I am a client to some companies, but I'm not sure I'm any good at it.
There is very little to prepare one for managing an external partner, and I've never seen a course offering tips for being an effective client. Indeed, we write a great deal about how agencies can improve on service and strategy, and that's critical. But there is another side to the relationship that needs to be properly developed, as well.
This is not a matter of being a nice person to work with. Ineffectual clients are not merely defined as people who are difficult for agencies to please, or who don't say please and thank you (though courtesy is always nice).
Bad clients can cost their own companies time and money. And while I hear constantly from in-house executives about how agencies really don't understand them, there is a corresponding case to be made for the skills that in-house contacts need to hone in order to maximize the agency relationship.
The benefits of being a good client are indisputable. Choosing the right agency partners from the beginning is a function of client effectiveness. Changing agencies is a time-consuming and costly activity. If an in-house team is not prepared for the process and does not clearly identify its objectives - even if only for its own information - it can pay dearly for that lack of discipline down the line.
One tough truth about retaining an agency is the relationship can be demanding on your time. Some clients are either too busy, or too disorganized, to maintain an environment where ideas from the agency will convert to action. All the great ideas in the world will amount to nothing if the company simply can't handle the process of implementing them - even if the firm does the bulk of the leg work.
There are pragmatic issues such as paying bills on time and treating the agency's employees professionally - things that if they go unresolved can end an agency's contract with a client. But an inability, or unwillingness, to provide access to the kind of information that makes for more effective counsel is one of the best ways to thwart a potentially good agency-client relationship.
Steve Cody, managing partner at Peppercom, cites Richard Aldersea, CMO for consulting firm Mercer Delta, as an example of a client who brings the firm inside. "He will tell you the good, the bad, and the ugly with what's happening from a senior management standpoint, an M&A standpoint, or a business and profitability standpoint," Cody says. "We know what they're thinking about down the road and are able then to be an early warning system for them."
In-house professionals need to feel that their agency will add value, and not diminish or sideline their role, or cause them embarrassment or pain. The majority of the responsibility for making that happen belongs with the agency. However, as one PR leader pointed out to me recently, if you scratch the surface of most great work in PR, you will find a smart client that knows how to manage its agency.