July 7, 2009

Client conundrum, agency angst

Over the last year, our agency has had no fewer than 3 newbie clients--clients who've never worked with an agency before. All 3 did the entire bulk of their advertising (mostly DM, with a few exceptions) in house, until volume, restructuring, the economy, the alignment of the stars, and so forth called for agency input.

We pitched and won for each, with presentations that detailed how we work, what we do, the process each project entails, costs, a portfolio--you name it. Basically a typical agency pitch, with a little more detail to help the uninitiated understand the inner workings of our little world.

Theory, however, is a far cry from practice.

Without fail, all 3 clients have had a rough time of it. From time constraints (you can't have that in an hour?), to creative confusion (that's not how we've always done it!), to process (can't I just talk to the Art Director myself?), to timelines (we're only mailing in 2 weeks--there's plenty of time for changes), these clients confront and balk every step of the way. It makes for some very heated debates (hats off to the Account Director for the verbal beating she endured) and bizarre meetings (the art director and I once sat across from 2 clients--another art director and copywriter--to be told how to make things more like they used to be).

It's eternally frustrating.

On the other hand, I get it. When you've been working one way for so long, who's an agency to say you're doing it the wrong way? What's a copywriter know about your product that you haven't written ad nauseam for years? How can an art director rejig a look you've whittled to perfection? After all, these clients know their product inside out, so just who are these people who want them to change, expand, try new things? Why would anyone want to rock a leakless boat?

Most of the time, I think, the clients who vote to go the agency route aren't the same clients who engage with the agency day-to-day. The people at the top may want change, but the people in the trenches know the one way of working--the process that's made them successful enough to be needing an agency in the first place.

So what to do?

On our end, we spend hours and waste money creating strategies, writing briefs and delivering concepts and creative arguments that take in a bigger picture--only to be resoundly rejected. On their end, they see strangers to the business who don't understand, change the rules and question their marketing input--then charge them for it.

It isn't enough to want an agency. It isn't productive to make the switch before everyone is ready. It's a waste of resources all around to head out in new directions only to be pulled back to old ones. Going the agency way is a big decision--and an uncomfortable one. And well it should be. Discomfort, and not the status quo, prompts change.

So don't stuff an agency down your workers' throats. And don't pick an agency only to reject what you'd initially agreed to.

It really isn't profitable for anybody.


  1. How do you think these newbie clients would rate their first experiences working with an agency? Was there any keepers out of the 3 that could be massaged into a good working relationship?

    Did your agency pitch them all hoping to get 1 or 2 knowing the learning (and profit) curve involved, but got all 3?

    Kind of early for this bombardment of questions....good morning. This topic interests me lately from an Account management side.

  2. Good questions, jeeves! I don't know that I have any real answers, though. I'm writing entirely from a creative perspective--so management here knows a whole lot more about those particular details.

    If I had to guess, I'd say the newbie clients expected business as usual, with work taken off their already full plates. Of the 3 clients we had, 1 left, 1 consistently changes everything we do back to the way they've always done things (and this after a clear brief stating our new strategy), and the other is still in its infancy.

    Our agency pitched, I believe, just as we would for any other business--with a little extra explanation involved. I'd guess we go into everything with the same approach: devise a strategy that works, show our talent, explain how the agency functions. Once we win a pitch, we never expect a client to want to go back to same-old, same-old--else why would they be looking for an agency in the first place?

    It's a tough learning curve on both ends, and sometimes it works out, while other times it falls flat. It's hard to teach an old dog new tricks, all around.

  3. OK, a confession: I sometimes watch "Property Virgins" on HGTV (or whatever channel it is) because my wife is addicted to all those silly shows.

    There are similarities to what you're describing here, as far as the people simply "not getting it" and, in the process, making life much, much harder than it needs to be. And that's just in the purchasing stage--I can only imagine the nightmares that take place the first time these newbies deal with a plumbing problem or rack up $600 at Home Depot. To carry the analogy one step further, I'd guess that a lot of them would have preferred staying renters.

    So, are you guys in on producing "CLIENT VIRGINS" with me?

  4. I LURVE those home shows. Saturday mornings have been spent yelling at the morons on Property Ladder ever since we got cable last month. Slate floors? Double showers? Put it on my credit card? Loverly, loverly stuff.

    I like your analogy, Jake. It really is like being a newbie in anything--except, perhaps, the new clients who deal with us day to day never wanted, as you said, to stop renting in the first place.

  5. Ok just recieved 6 copies of same DM today from a Quebec mfg we use for equipment. So of course I thought of you.

    Wonder if this is a common mistake, or sending to more then one contact within companies is productive and cost efficient. Maybe agencies don't see this side once into distribution.

  6. They should have done a merge-purge, to dump any repeat addresses (this happens especially if they rent lists that have crossover names on them).

    Although we're currently working on a mailing with 3 conceptual executions, designed to give people in the same company the same message wrapped in a different, albeit connected, look. Sometimes you target more than one contact in the hopes of getting at least 1 person's attention.

  7. I get so tired of clients telling us what to do that I finally say: If you know how to do it, then why did you hire us? I try very hard to give them every good reason why we want to take a certain approach- (The Language of the Idea-probably more important than the idea) but after 27 years of being in business for myself, my attitude is becoming more vitriolic...it may be time to find my second career as a waitress. :)