Are you achieving the gold standard in client-agency relationships?

When Dave Lewis left Unilever to take on the role as CEO of Tesco he appointed Blue Rubicon as his PR agency and BBH as his advertising agency, without a pitch. The incumbent agencies were out. How does that happen? To me it’s all about trust. He’d worked with them both at Unilever. To me that is the ultimate in client-agency relationship, the gold standard.

Do you have such a strong relationship with your senior clients that when they change jobs they take you with them? Why did Dave Lewis not go through with a pitch? I suspect he felt he didn’t have the time. He was under pressure to deliver results fast. So how do we have that kind of relationship?

Firstly it needs to be with senior client decision makers. A CEO, MD or marketing director. CEO tenure in the UK is around 5-6 years and for marketing directors around 3 years. So your senior client will move on, it’s just a question of when. However too often we slide down the food chain during the lifetime of our relationship with the client. We deal with increasingly mid level client contacts and can lose that senior connection. We have to keep in regular contact with senior decision makers. That’s not easy.

Contact with senior decision makers isn’t enough. We need to consistently and regularly demonstrate we are adding massive value and really impacting their business challenges focusing on mission critical challenges and opportunities. It’s not about being ‘nice to have’, but being a  ‘must have’. If we’re not mission critical it means we’ll be easily cut. We need to help senior clients see around the next bend, or ideally the next two bends. The future is changing rapidly and therefore is harder to predict. Of course we need to do great work, brilliant work. There are over 20,000 agencies in the UK, most employing bright smart people so competition is fierce.

Next is our style of working. We need to be collaborative, working with our client, not for our client. We need to proactively give them a competitive edge. When we’re a trusted adviser they turn to us first. In my Trusted Adviser workshop we look at how agencies can develop their skills and behaviours to become and be seen as trusted advisers.

Increasingly clients are looking for agencies to be measurable, accountable and deliver real ROI. Unilever has moved to Zero based budgeting (I wrote a previous article on this subject, if you want a copy drop me an email). Other major corporates will surely follow. Diageo is putting increasing pressure on their agencies to deliver results. Only the best will thrive, some will not survive.

Doing the above is expensive but necessary for agencies. We need to decide which clients to invest in. Not all are worth investing in. Only invest in the clients which fulfil the right criteria for your business. See clients as investment opportunities and invest wisely and carefully.

Play to your sweet spot or spots. Don’t try to be great at everything, you’ll fail. Be brilliant at a few things. Specialise. Be the best in class at your chosen specialisation(s) so clients are really attracted to you and are willing to pay more, ie to pay a premium.

Having interviewed some of the most profitable agencies with Kingston Smith (accountants) I know what the best of the best do and I also know what the rest do. It’s not about luck it’s about making the right decisions and right choices. There are clear strategies that the best of the best consistently adhere to. There are obvious mistakes that the others make, often way too consistently.

How will you achieve the gold standard for relationships with your client?

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