Remember that one conference call? You know, the one where you put them on mute, and then asked everyone, “What’s going on… why don’t they get it?” Yeah, that’s the one. By the way, there’s a pretty good chance they were doing the same thing.
This scenario plays out every day and reflects the ups and downs in client-agency relationships. Before starting my own content marketing collective, 26 Characters, I worked on both sides. 10 years ad agencies, and over 10 years on the client side.
Why do I bring this up? Because I’ve seen the good, bad and ugly. I’ve won and lost clients. And I’ve had to hire and fire agencies.
Let’s talk about some of the issues and how they can be prevented. I’ve outlined 10 common mistakes – five on the agency side and five from clients – that might lead you to marketing divorce court. Some of these examples are from my first-hand experience. Others come from former colleagues who’ve worked for a variety of agencies and companies.
Let’s be clear, not every agency does these things, and not every client is evil and aloof, so take what I’m about to say with a grain of salt. And of course, I was able to create this list because I’ve been guilty of many of these mistakes.
Let’s start with some agency fails I’ve seen over the years.
1. The sloppy SOW – “I just sell the work, I don’t do the work.”
Once an agency grows to over 50 people, they usually set up a business development team. Whenever they win a piece of business, they don’t work on it. They pass it on to another team. As you can imagine, this creates problems. The team that was assembled to do the work might not have seen the statement of work (SoW). Sometimes they can deliver the work for the price it was scoped for. Other times, they might need to course correct and ask for additional money in the middle or end of the project.
How to avoid this if you’re the client: Make sure the team who’s doing the work has seen the scope. Also, make sure the SOW is crystal clear.
How to avoid this if you’re the agency: Make sure the team who’s delivering the work signs off on the scope before presenting it to the client.
2. The chicken and egg – “Because you only get a team after you sign the SoW.”
We’re all familiar with the chicken and egg philosophical debate. The same principle applies to how agencies staff their teams. In order for an agency to secure a team, they need a signed statement of work. Otherwise, another client with a signed statement of work takes priority.
You’d be surprised how many times teams were secured right before a kick-off meeting. It’s one of the most stressful things I experienced when working at an agency. The team you get on your account is everything. It can make or break your project.
How to avoid this if you’re the client: Ask the agency for a list of everyone on the team. Or, tell the agency you won’t sign the SoW until you see the team.
How to avoid this if you’re the agency: Tell your leadership team your client needs to see the team before signing off on the SoW.
3. The “I just looked at my burn report and have some bad news.”
Some call it a ‘burn report’ (as in the hours burned). Others call it a ‘utilization report’. Either way, this report dictates team staffing decisions, and ultimately account profitability. If your account person isn’t on top of this report, they can be blindsided by burning too many hours. Once this happens, it’s too late.
Leadership will decide if they end up billing the client or eating the hours themselves. Good account people will see this coming usually weeks in advance. But if your account person slacks when it comes to finances, beware of incremental fee requests coming from left field.
How to avoid this if you’re the client: Make sure you have a “no surprises” handshake agreement where you’re given a heads up before the team goes over their hours. Or, moved to a fixed fee agreement where you don’t have to worry about hourly billing.
How to avoid this if you’re the agency: Stay on top when it comes to team utilization. If you aren’t already forecasting team hours for two to six weeks out, you should be. In a perfect world, you’ll have a two to four month forecast for everyone in your agency (yes, we know this perfect world doesn’t exist).
4. The “We’re pitching a new client” – Meet your new junior varsity team.
Most agency growth comes from new business. And in any new business pitch, you want your best and brightest people working on it.
Even though the A-Team is working on an existing client, they can be borrowed for a pitch. Most agencies try to have them work both the pitch and existing account. But this doesn’t work in the long run. If the A-Team can’t sustain it, they’ll bring in a junior team to service the existing client. This can result in work that doesn’t meet the usual teams standards.
Having your team switched around may only happen once or twice a year. But hey, to their credit, if the agency pulls this off without you noticing, kudos to them.
How to avoid this if you’re the client: Place some language in your SoW saying the agency needs to advise the client of any staffing changes before they happen.
How to avoid this if you’re the agency: If you think your team is going to be delayed for more than a week, give the client a heads up. Or, try to push some schedules back and tell your client, “we’re moving this part back but we we’ll still hit the end date”.
5. The “We’re not going to stop selling this idea because we’re still convinced you don’t understand our genius.”
Clients love it when agencies are passionate about their ideas. They realize that if you’re excited about an idea, it’s likely to have some traction behind it.
But every now and then, an idea doesn’t work for a variety of reasons – it doesn’t solve a business problem, the idea is average, or the timing is off. This can be hard for an agency to absorb. After all, they’ve probably invested 50-plus hours thinking it through. Sometimes agencies can’t accept no for answer. This manifests in them saying things like “the client doesn’t understand the idea”, or “the right people weren’t in the room.” While this can be true, it’s usually not.
How to avoid this if you’re the client: Listen to your agency and let them explain themselves a couple of times. If the idea still isn’t working, have a conversation with the lead creative and account person (without their respective teams with them).
How to avoid this if you’re the agency: Continue to push the idea, but ask, “what parts of the idea would you change to make it work?” Also, look for the unspoken reasons why no one is buying the idea. Is it too risky for the client’s culture? Is there a way to test the idea to limit the risk?
Now, it’s time to have a look at some classic client fails I’ve seen over the years.
1. The “I’m going to solve the problem for you, and then ask why it didn’t work.”
If you’re working with a good agency, make sure you know how to get the best work out of them. One thing you don’t want to do is to solve the problem for them.
