THE AGENCY BUSINESS: Placing account execs on-site can bolster client relationships

There are several advantages to having someone from the agency working on-site with the client, but the costs can go up considerably. Paul Cordasco weighs the risks and rewards of on-site agency help.

There are several advantages to having someone from the agency working on-site with the client, but the costs can go up considerably. Paul Cordasco weighs the risks and rewards of on-site agency help.

When Allison Scott reported for work at Chicago-based Interface, the world's largest commercial carpet manufacturer, she would turn on her computer and begin work on the company's latest marketing initiative InterfaceFLOR, a modular floor covering created for use in homes. Scott's hard work helped the company gain media impressions, and that appeared to help drive sales. Day-to-day she reported to her main Interface supervisor, the company's director of sales. Yet Scott was never an employee of Interface. Instead she worked at a PR firm a few blocks away, Dome Communications. However, for a few months Scott would report directly to her client's office, where the account executive would spend her entire day conducting her work for the client on-site. The client and agency arrived at the on-site arrangement after Interface reached out to Dome for temporary help with beefing up its marketing efforts. Scott says the idea was born out of the already close relationship between Dome and Interface. She says the opportunity to work on-site five days a week allowed that relationship to grow even closer. "We worked very closely with them as it was - in terms of a client-agency relationship," says Scott. "So it wasn't even that much of a transition. It's just that we were on their turf. I think one of the great things about it was that we were able to bounce ideas off each other, and we ended up being much more a part of their organization." Indeed, being invited by a client to provide on-site support may be one of the best opportunities an agency can have to strengthen a relationship with a client. Yet the arrangement is not without its challenges. "I think it's important to make sure the on-site account executive gets the right mix of agency life while still getting the experience of working on-site with the client," says Shannon Weasler, the Dome senior account consultant that led the Interface account from Dome's Chicago headquarters. "We as an agency have to be flexible, and realize that this person will likely still want to feel part of the agency's culture. For them, that means having access to the meetings and brainstorms that we have here. That means making sure they know what's going on here, and letting them know they have access." When an operating division of furniture manufacturer The HON Company approached LA-based The Pollack PR Marketing Group about placing one of its account executives on-site for an indefinite basis, firm CEO Noemi Pollack took the unusual step of making a new hire to fill the role. "We thought we had to hire someone specifically for this job," explains Pollack. "Had we taken someone out of our agency and placed them there, then that might have created some extra problems. For instance, perhaps that person is used to agency life and doesn't want to deal with only one client. By hiring someone just for this task we avoided all that." Pollack says the one prominent downside to the arrangement from the client's perspective is that on-site work can become an expensive proposition for the client, especially if it continues for a long period. In this case, Pollack's AE remained on-site for two years. Therefore some say it's better to place someone on-site to handle a short-term need rather than as part of a long-term relationship. "It got expensive for the client, because they were essentially paying his salary and paying our fee," says Pollack. "I guess there is a point where it stops making sense for the client. The fear for us became that they would eventually hire someone [to replace the on-site account executive]." Nevertheless, the obvious major upside of such an arrangement is that clients will inevitably pay more for having an account executive just down the hall during business hours. "We saw our the client's billings more than double because of this arrangement," explains Pollack. Yet there are other important challenges to keep sight of as well. Agencies must make sure that their AE is willing to be supervised on-site by a senior member of the client team, and that can mean keeping up with an account even more than usual. "In our case it worked well," says Weasler. "I would get cc'd on all on the e-mails that went out during the day. We also made sure that the lines of communication were always open so I knew what was going on. That was key to making it work." ----- Working on-site with clients
  • The agency is exposed to aspects of the client's culture that can help it provide better counsel.
  • The account exec must get used to day-to-day supervision from the client.
  • While providing on-site support can be lucrative, it can become a very costly arrangement for the client if it stretches on for a long time.

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