How to Avoid the Dreaded Agency Review

Marinate in Your Clients' Business and You'll Retain the Relationship for Years

By Published on .

Marc Brownstein
Marc Brownstein
I had a meeting with the CMO of a very large company last week that we do business with. I won't put his name or company in writing, but I will share what he had to say.

He's a guy who has worked on both sides of the business -- agency and client. When he was on the agency side, he was a workaholic management supervisor, then group director, and spent countless hours working on behalf of his clients. He thought he knew all there was to know about managing his clients' brands and the agency-client relationship. That is, until he went over to the client side. It was then that his world changed, and he realized how much more he wished he knew and had done when he was in account management at his old agency.

Fast forward to today and this CMO's current agency teams assume they are serving him well. Turns out, his agencies (he has a few of them, each with a specialty role) are often out of touch. Living on the client side, he has new appreciation for how many marketing issues are on the shoulders of the typical CMO or brand manager and how agencies rarely address them -- not because they don't want to, but because they don't ask the right questions.

He believes agencies have to go farther and deeper in helping him grow his business. For example, he would like the agency teams to roll up their sleeves and learn his business -- by working in one of the company's retail stores for a few days or a week; or maybe working in one of his factories to see how the products are made and appreciate the logistics required to get to market. He wishes his agencies would read his trade publications and become experts in his industry. He wishes his agency teams would be less arrogant, stop assuming they know his business so well when they actually don't, and be more proactive about truly learning the challenges he has and ways to solve them. In other words, he wants them to walk in his shoes. He recently put one of his agencies into review; think that agency was surprised?

I walked out of his office, wondering why more agencies don't take the time to listen, learn and be better partners. My head was spinning with ways that even my own agency can, and should, become more respected experts in all of our clients' businesses. As an industry, we tend to focus on getting the strategy right, nailing the creative concept, executing it at the highest standards and integrating it across platforms. But we lose sight of becoming authorities in our clients' fields. To be sure, there are some agencies doing it right. They live their clients' business, attend their trade shows and are students of their clients' industry. I'm guessing that isn't happening in every agency.

Of course, it's not easy to do these days. Agencies are under pressure to perform like never before, which results in less time to think. There are more projects and fewer retained relationships, which make this kind of commitment difficult. There is less compensation to dedicate the top talent to one account. And there's the small matter of the volatility that comes with the revolving CMO position.

Still, if the clients are worth keeping, then it's worth serving them the right way. And if you don't know how your client defines "right," maybe it's time to have a candid conversation to see how you're really doing. Look around at the brands you work on. How could you serve them better? How could you get under the hood, see where the trouble is, and create innovative, powerful solutions for your clients?

That is what they are paying you to do. Even if you work hard, create good work, and are highly responsive to them, that is not enough. You need to dig deeper and become experts in their businesses -- so that you can make a bigger difference for them.

There isn't a client on earth that wouldn't appreciate that level of service and thinking. Imagine how long you'd keep that client if you did.

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