Sometimes you just have to be there to best serve a client

I recently read an article in the Sunday Business section of The New York Times that pondered the meaning of location in a digital age.

I recently read an article in the Sunday Business section of The New York Times that pondered the meaning of location in a digital age.

The piece began: “In a business world linked by electronic networks and cheap, nearly instantaneous communication, physical location shouldn't matter.

But it does.”

It went on to note that wannabe musicians still migrate to Nashville (Los Angeles, I would argue), editors flock to New York to fulfill their publishing dreams, and there sure are a lot of hopeful tech startups in Silicon Valley, surrounded by equally eager venture capital firms.

The piece talked about how a place can conjure up a culture that appeals to a particular group and nurtures that spirit, which is what keeps people there. Agencies long ago learned the lesson of putting down roots where they wanted to grow a specialty or reach a certain client base. Tech firms dominate Northern California on up to Seattle; public affairs firms litter Washington, DC, and Virginia; and New York has long been the home of the PR industry in the US. Physical proximity allows a firm to cultivate the local flavor into its DNA.

But in what's promising to be a much leaner year for the industry, opening up satellite offices helter-skelter won't make sense. As one agency CEO put it to me recently: “I don't need a half-assed Kansas City office if I have a solid one in St. Louis.”

Smart midsize firms will continue to look for ways to increase their footprint for clients or risk being made irrelevant by savvy local agencies and global giants who can scale up for companies that are increasingly taking a global view for their brands. Ketchum's recent merger in Europe with Pleon demonstrated its desire to provide clients with new reach on the continent, while simultaneously boosting the firm's reputation in that region.

But another lesson in the value of location is those in-person business meetings.

Although today we all conduct business via Skype, e-mail, and instant messaging, along with the old-fashioned conference call, there are times when shaking an actual hand can make a real difference. Even without a nearby office, though, firms shouldn't forget the value of in-person meetings. Or as one agency GM of a top-five global firm told me recently, sometimes you have to hop on a plane to North Carolina just to say hello to a client.

The industry continues to go through turbulent times, and we all realize that clients – longtime ones, included – require more reassurance than ever to feel confident about the work being done and the value they're getting for every dollar spent. Much of this comes down to demonstrating results, but the in-the-flesh meeting shouldn't be discounted.

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