Lasting Client Relationships Start From A Solid Foundation

In “Why Clients Really Fire Agencies,” Darren Woolley says clients always fall out of love with agencies. His counsel is to raise your emotional IQ. “Agencies need to be able to read between the rational statements clients make,” he says, “in order to understand the deeper emotional relationship.”   

That’s a trap. “Emotional radar” after the love has gone isn’t how you create a lasting client-agency relationship. At best it’s a patch for client-agency relationships that aren’t built on a solid foundation. 



The real solution is to start from a solid foundation. To do that, agencies need to bring reality into the relationship from the start. Currently, agency and client are star-crossed lovers careening toward an unavoidable reality: loss of inspiration and disappointment over who they really are. 

Client-agency love is Cupid’s improbable love. It’s based on the near-breathless inspiration of what could be, like that of the hopeful gold-chained 65-year-old movie mogul (client) and the fawning 20-something starlet in a little black dress (agency). He promises to bring her into his world. She’s sure she can play the big screen, though she has much less experience and skill than she admits.  

Starry-eyed agencies see what they want in clients: a brand ready to throw off the shackles of its past. Yet most clients carry more baggage than the has-been mogul: seemingly random budgets, chaotic decision-making, departmental power plays, and swooping-and-pooping C-level executives all conspire to turn any “box office hit” campaign into a “direct to video” disappointment.  

Clients love the flirt and tease of the pitch, and the inspiration of the agency’s youth and talent. Clients almost willfully forget that agencies sell better than they deliver. Much better. 

If you listen to what the agency delivery teams say, agencies often sell things they can’t deliver.All too often, the most inspiring client-agency moments come before the starlet’s little black dress hits the floor. Once it does, either the mogul or the starlet awakens to the facts of the relationship. 

Disappointment is inevitable in any relationship that is built upon blind inspiration rather than clear-eyed reality. Agencies need to take the lead in the reality conversation by doing three things upfront. 

Talk about the hard parts. When engagements fail, it’s often for reasons that have happened before. Acknowledge why things failed in the past, and what you learned from them. Talk about what must happen to ensure success, and don’t compromise on these success factors. And define where the uncertainty lies. 

Say what you won’t do. Most scoping looks like a list of high-level features or needs – but only the positives – and that’s often part of the problem.  Projects sour more often because of negative scope – things assumed that are never delivered. For every feature or need, always define and discuss things that aren’t part of the scope. You can’t be called on the carpet for what you’ve called out as a moving target at the beginning. 

Bring your teams to the table before you do a deal. The teams (both sides) live the reality of challenged projects. Bring them to the deal conversations and let them shape the terms of operation. Then you get a deal that can actually be delivered on. Clients are less demanding, and agencies are less detached, when the people who have to work together are connected and consulted at the outset. 

Clients dream of who they could be if only they met the right agency. That unaddressed fantasy cripples more relationships than any other factor. Bringing reality to the deal and kickoff conversations creates the basis for an enduring business relationship. It’s a source of clarity, and of oxygen, for both parties, which have histories of failed romances. 

The real chance to build a partnership that endures is a welcome change for all. And you won’t be so dependent on your emotional radar to survive.


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