Human beings are notoriously emotional and often irrational. However, we want to think we are totally rational. Clients are no different. In fact, rational feedback and reasons are often provided to justify what is largely an emotional response to the relationship. Being able to read between the lines of what is being said takes incredible emotional intelligence.
It is all about the relationship. Anyone that tells you otherwise is lying. You see, marketing, and especially marketing communications, tends to attract professionals who are very people oriented. This means that relationships are important to them. So when a client tells their agency “We have outgrown you” it is usually code for we have fallen out of love.
Proof of this is seen in the reverse situation, when a new CMO is appointed. If they do not instantly fall in love with the incumbent agency, often one of the first things they will do is fire the incumbent and appoint a new agency. Of course, this will be perfectly rationalized by stating that they need a fresh team aligned to their fresh idea for the brand, but this happens before the incumbents have had a chance to prove themselves.
In discussing the need for a pitch, we will often hear a litany of perfectly valid reasons for undertaking an agency review. One of the key areas we explore is the relationship with the incumbents. With probing, this is where you find that the sum of the parts is equal to an underlying whole… which is that the client no longer feels the love and commitment.
The issue for clients is how to articulate this in a professional business environment. Saying “I feel like you don’t love us anymore” or “I don’t love you” or even “I love someone else” feels more appropriate in a daytime drama than in a corporate office. Therefore, feeling constrained having these conversations, clients will resort to more rational (and acceptable) feedback for the agency.
The problem is that the agency will often times respond to specific client feedback and will not address the underlying cause that goes largely unstated by the client. While this is understandable on the part of the agency, it often exacerbates the client’s feelings of dissatisfaction because they are now left feeling misunderstood. In other words, if the agency was truly aligned to the needs of the brand / business (and could read the client’s needs), the agency would know what to do.
It is interesting that these situations occur at very specific points in the client / agency relationship. First, as mentioned, is the appointment of a new lead. Here the agency must rely on having the person fall in love with them. This can be hit and miss as you already come with the baggage of being the incumbent. But some research and the appointment of the right staff on the front line of the account can help.
The next critical time is following appointment. After about a year or so, unfortunately sometimes less, the honeymoon period will end. This is a critical time. Risks to the relationship can be minimized by starting the relationship management from day one with proactive reviews, candid feedback, openness and a truly collaborative workflow.
The next critical time comes when there are quiet periods… when there is little or no work on the account. As an agency, you need to keep in touch to stay relevant and top of mind. However, you need to make sure your teams are delivering value of some kind to the client during these exchanges in between projects, as you never want to look like you are wasting time and money.
And the last critical time is when a result is bad and the client is under performance pressure. Any weakness in the relationship can leave the agency open to becoming the scapegoat for the poor performance.
Ultimately, it is about setting up the relationship for success and realizing that nothing stays the same forever. Agencies need to be able to read between the rational statements clients make in order to understand the deeper emotional relationship. But of course there is a time when even that is not enough.