Prior to starting my own business, I spent a number of years working as a brand strategist at various agencies/consultancies and was part of a wide range of multi-faceted, global client-agency relationships.
Throughout those years, I spent a lot of time thinking about how the agency business could increase its professionalism, and how the client-agency relationship could be made more successful. The pace at which clients switch agencies is consistently pretty high and the work coming out of client-agency partnerships varies a lot in quality and return on investment.
While a lot of responsibility rests on the agency in terms of professionalizing its business and improving its value creation, way more should be expected from the client to make the relationship as fruitful as possible. I would therefore like to direct this post to anyone who is a client – in a position of buying branding, design, marketing and/or communications/advertising/PR services from agencies/consultancies – and provide an essential checklist as to what needs to be considered in order to get more out of the client-agency relationship.
1. Know what to ask for
In order to pose the most relevant questions when evaluating different agency offerings, make sure that you have a thorough understanding of the types of services you are intending to buy. If you are about to embark on the development of a new visual identity, you need to understand what dimensions that type of work encompasses.
My advice is that you call a few peers in your network who have been through similar types of work and ask them for learnings and key things to think about. This is a simple effort which will put you in an entirely different position when initiating conversations with potential agency partners.
2. Understand what competences you need
The agency should be the expert advising you on what competences that need to be involved in a certain type of engagement. However, as mentioned in the previous point, it is essential for you to have enough understanding of the service area you are dealing with.
An example is the plethora of designers there are working in the agency space. Professionally putting together a holistic visual identity and smartly integrating a number of key design dimensions usually requires a designer that has been trained in that field. I have seen examples of graphic designers specializing in package design and web design respectively, who lacked the in-depth understanding of the craftsmanship of developing a new visual identity, including understanding its implementation throughout a wide range of applications. Conversely, I have seen how designers with extensive experience of developing identities, were completely inapt at designing the front-end design of websites. Hence, you need the right type of designer for the job.
Make sure to ask suggested agency team members about their previous experience and check with business peers what they have learned from previous similar engagements.
3. Demand full disclosure of the agency team
A classic issue is that an agency puts forth its most senior staff during a pitch process and upon landing the business, a more junior team is actually primarily working on it. It’s fully understandable that some of the most senior agency staff is working on multiple accounts, hence mainly will be overseeing various processes, but then that has to be openly communicated to you as a client. No exceptions made.
The agency needs to present the team that will actually be working on your engagement and you should make sure to meet them before you have signed a contract. Also ask for their credentials and portfolios.
And ask the client lead to provide estimates of how much time the most senior staff will be able to spend on the engagement. The agency often underestimates the conflict that will later unfold when the client notices how senior members they expected to be there are often absent. Both parties will benefit from managing expectations from the get-go.
4. Embrace openness and transparency
I firmly believe in the strength of seeing the client-agency relationship as highly collaborative. This means that you should by no means value an agency acting according to the black box approach, i.e. working on their end for a few months and then presenting you with THE solution or THE alternatives.
One would assume that such a working approach has disappeared in light of the ‘collaboration movement’, but I still see that way of working going on, sometimes fairly well-disguised. As a client, you should reimagine what value is about.
I have often heard clients tell me “well, you tell us, you are the experts”. While it’s essential to recognize that an agency has expertise that you need and want to pay for, it’s equally important to understand that you as a client and the organization you represent also house considerable expertise that is highly valuable for the process.
So, make sure to establish a working partnership where it’s ok for valuable insights and content to come from both you as a client and the agency. You should nevertheless still be able to feel that you get value for your money. However, a hands-off approach where you expect the agency to have all the answers because you’re paying for it is obviously not the way to get the most relevant and value-adding solutions.
Be open to and embrace an agency that is not shy about asking so-called basic questions, that welcomes you wholeheartedly into a collaborative process and makes sure to ask you for advice throughout the process. You will have more fun and you will see a better result in the end.
I’m sure some people may debate this to some extent, but bear in mind that I’m not recommending a client to be overly controlling, distrusting and/or nit-picky – common sense says that you need to have an open process characterized by mutual trust to make room for creativity and reimagination.
5. Understand where there’s a deliverable – and why
There are a lot of great storytellers in the agency world, with an effective means to sell services and deliverables. I have myself experienced situations where superiors would sell the client services without first properly understanding how to put together the corresponding deliverables.
It’s not uncommon for an agency to create deliverables where the client doesn’t actually understand what that means and what the value will be. In these situations, I think it’s important for clients not to be afraid of seeming incompetent, but rather ask the simple and direct questions: What is it? Why/what is it for? What lies behind the price tag? How will this be delivered? How can the delivery be used? etc
As a client, you must always be on top of things and understand what the agency is talking about. Of course, in some situations you can show faith and see what comes out of a process despite you feeling unclear about things at first, but make sure that is an intentional move on your end, not that the process has moved above your head so that you feel lost and expected to follow along.
6. Let the agency focus on the core work – not your internal politics
While there are situations where it’s undoubtedly helpful to bring in an external party in order to achieve important change internally, I still think you should limit the amount of internal politics that you expose your agency to.
The risk is for you to fall into the convenience trap of letting your agency get so deeply tangled into your organization that they start handling politics for you. It’s an unwise and inefficient way of paying for agency services, and it can create a vicious circle internally where you start to bring in more and more consultant resources to handle things that the organization should handle on its own. It’s short-sighted so try to avoid it if you can.
I personally experienced how one of Sweden’s largest companies brought in consultants and became highly incapable of handling internal relations without always having a key agency person present. That resulted in the focus being steered away from achieving outstanding deliverables.
7. Establish the way of working early on
It’s essential to establish the way of working early on in the process – again, in order to set the expectations of both parties.
I have experienced how extensive engagements with multiple deliverables didn’t allow for the amount of meetings that clients in question requested. Often, agencies are afraid of voicing concerns such as availability since they think it may lead to a discontinued client relationship.
Again, it’s essential to embrace openness so that both parties feel respected and able to communicate their needs. Just because you as a client pay the agency, it doesn’t mean that you can have unreasonable demands without it affecting the agreed-upon contract in terms of time, resources and deliverables.
A key area to establish a common view on is the approach to meetings – What type of meetings do we value? What needs to be in place for a meeting to be useful? What is a relevant frequency of meetings considering objectives, time and cost? etc.
8. Be demanding yet empathic
I urge clients to be demanding, more so than what usually seems to be the case, especially to hold an agency accountable for things they have promised. A mutually respectful and fruitful relationship will only gain from certain standards being upheld, so don’t hesitate to address concerns as they arise and make sure they are swiftly resolved.
Another key to you getting the most out of your agency is to show empathy and warmth. A client that is not only demanding when necessary and called-for, but also warm and empathic when the process, or individual team members for that matter, encounter challenges has everything to gain.
The times I have personally felt true empathy from a client, I have felt a stronger sense of closeness and loyalty. We are all human beings, and even if consultants are expected to go the extra mile regardless, a warm and caring partnership will pave the way for great work to be done. But if an agency is starting to abuse your kindness, then firmly point that out. A great agency partner will be able to accept criticism and assume responsibility for their actions.
Apply and excel
I hope that you as a client will be able to apply the checklist above to your situation – and work towards elevating your current and future agency relationships to new heights, making them more collaborative, value-adding, respectful and fun.
Equally so, if you are running an agency/consultancy, I hope you can use the checklist to identify and magnify areas of improvement.
Good luck and please leave a comment below or drop me an email if you wish to add additional areas to the checklist where you think it’s important for clients to learn and grow to get more out of the services they are buying.
Image: Innovation Lab