Agency-Client Relationships: Starting out on the right foot

The first few weeks are critical if an agency and client hope to strike up a successful partnership. Jonathan Block looks at what each party should expect from one another

The first few weeks are critical if an agency and client hope to strike up a successful partnership. Jonathan Block looks at what each party should expect from one another

As a client, finding a firm that meets your needs is not an easy task. But once the deal is made, the beginning of a new client-agency relationship can be both exciting and stressful.

Although a partnership may be just beginning, the client will likely have high expectations for its new agency. As such, getting off on the right foot, especially in the first 90 days, has a profound impact on the tone of the union.

At the outset, candor and openness to ideas - from both the agency and the client - will likely bode well for the relationship, says Vicki Banner, an SVP at Keating and Co. And to make sure things start off right, Banner says Keating creates a 30-60-90-day timeline outlining the goals for each stage.

But PR pros and clients agree that perhaps the most important items to check off on the new relationship "to-do" list are getting to know the client's business as much as possible and keeping your eyes and ears open.

"Going into any relationship with a client, you know less than you know more," says Peter Rush, president of Kellen Communications. "Listen and be ready to adjust the program."

Peter Kaufman, VP at Charles Ryan Associates (CRA), advises engaging in immersion sessions with new clients. He says that many clients "want a partner, not a vendor relationship," and thus many consider an agency part of their family.

Gretchen Moen, a corporate brand manager with Trilegiant Loyalty Solutions, a rewards-program services company and new CRA client, considers the relationship a "strategic partnership," going so far as to include the firm in the planning process for its 2005 strategy.

Starting off, it's imperative to let the client know what your firm can provide. That's why Treister Murry Agency (TMA) partner Richard Murry conducts "PR 101," a PowerPoint presentation for all new clients.

"We've got to get under our clients' skin," he says. "It's also important that they get under our skin and understand what we can bring to the table and how we will approach things."

It's also crucial for an agency's staff to be knowledgeable in how to handle new clients. Leslie Sutton, Hill & Knowlton's US director of client services, helped to create two training modules - "building client relationships that last" and "account planning." The latter provides suggestions to help H&K teams build and maintain successful client relationships.

Sutton sums up what needs to be done in the early stages with three points: set clear expectations, define objectives, and establish metrics.

Sometimes, clients want a unique campaign or launch that will showcase an agency's creativity and originality.

CRA's Kaufman, for example, devised a plan for Trilegiant that involved a well-known Richmond, VA chef and his catering-business kitchen. As a more laid back way for Kaufman's team and Trilegiant to get to know each other better, the caterer created a fancy omelet-making table in an event dubbed "Cooking with Trilegiant."

Another outing planned for the spring will take place at a farm where staffers and families of Trilegiant and CRA's Richmond office will get together.

TMA knew it had sky-high expectations - literally - from new client IMICO Brickell, a developer building a luxury, high-rise condominium in red-hot downtown Miami where the views would be a major selling point.

On the day of the groundbreaking, there were the traditional VIPs with golden shovels at the site. But Murry decided to take the significant day one step further for guests in attendance, including potential buyers, by offering rides in a hot air balloon that would give people an idea of the view from the building.

Moshe Spitzer, a developer with IMICO, praised TMA's hot air balloon idea, adding that he views the agency as part of the team for the venture. In Miami, he says, you "need to differentiate your project and think outside the box."

Once the relationship is up and running, it's important to monitor how it's going, much like a couple dating reassesses its situation in the early stages, says Eric Nobis, VP at Seattle PR firm Parker LePla.

"We need to look at the 'wedding vows' and make sure that we're still doing the stuff we're supposed to," he says. "Executing flawlessly, but not taking care of the relationship, can spell the end of the whole thing."

Jeff Smith, CEO at JS2 Communications, recommends not imposing too many different ideas at the outset because in many ways, the start of the relationship is "like an awkward first date." Instead, he suggests trying several things out, while maintaining a focus on building trust.

Clients also say the personal touch can go a long way. Dakota Lee, marketing communications director for Centillium Communications, which recently hired The Hoffman Agency, said she wanted one-on-one meetings with each Hoffman team member who would be working on the account.

"We wanted to step into their environment and see what their universe is like," she said. "They supported me and my colleagues in our business" with a strategic approach, all while keeping in mind that we wanted to take our PR to the next level.

Technique tips

Do ask for candor from a client and be open to its ideas

Do get to know a client's business as much as possible and be receptive to its needs

Do come up with creative, unique plans that will impress a client at the critical beginning stages

Don't strive for flawless execution at the expense of ignoring the relationship

Don't impose too many ideas on the partnership right away, and be ready to amend original plans

Don't be too adversarial with a client if you disagree on strategy. Clients often view a firm as a valuable team member, sometimes even part of their "family"

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