Strong agency-client relationships are powered by individuals

Last week I introduced the topic of great clients, and I'll be focusing on various aspects of that theme over the next several issues.

Last week I introduced the topic of great clients, and I'll be focusing on various aspects of that theme over the next several issues.

This might seem to be a fairly irrelevant subject to raise now, when as we know budgets have tightened considerably, clients are under severe internal pressure and in no place to indulge in niceties, and agencies will be loathe to part ways with even the most painful piece of business.

Yet relationships that are being grown under potentially trying circumstances will still need to be endured even when the economic situation improves. Particularly concerning are the new partnerships being created right now. And while it might seem that there is more opportunity to misstep in the tough times, I think that the downturn gives both sides a better chance to start the relationship on realistic and sustainable grounds.

To understand this, you have to recognize that the most important asset that an agency has is its people, and that a client will only see value from its agency relationship if it has talented people working on its business. In tough times, like we are now experiencing, agencies will sometimes walk away from business if it means they will lose their stars because of an impossible client.

Most firms don't have that luxury now, but that's a short-term comfort. And there's a world of difference between working on a client on sufferance, and being the account of choice for an agency's stars.

“For me, as a client, my self-interest is I want the best people working on my business,” says Chevron's Dave Samson. “If it's between working on Chevron or another client, I want them to work for Chevron.” Samson, who has worked on both sides of the equation, says that it's the big things and the little things that sabotage the trust that needs to be established between the company and the firm.

And he reminds us that it all boils down to the people who not only execute work for a client, but who put their passion and spirit into the mission, because the relationship is mutually beneficial and gratifying.

The ways to affect this are not complex, especially not when the relationship is new and, naturally, the agency has a great deal to prove. But clients set the tone by being responsive to questions, by ensuring that a person of an appropriate level internally is connecting with their counterparts on the agency side, and by starting the relationship with reasonable expectations that are clearly defined. Starting the partnership realistically and well is critical to its long-term success.

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