I've been in a lot of client-agency meetings in my career. I've been the account manager recapping strategies before concept presentations. I've been the client reviewing in-house creative and delivering sometimes not-so-wonderful feedback. Now I'm the consultant, sitting in on hundreds of new business pitches and performance evaluations for marketers and agencies around the country.
And from all of these meetings, from all different vantage points, I can attest that there are few things better than a home-run meeting between a client and agency. In advertising at least.
Unfortunately, as most of us know, they're not all home runs. For some clients and agencies, meetings can become a dreaded chore. A forum for arguments and unhealthy debates. An unwelcome cog in the client-agency wheel, denigrating relationships that could have enjoyed longer, more celebrated runs.
So how can we ensure more good meetings than bad? Start by asking the following four questions during your next client-agency meeting:
1. Am I present? As a client, you walk through the door of your agency meeting with a million other things on your mind. Sales results, deadlines and budgets make it incredibly challenging to focus on, for instance, new concepts. And as an agency, your other to-dos and deadlines don't disappear simply because you've crossed the conference room threshold.
At the risk of sounding "yoga-y," it is important to be present at the meeting. Commit to being thoughtful and respectful of the people in the room and the task at hand, (e.g. refrain from checking emails on your phone). And if the meeting leader makes a point of stating the objectives at the beginning of the meeting and recapping where you land at the end, everyone will be more engaged.
2. Am I listening? For clients, elevating an agency to strategic partner means really listening, even when what you're hearing isn't what you were expecting. If you think the agency is way off the mark or the team isn't unified in their ideas, you need to ask questions. Questions like, "Can you explain how the creative supports our positioning?" rather than "Are you happy with what the creative team has presented?"
For agencies, ask yourselves if you are going into meetings ready to "defend" your work or POV. I know I used to. Approaching a meeting on the defense makes it difficult to hear what your clients are trying to say. If you hear something you don't agree with, ask questions. Really try to understand the input before coming back with a retort. And repeat back what you heard. "You want us to change the tone of the work because it doesn't feel on brand?" And then settle on examples of what the brand's tone is before you go back and revise.
3. Am I bringing in baggage? Whether we realize it or not, clients and agencies both bring preconceived notions about one another to every partnership. And when negative stereotypes pervade the relationship, nobody wins. Clients assume that the agency is only out for promoting itself, and not particularly interested in the success of the brand. And agencies walk into meetings already rolling their eyes, waiting for clients to water down or kill their creativity.
Both sides need to step back and ask, "Am I responding to my current partnership, or am I bringing in baggage from old clients and agencies?" If it's the latter, then break the habit and react to the partnership you're in. If it's the former, maybe it's time for a performance evaluation to explore how to improve communication.
4. Am I being fair and honest? "I just don't like it." "We would never do this." "This doesn't feel like our brand." If you're an agency or client, you've likely heard (or said) one or all of these phrases at some point in your career. And when this "feedback" permeates the partnership, it's very hard for an agency to stay motivated.
Clients need to be pointed and constructive in their feedback (a skill that should be taught to junior-level staff), and agencies need to listen and dig deeper if the feedback isn't making sense. If you don't like something, say so. Don't tell your agency you like it and then come back later with a different, "unhappy with the work" story. You will lose both the respect and trust of your agency. Instead, articulate what's working and what's not -- even if you have to say "I'm not sure what's bothering me about this right now, but…" That's being honest. And fair.
When conflicting opinions, lack of consensus and tensions arise in your meetings (and they will), ask and answer the questions above. Curtailing bad habits and committing to more effective communication will not only improve your meetings, but your partnerships and advertising solutions as well.