Are You Boring Your Clients?

While not all of us are bugged by it, there is a fairly relentless stream of "Why You Should Fire Your Agency Right Now" articles. Fortunately, the good ones venture beyond reciting tired black-and-white rules related to power structures. They take a more expansive view on agency models and how to deliver within the relationship during these demanding, progressive times. The best also include a mutual and compassionate look at the value exchange. That's good stuff.

I have been thinking lately about our industry's evergreen focus on the most typical ways agencies can find themselves suddenly out in the cold. The usual crimes are the most blatant:

- Falling short of objectives and goals

- Failing to deliver the "Big Idea"

- Inaccurate or sloppy reporting

- Inability to grasp a client's business or marketplace

- Making a client look incapable or ridiculous for hiring you, internally

- Inept client service or erratic support on the day-to-day



This is outright bad stuff. But, while collaborating with agency client services teams during the past quarter, I've been mulling quieter, gentler crimes. Not that those agencies are guilty of any sins. But I've realized that even within the most professional, capable client services situation, things can still go off the tracks -- passively.

Is it possible to bore your clients right out the door? The answer is yes. In these highly accountable times, no matter how buttoned-up you are, falling down on a certain je ne sais quoi can have a deadly effect. And other kindred failings can have irreparable cumulative impact.

Boring Your Clients. You say all the right things. You get their business; you've been there and done that. Your ideas are sound and your execution is flawless. The team is pro-active, dutiful and by the book. Your work fulfills on the original promise of the engagement day in and day out, to the T.

But, nothing more. You don't exude conviction or break a sweat over ideas that excite you. You don't provoke anyone, not even your team, to think beyond standard ideas or break into new territory. You cringe at controversy. The problem is, over time, no matter how passionate your client is -- if she doesn't see a spark in your eye and an occasional swerve in your step, you may not be connecting in a sustainable way. Rote, bookish performance is replaceable. Live imagination paired with aptitude -- less so.

Channel Myopism: Whether your roots are traditional, or you are a digital wunderkind, you stay in your area of comfort, never engaging the client and the team in cross-channel potential. Taking pride in knowing a lone channel like the back of your hand, you expect this concentrated expertise to speak for itself. The problem is, this bias may blind you to a client's broader curiosity and a program's bigger picture. If you're truly blind to this issue, you'll also fail to notice a client's venturing elsewhere to fulfill cross-channel needs -- or holding back from giving you greater access.

Mistaking Socializing for a Relationship: Long lunches, dinner, drinks, box seats, baby gifts and the occasional "What's UP, man?!" on a client call -- do these things count? If so, how much? Debatable.

Most of us understand that leading a client relationship means numerous things. Today, there's no longer room for the version of client services that is nothing more than order-taking and mechanical account management. Strategic stewardship is now key. Then, there's client business and marketplace knowledge; account and program orchestration; ongoing business development; and a certain social factor. It's not one, but all of these things.

But, behold, there is the agency or client services organization that mistakes a client's enthusiasm about socializing for a relationship -- and thus, for stability. A great lunch says no more about how the relationship is going than saying "good job" does about performance, on any deep level.

There is an art to giving the social stuff its place in the relationship. But unless we develop business rapport and a real sense of what it takes to deliver for one another -- no matter how much bread is broken and inside jokes bandied about, we are just not tuned to the relationship. And, in so many ways, tuning is key.

While there are many concrete ways to explicitly fail a client, passive crimes, in aggregate, can do just as much damage. Perhaps even more important: Actively exploring mastery of these intangibles is what brings you to the soul of the engagement. And, while steady delivery and an able hand can aid an agency's business growth, it's that glimpse of the soul that makes client services, for some of the best in the business, their life's work.

5 comments about "Are You Boring Your Clients?".
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  1. Mark McLaughlin, November 23, 2009 at 11:54 a.m.

    Great points. The agency <> client dynamic is often dysfunctional. Agencies need to push client's out of their comfort zones and inspire the client to reach for the sky and yet, today's relationships are so tenuous that passive-aggressive behavior is almost unavoidable. When procurement negotiates the contract, they are paid to tighten down the scope of work and refuse to pay for extra hours if projects are over-run. But the marketing department needs a fluid, strategic and creative partner who will constantly extend themselves in pursuit of new ideas and better solutions. The agency is positioned to underwhelm the marketing department or go over budget with the procurement department. That's a fools choice and it is one of the reasons that agency turn over rates are so high.

  2. Mike Einstein from the Brothers Einstein, November 23, 2009 at 2:20 p.m.

    There's a word for agencies today: BORING! That's what happens when you play defense all the time.

    You wonder why Mad Men is such a hit among ad types? It's the fantasy they wish they lived. On the other hand, can you imagine a reality show about a media agency today? Neither can I.

  3. Mickey Lonchar from Quisenberry, November 23, 2009 at 5:40 p.m.

    Good list, Kendall. There's one other thing I'm seeing over and over as far as agencies being out of sync with their clients: they don't really understand what keeps the client up at night. Sure, they can turn around a project to meet the 'specs,' but more and more they've lost touch with what the client's greater need is. It's not so much about 'setting goals and reaching them' or stealing a point or two in market share. It's about sharing a vision for an organization, then using everything in our collective skill set to 'live it,' day in and day out.

  4. Rick Lavoie from RUCKUS, November 24, 2009 at 12:55 p.m.

    Great post and I agree with the follow up comments. Passion, provoking, and imagination is void from most agency/brand relationships. Almost all clients want this and in the best relationships they may express it. At the risk of sounding like I'm excusing it, the harsh reality is that when some do it, it is almost never well received. Agencies don't spend enough time in substantiating a progressive idea to sell it in. They don't provide the support to the clients when there is risk. Clients aren't ready to accept risk so both parties "don't go there". I don't know the solution to this other than keep trying and not being afraid to loss your job.

  5. Steven Bustin from Reprise Media, November 25, 2009 at 7:37 p.m.

    Yet again, Kendall Allen nails it and we should all pay attention! In these challenging economic times there is far too much rote, routine, process, procedure, safety and sameness...all attempting to play it safe with clients..and all in fact endangering the client relationship. This is required reading in our office. Thanks Kendall.

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