I’ve laughed at this cartoon for years. It was originally created by Gary Larson of The Far Side and captioned “The four personality types” – the job titles were added later. But they so beautifully demonstrate the perceptions that we have about each other, clients included.

Four years client-side after a long career in creative agencies really hammered this home for me. It really surprised me on two levels – how little I truly understood clients, and vice versa.

It was an eye-opener, I can tell you, and not always in the ways I’d expected. I certainly gained a greater respect for the people who I’d always faced across the table, and gained real insight into the pressures, big and small, that they deal with.

Please don’t get me wrong – I absolutely appreciate the importance of challenging clients, pushing for brilliant strategic breakthroughs and amazing creative. I learnt from some of the very best (see my fifth Golden Rule later). But as anyone who has had great food in a restaurant with terrible service will know, every aspect of the relationship is important if it’s to ultimately succeed.

It is a simple truth that client companies generally have a different work culture to agencies. Not a worse one, just different. It’s more corporate (think ‘grown-up’). Colleagues must show mutual respect to each other, HR departments are strong, and policies and best practice must be adhered to. Of course, this can sometimes knock the edges and excitement out of a working day, but if it also prevents rudeness, sexism and discrimination, job insecurity and stress, maybe it isn’t all bad. The work/life balance is much healthier, that’s for certain. Stand near the exits at 4.59pm at your peril.

Let’s talk about stakeholder management. I think most experienced agency people have a pretty good idea of this, and the challenges that clients face when they leave the funky agency building and return to their concrete bunker in Slough, or Staines, or somewhere. The truth is that you don’t. Really, it’s so much tougher than you think; only when you actually have to do it does this become clear.

Seeking ‘buy-in’ from a variety of senior people in an organisation should be straightforward – after all, you’re all on the same side, right? Unfortunately, each stakeholder will have his or her own agenda, priorities, objectives, and misunderstandings. Seeking consensus is like nailing jelly to the wall, and so clients are left with multiple, often confusing and contradictory instructions from their own people, with little idea of how to knit it all together in a constructive way. Then it’s time to give the agency feedback.

Above all, it’s commercial pressures that drive most clients. They’re no doubt battling for customers and sales in highly competitive environments, whilst constantly managing and pushing down costs. They constantly need to be accountable. The advertising is undoubtedly an important element in the overall picture, but it is a cost that can be questioned when it is not very obviously helping drive the numbers.

Generating positive audience engagement and building long-term brand image is all well and good, but will it sell a shedload of my widgets this week?  All smart agency people know this of course, but rarely do they demonstrate to their clients that they understand how these pressures can so fundamentally affect their decisions. Which is why you may not always command their full and immediate attention when you show up with 12 adaptations of the Summer Sizzler response ad for discussion.

I’ve been involved in very many agency/client relationships, assessments and reviews over the years, on both sides of the fence.  And what’s remarkable is that there are two themes which consistently spring up – responsiveness and proactivity. They’re two sides of the same coin, and you can’t have a truly successful agency/client relationship without them both.

Clients expect their agency teams to respond to their requests, their briefs, and generally to their long and short-term needs – accurately, professionally, enthusiastically, and on time.  If you think about it, this is the absolute baseline, the most basic fundamental requirement of any supplier (even if they like to be thought of as a partner. So I find it incredible that this comes up as an issue all the time. Surely it’s the simplest thing in the world – listen to and understand what a client requires, and then deliver it well, and on time.

In my time client-side I came to realise just how professional most clients are. It’s simply expected – in the way they behave and the quality of the work they do. The perception of clients being slow may in reality simply be them taking the time to think it through, and check it through!  (Don’t even get me started on attention to detail and the correct use of apostrophes).

Indeed, over the years I’ve heard many disparaging things said amongst agency people about their clients. Sometimes, complaints can be justified – if the client’s inconsistent, impolite, gives poor briefs or feedback, for example. But criticising clients, even in the privacy of your own agency, cannot be good. It surely won’t rally the agency team to pull together in creating the best possible work for that client, to the benefit of everybody. I remember my old boss Mike Greenlees once responding to a colleague who was effing and blinding about his clients; “they may be bastards” said Mike, “but they’re our bastards”.

A grid of six cartoon images made from the ALL THE THINGS! meme image of a roughly drawn girl punching the air. One side has a single girl while the other side has three girls responding to her. The text reads: Who are we? Clients! What do we want? We don't know! When do we want it? NOW!

With apologies to Hyperbole and a Half.

Here’s an interesting little exercise that pretty much sums up the general negativity with which agencies regard clients. Type ‘dumb things agencies say’ into Google, and pretty much all the results are about dumb clients.

Now that’s not to say there aren’t terrible clients who just aren’t interested in great work. There are. But blaming the clients for not understanding never leads to better results in the future.

Your client is not just there for the fun of it. Their job is on the line. They’ve been in boring meetings all day. Their boss is in the room. They’re frightened of what you might say. Because the more you’ve done your job of being innovative and groundbreaking, the more they feel their security threatened. If your work does well, you and your agency get the credit. If your work does poorly, they get the blame from their stakeholders, supervisors, etc. So cut them some slack.

The ultimate way to delight the client is to be proactive, think ahead and provide clients with things of value that they have not asked for (or asked for yet). I remember reading about police driver training. They are taught to always focus on the car ahead of the one immediately in front of them. It allows them to anticipate events and plan/respond just that little bit faster.

To be honest, this is quite rare, but it can transform relationships. Give clients an insight into customer trends that could affect their business. Vox pop their competitors’ customers and suggest how you might alter their attitudes and win them over. Or simply send them a regular update on projects without being asked. I promise you, clients appreciate these things more than you realise and the benefits are disproportionately positive.

So what should agency people do?  Here are my five golden rules (all no-brainers):

  1. Take the time to listen to and understand your clients. All of them, not just the most senior ones. Know their business, know their objectives, priorities and numbers, know their ‘language’: sometimes it’s the things they don’t say that you should listen to the closest.
  2. Act as if you have ‘skin in the game’. In reality, you do, in that poor performance will not leave you in a sound position either. What this means is really behaving as if you are spending your own money, for instance. Could you drive the costs down before being asked? Are you really taking that limo to the shoot when the client is taking the early train?
  3. Be responsive. Do what you’re asked, what you’ve agreed and what you’ve promised. Do it well, and do it on time. This sounds so obvious, yet it almost always surfaces as an issue in agency/client relationships.
  4. Be proactive. Think ahead, and outside the box. Do more than is strictly expected. Think of ten things you could do for your client that you aren’t doing currently (I bet you can), and figure out a plan to start delivering them.
  5. Excite and inspire your clients to the possibilities that your revelatory insights and creative can achieve. Take them on the journey, show them award-winning work from around the world. And read everything that Dave Trott (.co.uk) has ever written, and ask your clients to do the same.

And remember, if your clients ask for a cheeseburger, make sure they get a sensational cheeseburger!