Einstein's Corner: Restoring the Agency/Client Relationship

Like almost everything else, the agency/client relationship in recent years has taken a real beating. The shift in emphasis from creative to strategic planning and media has incurred seismic cultural shifts as well -- especially on the agency side -- and a forced migration away from the creative culture that dominated the advertising and marketing landscape the last half century, towards the less rewarding yet more demanding pursuit of ROI.

In the process, we have moved from a time when 50 percent of the agency work product didn't work (although we didn't know which 50 percent) to a time when we can say with certainty that 99.9 percent of the agency work product won't work. We call it progress.

The numbers, however, would suggest that our current obsession with ROI compels us to focus less on the prospects and prerequisites for success, and more on the effort to avoid failure and mitigate risk, neither of which it apparently does very well. ROI, as I suggested in an earlier column, raises the performance bar and lowers expectations.



The combination of raised performance and lowered expectations has hit the agency/client relationship like a sledgehammer upside the head. The quality of the agency work product will eventually reflect the quality of the related work environment, and the quality of the work environment is entirely reliant on the ability to manage client (and agency) expectations and thus engender a culture of raised -- not lowered -- expectations in the process.

Where, after all, is the satisfaction in an anticipated 99.9 percent failure rate, and how can such dismal prospects for success attract or sustain talent over time? (They can't, of course, which may explain why so many agencies have experienced a sudden dearth of qualified talent, even as the advertising market continues to expand.)

I will be appearing on a panel at the upcoming AdTech conference in New York City this November. My esteemed fellow panelists will focus primarily on the technical and logistical components of campaign management; I will focus on the adverse effects of ROI on the agency/client relationship, and what can be done (primarily from the client side) to address the problem. I will make the following recommendations:

• Forget ROI up front. I know, that's kind of like telling you not to think about the proverbial white horse, but there's more: Forget ROI and concentrate on quality instead. Quality across the board begins with the quality of the agency/client relationship. Insist on the same primary focus on quality from your agency across all disciplines. Performance will follow. Quality is your No. 1 objective.

• Play to the strengths of your agency, and separate fact from fantasy. Emphasize, accommodate, and pay for agency creative, messaging or otherwise. Be mindful of how the rush to ROI imposes utterly unrealistic and artificial deadline pressures and performance objectives upon an essentially creative discipline. We have a natural tendency to reduce digital media in our minds and hearts to a milieu of pure performance, in part to compensate emotionally for the significantly reduced role of creative in today's marketing and advertising campaigns. In doing so, however, we cater to a minimum-daily-adult-requirement mentality that plays exclusively to our fears instead of our aspirations. It's the agency's job to convert the client's aspirations into working inspiration for themselves, and driving motivation for the client's target audience. Creative is the tool. Encourage them to use their tool and do their job. As above: Performance will follow.

• Create an environment for success. Nothing is more demoralizing to the agency culture (and ultimately more detrimental to their work product) than to labor under intense -- and artificially imposed -- deadline pressure day and night for weeks on end only to discover soon thereafter that the campaign just didn't deliver the goods, despite their Herculean efforts. Nothing will damage subsequent agency efforts more than the repeated discovery that the operation was a success but the patient died anyway. Critical to creating an environment for success, therefore, is the need to carve out the time and budget to test creative messaging on an ongoing, institutionalized basis, across all anticipated media channels. Your refusal to do so only guarantees more failure, more patient deaths, and a vastly reduced inclination to assume the kind of creative risk required to elevate and distinguish your marketing message in an increasingly cluttered media landscape. Besides, the digital media are nothing if not spectacular rapid test deployment vehicles. Remember, quality is your No. 1 objective. Everything else will follow.

• Manage your account management. The rubber in the agency/client relationship hits the road under the watchful eyes of account managers on both sides of the fence. Good account management is more proactive than reactive. It's critical, therefore, that account managers on both sides of the relationship create an environment conducive to proactive management. The problem is that our fealty to our own digital communications technologies all but guarantee the opposite: a thoroughly reactive environment. The proactive intent gets lost in the never-ending shuffle to react to each other. We are literally too busy reacting to the demands of our e-mail and voicemail to commit the time and attention required to generate and deploy proactive thought. But again, quality of any sort -- quality of account management not least -- is an essentially proactive enterprise.

So here's what I recommend for clients: Mandate that no emails whatsoever between your team and the agency team are exchanged for the first hour or two each day. No one from the client team checks their e-mail. Likewise, no one on the agency team checks their e-mail. Phone calls are okay. Meetings are fine. But no e-mails. Our habit with e-mail -- on both the client and agency sides -- is to check it first thing each and every day. The moment we do so, however, we begin reacting to everyone else's agenda except our own.

We react to what everyone else considers important. Every time that happens, the client gets shortchanged. So too does the agency's work product. Clients are paying for wildly divided and fragmented attention. They should demand more, preferably in person or over the phone. E-mail inhibits meaningful communication, and the time we devote to it displaces proactive thought and quality. It's a recipe for failure, but an excellent way to cover our individual and collective butts once we fail.

Eliminate e-mail first thing in the morning as an emotional crutch and excuse for failure. Insist instead that those same morning hours are devoted to proactive thought and quality, pure and simple. Both quality and productivity will improve -- guaranteed. Many thanks, as always, and best to you and yours...

Please note: The Einstein's Corner discussion group at is dedicated to exploring the adverse effects of our addictions to technology and media on the quality of our lives, both at work and at home. Please feel free to drop by and join the discussion.

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