On a team call recently, a younger colleague of mine related his frustrations as a product introduction was winding toward outbound launch.  Beyond the usual grumble, the frustration level boiled hot as he described working w/a new Agency creative team, juggling internal support resources, and the inevitable complex approval cycles required to align to messaging requirements and corporate branding standards. Knowing both sides and the shared commitment, I wondered what was really causing the project to go south – to clearly be ending up at a place where neither Agency nor client felt it was a job best done?

I’ll offer up a four-point checklist for self-evaluation if your day-to-day involves managing Ad, Web, Marcom or PR projects using outside support.

  • Partnership:  Behave/become a collaborator, don’t act like Purchasing.  This isn’t to say don’t negotiate… isn’t to say roll over and don’t demand accountability; but if you solely squeeze for every nickel and pound during every step, outcomes will reflect that tone and approach.  For me, this is first, second and third on the “learn first lis” – and unfortunately the adversarial trend as a client  approach to Agency conversations is one I see more and more of these days.  Also, it’s a two way street: Agencies that go for the quick client kill rather than expend the effort required for a long term relationship seems to be becoming the norm.  Perhaps a sign of tight economic times and lack of demonstrated client loyalty (subject of a future blog) the Agency team.  Would love feedback on the Agency-Client relationship model.
  • Empathy: the ability to understand another’s emotions/feelings; awareness of another’s point of view and the ability to imagine an answer.  Once you demonstrate an understanding of Agency pain points and the tension resulting from multiple clients/projects compete for the same shrinking resources.  On both sides, don’t pander with arbitrary padded deadlines.  Being truthful contributes to credibility and builds trust.  Projects always involve compromise. With empathy, better decisions can be made on when to compromise (subject of a future blog) and/or how to navigate to a solution w/out compromise.
  • Knowledge:  I’ll lay this one mostly at clients’ feet.  The best buyers have the ability to walk the talk.  Nothing gains a client more credibility w/Agency counterparts than the ability to debate/discuss production and problem solve during the project process.  (Nothing usually shocks Agency folx more than when a client actually demonstrates this understanding and knowledge)  I find that the creative teams love it… the account teams/Agency managers cringe in fear, often because the Agency account teams (sadly) don’t know the landscape any better than most clients do.  Too young, too inexperienced, too focused on sales rather than the disciplines of communication – pick you reason.  Buyers who are able to get beyond the Agency’s account team layer and go hands-on w/the creative types will win big.  High risk, Agencies will say, because clients don’t know how to talk to creative.  But that’s the point, clients must learn/must be able to do so.  
  • Communicate:  Seems simple, but when the project or relationship isn’t working, ask both sides and I’ve found often that each were guilty of one or several communication sins: talking past each other, talking at the wrong level (ie believing that paper managers not the real leads could solve things), or just plain not talking at all but thinking that they were.  In the fray, step back from the tactical turmoil and check yourself:  over-communicating is never wrong;  if someone is pinging you for detail, they haven’t heard your previous answer no matter how many times you think you’ve given it.  Postpone your frustration and pick up the phone.  Trading email isn’t the way to project manage in a crisis.  Go F2F if you can… at worst, pick up the phone.  And remember, no answer isn’t an answer.

 Please weigh-in with your experiences.  Agency or client, your perspective is valued.  I see a trend toward the adversarial approach, and think this behavioral model results ultimately in poor outcomes and higher costs/less profitability.