I recently wrote a blog post that drew upon my eye-opening experience when I went client-side after a long(ish) career in agencies.
The post received quite a response, largely positive, and it confirmed for me that many clients feel frustrated that they aren’t being truly understood.
So I’ve written another, confident in the knowledge that these insights must surely be of use to any agency employee keen to build strong and successful relationships.
Client-side distractions are many
When I finally joined a client company, I was immediately struck by the fundamental cultural differences, but not in the way I’d expected. Yes, clients are more ‘corporate’, more structured, more hierarchical in how they work. This was no great surprise. But they also have many day-to-day challenges that agency folks could not begin to imagine. Just try ordering a stapler. Or ask a simple question of HR. Or seek quick sign-off on a project.
In very large organisations, there’ll obviously be more bureaucracy and systems. But navigating one’s way around a highly counterintuitive intranet stationery ordering portal really does suck away your will to live, and you find your mind wandering to thoughts of early (even immediate) retirement. Or more likely, where to find the nearest Ryman. Agencies simply do not have these challenges, which occupy and distract their clients, often drawing them away from the main purpose of their role.
Here’s another example. Until I went client-side, I’m not sure I’d ever really encountered the term ‘mandatory training’. Any clients reading this will know exactly what this is and will experience that sudden and familiar sinking feeling in the pits of their souls. To be fair, mandatory training is necessary, often legally required. But it really is terrible. There’s a lot of it, covering such subjects as the regulatory landscape, health and safety, and how to properly position your office chair and keyboard. It’s generally online, and isn’t training as you know it – rather, a series of drawn-out explanations with awkward videos, followed by tricksy multiple-choice questions to be tackled. Get it wrong (positioning of keyboard, for instance) and you start all over again. In the real world, sales may be plummeting, your visitors have been waiting in reception since last Tuesday and your house is on fire, but you’re basically paralysed until you’ve successfully completed the 28 modules in section 2a. All to reassure a big computer somewhere that no, you understand that you shouldn’t lend your work laptop to a competitor. Or a terrorist organisation. Or your Nan.
Client priorities don’t always match the agency’s
These examples are just to give you a brief flavour of what many clients go through on a constant basis. And why you may not always command their full and immediate attention when you show up with 12 adaptations of the 25×4 response ad for discussion.
Let’s talk about scorecards. Most likely, clients will have them, and certainly the more senior clients and managers will have their personal objectives and KPIs formally set out. This is the basis by which they will be assessed, remunerated, promoted or passed over. They’re vitally important to each individual, and it’s unlikely that they’ll expend much time and effort on matters that do not directly impact on that scorecard. That fabulous long-term brand-building idea will not interest the executive whose absolute focus is on the next quarter’s customer acquisition numbers.
And agencies don’t help themselves. There’s a piece written some years ago by the senior marketer Mike Sommers where the reader is asked to consider a scenario, paraphrased here: You, the client, are called out of an important board meeting for a call from your agency. Before you get to the phone, your secretary hits you with some bad news and, all the while, you are sure colleagues in the boardroom are using your absence to blame you for poor sales. It turns out your agency has called to ask about wriggle-room on already-agreed upon creative.
The idea here is that the client is going to be flustered and angry. You see, the ‘integrity’ of the advertising creative is not always the most important thing.
This is exacerbated, I believe, by the extreme youthfulness of the people who work in agencies. In this I’m in complete agreement with the great Bob Hoffman, who writes often on this subject, and also the incredible Cindy Gallop. But not because they’re old curmudgeons shaking a fist at the younger generation. The IPA estimates that the average age of agency employees is 33.7 years, while just 5.9% are aged 50+. Just to put that in context, the over 50s make up 35% of the UK population, and account for 70% of the UK’s household wealth. That’s £6.2 trillion. In short, it’s the over 50s who have the money and buy stuff, and yet this highly lucrative audience is hardly represented at all in agencies, or by the work that agencies produce.
The value of experience
I find this shocking, and not only because I’m in that age bracket myself. I simply can’t understand why agencies place such little value on experience, because I can tell you that it’s what clients value most. They want highly experienced and effective agency partners who understand them, their business and their customers.
As I said in my last blog post, it all comes down to agencies taking the time to truly understand their clients, and their clients’ customers. When they get it right, the work is better and everyone benefits. And the client can get back to completing those tricky mandatory training modules.