Have I told you lately that I love you? (part 2)

Published by Derek Humphries on

OK, so you’ve done your strategic speed-dating (also known as ‘a pitch’), and it’s time to get on with some proper work.

All being well, you’ve genuinely will fallen in love with an agency. Your agency. All being well they will be making you feel that they only have eyes for you. Even so, before getting into bed you may want some form of pre-nuptial agreement. It’s not vital. It’s not always necessary. But it’s generally a good thing to know what you both expect from the relationship. So whether it is a formal contract or a simple exchange of do’s and don’ts, you may want to specify:

  • The team: who exactly will do the work, pick up the phone to you, come to meetings etc.
  • What will it cost? Precisely.
  • Any specific Service Level Agreements.
  • Financial constraints and targets
  • Confidentiality
  • Copyright
  • Review periods.

They may sound like passion-killers, but, hell, let’s hope this isn’t a one-night stand.

Let the honeymoon commence!

‘Oh darling, tell me it will be this way forever!’

‘Of course it will, so long as we have clear relationship principles, well-defined areas of responsibility, and well-understood lines of communication.’

‘Oh darling, I love it when you stress the foundations of mutually beneficial relationships!’

This is all about expectation management, much of it relating to how you will inspire each other and manage things, such as:

  • Briefs, contact reports and other documentation: I’ve worked with clients who find contact reports a waste of time and money; I’ve worked with others who want every phone conversation confirming in an email. One size does not fit all.
  • Schedules/approval procedures: how much time does the client need to approve things; and the agency need to produce things. We all know that the quickest way to screw up a relationship is to be late.
  • Budgets/inclusions and exclusions
  • Two-way inductions: the agency wants to become an expert in your cause, so how can you help them?
  • How to transfer your enthusiasm for your work to your agency.  How can you best inspire the agency (‘I will give them copies of my past 10 annual reports and direct them to my website!’ tends to be the wrong answer).

And among all this, don’t forget to get to know each other. Social time together is generally time well spent.

It’s worth bearing in mind that when you appoint an agency, you should let any of your other existing agencies know.  There’s nothing so unseemly as the confrontation when an agency says: ‘So, I hear you’re seeing someone else?! Well, is it true?!! Do I mean so little to you?!!!’

Beneath their ultra-confident façade, agencies can be delicate flowers, so try to communicate clearly why you are working with multiple agencies, what their various remits are, and the extent to which you need them to play well together.

And agencies, get over it. Concentrate on excelling in the brief you have, rather than worrying about the brief someone else has.

Key time you will spend together with your agency/ies is in meetings. Meetings matter. They can be a monumental waste of time. Or they can be brilliant. Think about what sort of meetings you need, what are they for, how often, where, chaired by whom, attended by whom, and what prep and follow-up is required?

Despite all of the above, the relationship may sometimes go wrong.  In terms of things going wrong, I’ve tended to find there are two great ways to annoy clients:

  1. Be later than you promised
  2. Be more expensive than you promised.

I’d be lying if I said I’d never made these mistakes.  But I hope I make them rarely these days.

But what else can go wrong? Given that any client-agency relationship is a complex mix of chemistry, art, maths, and logistics, well, plenty can go wrong. Here’s some things to try to avoid:

Moving the goalposts: changing the brief mid-way through the project.

Sweeping problems under the carpet: if there is a problem address is as early and objectively as you can.

Changes of personnel: when a client asks to meet the people who will work on their business, try to make sure that these are the people who will work on their business!

Indecision: I’ve never worked on the client side. Strikes me it’s a bloody tough job. Nevertheless, try to give the agency strong and consistent direction.

I’m sure you can suggest many other ways to screw up a relationship! But whenever problems arise, it’s best to:

  • Always raise the issue. ALWAYS. Your past relationship forms the basis for how you do this
  • Describe the problem (of course in management speak, or indeed childcarespeak (!), this is about addressing the behaviour rather than criticising the person.
  • Then listen (there is rarely fault on one side only)
  • Agree actions to rectify the problem for client and agency
  • Specify a time period for improvements
  • Review and move on.

Lest we end on a negative note, I wanted to finish by looking at what happens when it all goes right. It does happen. Back in the 80s and 90s I worked for many years with Greenpeace. It went right. Sometimes very right. So consequently, at the end of each year, I asked the client what we needed to change, how could we ensure we never became complacent. Sometimes we changed things, and sometimes we didn’t. But I hope we never took each other for granted.

Overall, I would say there are four key issues when things are going well:

First, let each other know.

Second, try to work out why it’s going right, and pass on the learnings. People happily spend time analysing failures, but not enough time analysing and learning from success.

Third, celebrate! I am not aware of any fundraisers or agencies who think their job got lots easier in the past few years. So success is worth celebrating. It creates landmarks in your relationship, and creates a shared sense of teamwork.

Finally, don’t get cosy or complacent. Take time to ask if even the best relationship needs to change in some way.

(If you haven’t read it yet, don’t forget to check part 1 of this blog post.)

Derek Humphries

@derekhumphries is a Creative Director at DTV Group working on worldwide DRTV campaigns and films, and a consultant Creative Strategist working with the Resource Alliance.


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