“This would be a great business, if it weren’t for the clients.”
This voices one of the most common – and overplayed – refrains of agency life: your clients’ apparent irrationality as evidenced by ridiculous deadlines, unwillingness to pay for the level of work required, and most recently a “suck-it-up or get out of the way” attitude as evidenced by the 2015 epidemic of agency reviews. In the last case, WPP chief Martin Sorrell predicts things will get worse before they get better.
Recently, I noticed that some agencies I work with call almost every client a “problem client,” while others cite very few. It brought to mind a fundamental truth: The greatest common denominator in all of your failed relationships is you.
So let’s look at why this client behavior might be altogether rational. In fact, it might be a natural response to a chaotic stimulus – the way agencies sell, manage and deliver.
The primary mediating characteristic of buyer-seller relationships is how risk is handled. Handle it well and your relationship will be a long one; handle it poorly and you’re in review. When we ask agencies, “Who carries more risk in the relationship, you or your client?” the answer is almost always “we do.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
Your client carries more risk than you do…by a million miles. Consider the ridiculous brevity of executive tenures. If you’re a chief anything at your agency, you can likely stay as long as you want or need to. Your client might not survive one bad campaign. If that happens, you’ll move on to the next client; they’ll be fighting a smudged reputation as they hunt a new job.
The different cost of failure is eye-opening to many agency folks. Clients are completely vulnerable to your efforts (which they don’t see, understand or control), and when you fail, they can die. It’s not like there is a lot of upside for them either, because when you succeed, often they don’t feel mastery, merely momentary relief until anxiety about the next challenge sets in. Sort of like surviving a brief encounter with black ice when driving your car – you feel relieved to have survived, but you don’t feel like a better driver.
Imagine you’re throwing a dinner party tomorrow at 6pm, and this morning your sewer backs up. You call your plumber, and he says, “Don’t worry, we always figure something out.” Immediately, you change the deadline to noon tomorrow. You want him to share your urgency; that’s a natural human reaction. Maybe you drop in a casual threat of how this failure will cost them, but you know, in your heart, that you can never make it hurt for them, like it will for you.
Now imagine your plumber brings you some scones, assures you that there will be other dinner parties, and suggests some meditation classes. You’d be livid. The problem isn’t the relationship, it’s the work – specifically, the urgency of delivery. You’re anxious and stressed out, and you need a crystal clear plan, an understanding of how things will get done, and the ability to see action and results as they happen. So you move the deadline up to 8am and you hope it makes him share your worry.
As markets keep moving faster and getting more complex, urgent becomes the new normal, and anxiety becomes the new language of commerce. Clients are actually telling you that they care and need you – maybe more than ever – but it can seem irrational and unreasonable.
Agencies and clients can connect on urgency. Contrary to popular opinion, though, it’s agencies that need to change. Try honestly answering these simple questions:
- How well do your clients understand how you do the work…and who is doing it?
- How well do you understand their perception of the risks in your relationship?
- What are the common “client challenges” that you see between many of your accounts?
I see agencies routinely underserve clients on three critical levels: how things work, where things stand, and highlighting and managing risk. When agencies improve in these areas, they invariably find that “irrational” client behavior changes for the better.