The Secret to Maintaining a 40-Year Client Relationship

Three Principles That Can Help Both Agencies and Their Clients Go the Distance

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Ron Bliwas
Ron Bliwas
When we recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of our relationship with client Reed-Union Corp., makers of Nu Finish Car Polish and other automotive-care products, a number of people called to ask what our secret was. How did we overcome the inevitable mistakes and conflicts that mark every long-term agency-advertiser relationship? How did our partnership survive the various economic downturns of the last 40 years, including the current, lingering recession?

The common assumption is that only consistently strong creative, media-buying and branding strategies can keep clients happy over the long haul. In fact, this is only the ante to get you in the long-term game. Besides, I know of more than one agency that has done stellar work for clients and lost their accounts. This isn't to discount the importance of doing good work but to suggest that good work alone isn't sufficient.

As an 81-year-old, fourth-generation family business, Reed-Union has evolved quite a bit over the years. At different evolutionary points, advertisers often switch agencies. How can you prevent this from happening? Here are three principles that can help both agencies and their clients create long-term relationships:

People continuity
Agencies routinely rotate people into and off accounts. This practice is done for many reasons, including the need to inject "fresh thinking" in client work, to accommodate agency people bored working on the same account and so on. Generally, these rotations do far more harm than good. It takes time for people to trust each other and to learn the best ways of communicating. If no one stays on the account for more than a year, the bonds between people never form and deepen. Many of our people on the Reed-Union account have worked on it for 10 or more years.

I realize that some of the people issues are out of your control -- individuals leave for other jobs or are fired; the client may also experience turnover. But agencies can control their approach to staffing an account, and that approach should be to prioritize continuity of personnel.

Meaningful results
"Meaningful" is the key word. Too often, measures of success are awards or research scores. Many times, agencies are convinced they've done a good job for a client because an ad has won awards for its cleverness, humor or innovative approach or because a research methodology has determined that it hit a target in terms of people reached and how well the ad is remembered.

Most clients, however, view success in terms of sales or other tangible results. Reed-Union expects its TV advertising to affect both distribution and retail sales positively, and we've set up a system to measure our advertising's performance in both areas. Creating tangible success measures, of course, is scary. There's no wiggle room if you fall short of your mutually agreed upon goals. Still, it's better to be judged fairly than to be jettisoned unfairly.

Shared advertising values
We make our advertising philosophy clear from the start, and we try and understand what prospective clients believe in. We don't form a relationship if there's a disconnect between our respective views of creative, media and account management. Both Reed-Union and our agency value commercials that demonstrate the product clearly, compellingly and convincingly -- this was a strongly-held belief for both of us right from the start. This type of shared value creates a foundation on which a relationship can be built and sustained.

Adopting these three principles doesn't guarantee you'll hold on to your clients for 40 years -- we don't have any other 40-year accounts besides Reed-Union -- but it does increase the odds that you'll extend the length of your client relationships at a time when that lifespan is becoming distressingly short.

Ron Bliwas is president-CEO of A. Eicoff & Co., Chicago.
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