It’s time we grew up and started treating each other like adults.

Robert Solomon’s book, the Art of Client Service, outlines the holy trinity that sits at the heart of great client service: trust, great work and the relationship.  He reckons that great work wins accounts but great relationships that keep them.  I think he’s probably right.  But there are more reasons to create a good working relationship between client and agency than simply avoiding a pitch.  It’s more fun, you get better work and more discretionary effort.

But let’s be clear about this.  Nobody wants a pitch.  It costs agencies time and a whole lot of money, and I’m yet to meet a client who enjoys a pitch. Sure, the first time you call one it’s kinda exciting, but you were naïve back then. Even in your first one, once you’ve got beyond the nice cakes, you quickly realise that it’s not.

So, I’ve investigated the best and worst of client agency relationships and how we might work together to improve them.  And you only need to look at who’s winning some of the more prestigious awards to see the benefit of long-term client agency relationships.

Even the most productive ones inevitably experience the odd sticky patch.  You can’t tell me that adam&eve haven’t had a “moment” with John Lewis, or that BBH & Audi haven’t felt the pressure at some point in their relationship.  They’re not pushing hard enough if they haven’t.  It’s entirely normal.  But it’s how both sides deal with these moments that creates a long-term partnership and the best most effective work.

John Lewis & Partners' relationship with adam&eve has produced some fantastic, award winning work.

The research suggests the main thing; both clients and agencies are aligned on the need for productive challenge in the relationship.  Indeed, this is a way for agencies to improve their relationship and grow their business within a client. The Better Briefs project (October 2021) has highlighted the gulf between agencies and clients when it comes to the most important document that exists for both of us – the brief.  80% of clients felt that they were writing good briefs.  Only 10% of agencies agreed.

What I’ve found staggering is that more agencies don’t challenge the quality of briefs if they’re not getting what they need.  I don’t blame agencies for this at all, it’s indicative of an inequality in the relationship.  This power imbalance makes the likelihood of any agency challenge less likely.  Agencies need to challenge some of the poor client behaviours we’re seeing.

Some of the quotes from respondents in my research used to describe their poorest relationships gives us some clues as to why some agencies might not feel comfortable to challenge the client.  For example:

“We all retreat to our corners and lose the human dialogue” Agency Leader

“I remember finally getting to our agency Christmas Party at 9:00pm and getting a call from a senior client at 10:30pm stating that we needed to get on a call at 7:00am the next morning to urgently discuss the agency fee.” Agency Leader

There’s no obvious financial benefit of clients chasing a better relationship (in the way there is for agencies).  Sure, they’re there if you pause and think about it, but many clients simply don’t have the time, training or inclination to look beyond the here and now and move past an outdated “agency as a slave” approach.

But it’s a client’s job to create a safe environment where challenge is expected and welcomed.  Where bold work is freely shared without fear.  It’s our job to get the best work possible from their agency partners. To make your brand the one that the entire agency wants to work on and so secure any discretionary effort that’s floating around.

How have we got to a place where we are showing each other such a lack of basic human courtesy?  It’s time we all grew up.

I’ll be sharing a white paper (which sounds more grand than it is) on my research findings in April and talking about the key themes from the research at the MAD//fest event this summer.  I look forward to discussing this with some of you there.

In the meantime, you can find out more about my research here

Gareth will be writing a column for the MAD//Fest Newsletter regularly throughout the year. Find out more here