You may think you’re helping out or setting them up for success, but it’s actually the exact opposite. Agencies excel at generating ideas and solving problems with creativity. If you kick off your project by downloading them with what you want, you’re on the path to average. The better agencies will push back, but most will follow your directions.
As if this isn’t bad enough, some clients will insist on a solution, and months later wonder why it didn’t work. Instead of having a moment of self-reflection, they go back to the agency asking what went wrong. This starts a round of “who dunnit” ping-pong, which is unfortunate for the agency as clients usually have the upper hand (even when they’re wrong).
I’ve (hypothetically) worked with clients who had a reputation for not being able to handle the truth. Even when the agency knew they were given bad direction, it was in the best interest of the relationship not to force it because the client wouldn’t take it well.
How to avoid this if you’re the client: The next time you brief your agency, force yourself to define the problem/opportunity.
How to avoid this if you’re the agency: If your client takes you down a bad path, have the tough conversation with them. If they persist, document the approach they’ve asked you to take in an email. End your email on a positive note saying something like “we’re still excited to bring this solution to life for you”.
2. The lone ranger – Capable of doing everything on their own until… Oops.
Mobilizing an agency is pretty easy. All it takes is one or two phone calls.
Getting things created on the client side is tricky. Some projects need to get buy-in on multiple levels. As a client, you may think you’re clear for take-off, until you socialize the work internally and start getting pushbacks. Sometimes, these are small bumps along the way. Other times, the entire project comes to a complete stop.
An over-confident client can create some hard times for an agency. Why? A project can be stopped, and all of a sudden, the team doesn’t have work forecasted for the next one to two months. Everyone looks at each other thinking “WTF are we going to do with our team?” [Insert long, awkward silence here, followed by a trip to Starbucks].
How to avoid this if you’re the client: For more important work, get buy-off from the most senior person in your company. Ideally, someone in the C-suite.
How to avoid this if you’re the agency: If you sense the project is high-profile or risky, ask your client how many people will need to have line of sight into the work. Also, pull in a senior agency leader and have them backchannel the project to one of their counterparts’ client side.
3. The “I’m new in my role so I’m just going to follow your lead”… And then WHAM!
When a client is new to their role, they often rely on agencies to lead them. As an agency, this is exactly where you want to be. However, you might not have line of sight into how work gets approved or socialized.
Your client may be saying that everything looks great, but what’s really happening is they’re not sharing the work with anyone. Inevitably, just as the project is about to wrap up, the client comes back with major changes.
Of course, sometimes you can recover without any implications. If not, there will usually be scope conversations where the agency needs more money to course correct.
How to avoid this if you’re the client: Be transparent about what you don’t know (both with your agency and your boss).
How to avoid this if you’re the agency: Educate your client not only on your approach to creating work, but the implications of sign-offs at various stages.
4. The “I refuse to acknowledge I’ve done anything wrong because I don’t want you to charge me more.”
Clients are up against many challenges. While under the pressure to be more innovative in pursuing some next generation transformation project, they’re asked to do more with less budget, along with maintaining or reducing the number of people on their teams. The list goes on and on.
Clients tend to pass on these problems to their agencies. Why? Because agency expenses are usually the largest line item in their budget and they’re easy to shift around. Some clients approach these conversations in the spirit of partnership – “how can we work together to make this work? Let’s roll up our sleeves and see what’s possible” – these are the clients you cherish!
Other clients take the opposite approach and say they want more work for less money. They’re not even going to have any conversations. They tell the agency to “make it work” (insert Tim Gunn’s voice from Project Runway).
This puts the agency in a tough position. Ultimately, the agency can probably get to the price the client wants. This, however, means putting more junior people on the account or reducing the number of hours the team spends. Eventually the agency agrees to do more for less, but three months later the client declares that “things don’t feel like they used to. What’s different?”
How to avoid this if you’re the client: Approach your agency with warmth and flexibility. Understand there’s some give and take.
How to avoid this if you’re the agency: Be transparent about the tough choices you made to meet the clients’ expectations. If you don’t share the true impact, they will assume 100% of the fee reduction came from your profits, which you know isn’t true.
5. The “Hurry up, hurry up, everything is urgent… Until it’s not, and then it’s urgent again, and then it’s not… I think.”
The creative process is a unique balance of art, science, hope and fear, mixed in with diplomacy and risk taking. Great work is rarely produced overnight. You need the right environment, and as a client you need to have an open mind.
Unless you’ve worked in an agency, you’ll never understand everything that goes into the work. There are countless conversations, debates, tweaks and ideas that never even get presented. Clients who don’t understand this can rush the work to meet their internal approval schedules. Don’t get me wrong, the clients are trying to do the right thing when they ask for a quick turnaround.
So what’s the client up against? Strange things like “that team meets once a week on Friday. If we miss that meeting, we’re going to need to wait until the next one”. Or, my personal favorite – “I need my CMO to look at it. They’re going to be on vacation next week, so let’s turn it around in 24 hours.”
Of course, there are exceptions where you need to speed things up and “make it work” (again, Tim Gunn’s voice). But make sure as a client, you acknowledge the fact that just because your agency can do it, doesn’t mean they should. In the long term, you’ll create an environment that favors speed over quality.
How to avoid this if you’re the client: Educate your internal team on how your agency works, and what’s needed to ensure high quality and great work. When you need to make an exception, try to give your agency a heads up on strange timing requests.
How to avoid this if you’re the agency: At the project kick-off, make sure your client actively reviews the schedule and discloses any issues in providing timely feedback.
Looking to be more prepared for your next kick off meeting? Make sure to check out our blog post called – 100 Questions To Ask Before Your Kick Off Meeting
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