It’s a myth that corporate buyers want a ‘yes’ from an agency every time. As a client I wanted expertise, ideas, stimulation, challenge and then, as Brian Clough famously said, we’d agree I was right! That said, alternative options can be crucial for clients steering their stakeholders towards delivery. The ability to debate is critical.  Admittedly, some clients just want to get the project done and others will recoil from what they see as a ‘partnership’; the connotations of paying for relationship management can still be a barrier. However as innovation disrupts the status quo, clients will need a progressive agency with the confidence and intelligence to challenge. The order-takers are in a race to the bottom.

Earning your fee or cashing out

During my early client-side days, I’m sure more than one project was exceptionally lucrative for the agency building the budget. However, it’s not a game that wins in the long-term. The agencies that invested in my brand won through and in turn, I gained valuable knowledge and understanding through them that helped my career progression.  As the agency, you don’t gain that level of trust from the client if you’re continuously padding out your costs. Now I’m agency-side I see even more starkly that trust is hard won (and even harder to keep).  Agencies that invest emotionally and financially in relationships can win support, loyalty and advocacy that will pay bigger dividends than a smash-and-grab approach.

Quality versus cost

As a client, I knew that paying for prosecco would not buy me champagne.  It did not stop me wanting it, but I knew there were limits on how things get done.  But I would never settle for an inferior approach to quality and what attracted me to WRG was the focus it puts on delegate experience. Even the most basic and price-sensitive solution has inherent quality and care; either in the way it’s built or the creative design process that sits behind it.  A great example is how we’re innovating in the exhibition space with our work for Google. Intelligent creativity is driving a solution that is scalable, sustainable and cost-efficient and it looks superb too.  

Pressure or just business as usual

The lazy assumption that clients have it easy, clocking out at 5.30pm, whilst agencies sweat a project all night, is not something I recognise. More times than I like to recall I’d take internal calls at midnight and be back on email by 4am – my job as the project lead was to handle that internal flux. In turn, I relied on my agencies delivering on time and shouldering responsibility for flawless execution, price negotiation, third party management, sustainability, health & safety etc.

In a strong relationship, you accept that balance. So whilst the client holds the demonstrable responsibility for the outcome of their event, it’s our job to alleviate the pressure by communicating well and proving our value in a true partnership approach.  As a client, knowing your agency is behind you is vital, but it’s just as vital for the agency to promote a culture of delivery based on a shared commitment to outcomes.  

Of course it’s different being at an agency but the two sides are more similar than you might at first think. The mantra that a client’s focus is singular, deep and narrow whereas an agency can skim across broad sectors just doesn’t resonate with me.  I’m lucky to work across many brands and all my clients are deeply interested in what is being done elsewhere; that curiosity is fascinating and keeps everyone on their toes. As clients find themselves needing to work smarter and faster, relying on external partners is more vital than ever.  Just please don’t call me at 2am to debate it.

Comment below to let us know what you think.

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