We’ve all had those uncomfortable meetings with clients where you know you’re in a bit of trouble. The feeling isn’t too different from a kid in trouble with their parents, but you just can’t figure out exactly why.
A few years ago I got an email like that. My client invited me to breakfast to “talk about a few things.” Normally, the agency is the one encouraging check-ins. This time it came from the client, and it had just enough ambiguity in it to clearly let me know that things weren’t great.
With a small bit of anxiety I went to the breakfast. By the end of breakfast, I walked away with a lesson that has guided me throughout my career.
The lesson was this: stop presenting me work you think I’ll buy.
The issue, he explained, was that when we started working together everything we brought them was a 10. The thinking, the creative, the energy. Everything we did was worth a 10. Then, as the work makes its way through the client halls, the edges are sanded off and the work comes out a 7. He explained, that is just how it works.
After a few years of working together, our organizations began to know each other. We began to get comfortable together. That comfort became the problem. My client’s point was that we were bringing him thinking and creative that we thought he would buy. So, we’d bring him 7’s because that’s what they buy.
The self-awareness of the organization’s process showed the danger in bringing 7’s. He said, we’re still going to sand off 3 points as it goes through the system. And the end, we no longer have a 7, we now have a 4. That, he said, and I knew, is unacceptable.
The lesson was clear: always bring 10’s. Anything less and you’re not doing your job. Beyond that, if you bring anything less, your job is at risk.
The story has a happy ending because nobody wants to feel like they’re settling. The push we got from the client to do more was a welcome shot of energy and a challenge for the team.
Clients Are Right To Push
Agencies charge a premium for their services. And, in a world of constant accountability, agencies have to prove that value every day. Anything less than a 10, and clients should question an agency’s worth.
In the post-recession business environment, failure isn’t tolerated. The pressures marketing departments face is daunting. The only successful agency partner in this kind of environment is one that shares the same sense of accountability. Presenting the easy work that you think they’ll buy isn’t being a good partner. It’s acting like a very replaceable partner.
10’s Require Partnership
Having the confidence to present and ask for 10’s requires trust. Presenting work that is at a 10 is rarely easy. It challenges people, it challenges thinking, it challenges convention. That’s why it’s a 10. But, that also means it comes with conflict, challenges and debate. Strong agency partners welcome those debates and challenges.
The best client/agency relationships are based on having those debates because they are focused on meeting and exceeding a shared business objective. Only with that shared objective can you be ensured that a meaningful debate will result in great work.
Did You Deliver?
Client/agency relationships don’t last forever. In fact, most average less than five years. There are any number of reasons for that. But, sometimes agencies need to look in the mirror. Did you keep up your side of the relationship? Did you become complacent? Did things become familiar and automatic? If so, you likely weren’t bringing 10’s anymore.
A sign of a 10 is walking into the room nervous. Your hands should sweat a little as you’re presenting. There should be a debate about the work, not blind acceptance. There should be some surprise in the room, not familiarity. Every time you walk into a room, it should feel like the first time.
If that’s how you’re feeling, congratulations – you’re doing it right.