By Paul Hutchings, founder fox&cat.
Trust, leading to loyalty and commitment. This is what comms agencies want from their clients, and what clients also want from their agencies.
It’s a kind of courtship where clients get the expert outsider’s perspective on their challenge and agencies get to deliver creative strategies and solutions to help overcome it.
But courting takes time and effort (…and for some clients a fair few Christmas hampers!) The question is: are we spending too much time trying to create perfect client-agency relationships? Is this just unhelpful pressure? Why not just be human and accept our shortcomings?
An ex-client of mine, Liz Skrbkova, from the US Obesity Portfolio Communications team at Novo Nordisk, and HBA Rising Star (2020), truly believes in the value of the client-agency relationship:
“Client partnerships with agency teams are first and foremost human relationships. A good start to overcoming challenges together is being empathetic, realistic and communicating effectively.”
Striving for perfection while being realistic
To me, perfection in comms (agency side) is the right team delivering the right work at the right time, in the right way, to the right client. They have the right amount of insight, strategy, creativity, blend of skill and specialism, and deliver ahead of deadlines. They may even surprise their clients to truly impress. And they’re reliable, consistent, and no team member ever breaks a sweat!
Hmmm… that already sounds unrealistic. And what happens when you or one of your team can’t do their part?
Maybe they’re sick, drawn to another priority or are simply having an off-day. Then a cog jams and your previously well-oiled machine malfunctions. Your team becomes like the fox in the fable, unsure what to do for the best and you end up doing nothing at all.
So, can an agency be all these things at once, all the time?
The practical challenges when servicing your clients
There are many practical challenges for client services teams. The fast-evolving nature of the comms sector, plus many specialisms popping up all the time, can make the already super-human challenge of managing client services even harder.
Clients buy more services from their agencies than ever before, so agencies need exceptional client servicing skills and industry insights. Then there are internal matters to keep an agency functioning; like operations, leadership and team management, training, HR, finance and wellbeing.
Not only must agencies know how these things work together but also how to be efficient and effective. All with seemingly shrinking budgets, timescales and tolerance around margins of error.
Uh oh, I’m feeling the pressure…
Let’s face it, agency-side you have a challenge and a half on your hands, with client service teams sitting right in the firing line.
The “half” part is the day-to-day role where you’re working between your clients and your team.
The larger challenge is attempting to quash the misperception that this is all you do. In reality you have to…
- be an expert in navigating everything your agency does
- ratify, challenge and defend others’ ideas before agreeing them internally
- be a shoulder to cry on when the pressure gets too much for your team
And that’s before you get started on the programme your clients will go on to buy.
With forward-thinking clients like Liz, perhaps agencies can be a little more lenient on themselves: “This past year of virtual working has brought client and agencies even closer together, flaws and all: opening up living rooms and lives, complete with barking pets and spouses – reminding us that we’re all human. There’s no better time to step back, reset and think about how to meet those ever-evolving business priorities in a meaningful way, one deadline at a time,” comments Liz.
Three options to relieve the pressure
Going back to the question, “Should an agency strive for perfection?” Almost certainly not. But if agencies want to form meaningful long-term relationships with clients, then they need an effective way to overcome the challenges.
So agency leaders, what are your options?
- Employ niche specialists. This can be effective but if you rush things it could backfire. It takes months (or even years) to embed a new skill in a team so you may just get additional confused people who are unable to add real value for some time.
- Hire a freelancer or a specialist contractor. That’s if you can find the right person right now! But remind me how this solves the systemic cause of pressure? And what about those teachable moments the rest of the team lose by not doing the job themselves?
- On the job learning. Aka the “do nothing much” approach where your teams work it out themselves! We’ve all been there. But while it may seem affective for a short time, your team won’t love you for it.
Long periods of high pressure mean our plans to do everything as well as we can are compromised. Sticking plasters on wounds won’t work any longer.
But there is another option…
- Tackle the challenge with some objectivity – this will help you connect the dots between client service, training, leadership and wellbeing.
A very human approach
When the pressure is on, we need to make the right decisions (not the quick decisions). To do this you need objectivity. An outsider’s perspective. Take time and step outside of the situation. You may feel that there simply isn’t time. But I guarantee you, you will save time in the longer term if you stop, pause, think and then act.
If you need help with this process – then an agency, like fox&cat, might be just want you need. We’re not perfect (no one and nothing ever is!), but what we do well is provide objectivity and solutions that work for you and your agency.
Of course, you may have other options that worked for you in the past – feel free to share them. At fox&cat we’re always keen to hear how other people (inside and outside agencies) manage pressure effectively.
I believe we spend far too much time and energy trying to be perfect. To relieve the pressure and build more robust agencies that can evolve and respond to change, let’s be open, honest and above all, human.