How to Be a Better Client

Respect, Trust Key to Healthy Ad Relationship

Manage Agency-Client Relationships Like a Marriage: Talk, Listen, Compromise and Have a Sense of Humor

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Agency-client relationships are like a marriage. You need to talk, listen, compromise and have a sense of humor. Like most marriages, they start with the euphoric honeymoon. It can start to wear during the months and years ahead as the difficulties of daily life set in, but how you manage those things is what matters.

We've all heard the story before: Our agency isn't proactive enough. The client doesn't stand up for the work. The agency is headstrong and opinionated. The client is ambivalent about the workload and time lines. The agency doesn't understand our business challenges. The client doesn't buy good work. The agency's creative isn't good enough.

How did we get here? Well, maybe we can learn from the mistakes of the past.

Saturn is one of the most tragic marketing stories of the past two decades. It was a brand "built to last for 100 years" that lasted 20. In the mid-1990s, it It was "the" case study praised in MBA programs. Then it disappeared.

A key ingredient of Saturn's mystique was the unique relationship and unwavering trust shared by the agency and the client. I was at Hal Riney & Partners when Saturn was a major account and can say that the agency was truly a partner to the brand. Staff was involved in everything concerning Saturn's business, including selecting and naming paint colors and writing keynote speeches for senior executives.

But the connection was eventually undermined. The agency stayed true to the original Saturn vision and refused to adapt to changed circumstances. The client buckled to its parent company, General Motors, allowing the brand's singular elements to erode. The agency was steadfast in its point of view, with little room for negotiation. The client was under extreme pressure to turn Saturn into a profitable division vs. a loss leader. The sides were at a standoff.

As they do in a bad marriage, little things became big things -- when the real issue was that we could not agree on the reason Saturn existed, why it was a "different kind of company."

When Saturn was firing on all cylinders, it was hard to tell the client from the agency side of the table. There was a respect and trust that allowed great things to happen. Were there disagreements? A ton. Were there laughs? You bet. But we started from a common place, and trust was paramount.

How agency and client partners deal with the realities of day-to-day working life is where the rubber meets the road. Respect underpins a healthy client-agency relationship. So talk, listen, compromise and have a sense of humor.

And, oh yeah, don't forget your anniversary.

Doug Sweeny is president at Y&R California.
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