Despite my moviestar looks, ‘quirky’ sense of humour and acceptable personal hygiene, I am actually something of an expert on failed relationships. Breakdowns in communication; forgetting meaningful dates; that thing where you don’t remember their birthday, then have to get a last-minute present from a charity shop and end up buying them one of those cards that say you’ve donated 50 trees to Africa in their name; I’ve done them all.
This ‘experience’, combined with my many years at the sharp end of content marketing, make me superbly qualified to discuss why client/agency relationships ultimately break down – and how you, as clients, can help put a stop to this. Essentially, I’m a kind of cross between Dear Deidre and Joe Pulizzi.
What your agency wants
At its most basic, stripped-back level, the relationship between client and agency is really pretty simple. The client wants to hit its marketing goals (whether that be raising brand awareness, or funnelling traffic to a specific webpage, or whatever), while the agency wants a clear brief and creative control to achieve those results.
However, when you add in a gaggle of stakeholders, all with different views about what constitutes a “successful” campaign, and potentially all based in different places, this relationship becomes a little harder to manage. It’d be like if you wanted to invite your partner out for dinner, but first you had to get sign-off from their family and friends, the restaurant manager and a team of creatives who aren’t sure if the concept of ‘eating’ is really ‘on-message’ right now.
While the client is the paying customer and the agency provides the service, the responsibility for maintaining a fruitful partnership lies with both. So what can clients do to ensure that this relationship doesn’t go from content marketing to discontent marketing? (nb that is both the funniest and cleverest thing I have ever written.)
It probably sounds like a cliche. But the thing about cliches is that they’re often true – as anyone who’s lived their life following the mantra that “laughter is the best medicine” will gladly tell you.
Strong communication really is vital to get the best from your agency. Take the time to put together a comprehensive brief – in collaboration with your agency – before the start of a new campaign, and give accurate, clear feedback whenever it’s necessary.
Oh, and don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and speak to your writer, graphic designer or social media consultant – we all know that email has the power to turn even the politest message into a passive-aggressive nightmare, so give them a ring instead. Obviously we work at a marketing agency, so will probably use infuriating buzzwords like ‘ideation’ and suggest that our next face-to-face meeting takes place at a craft ale joint that brews all of its beer with quinoa, but you’ll get your message across much more effectively.
When you first decide to bring an agency onboard, it’s probably because you lack the expertise or resource to do the work in-house. You’re probably expecting your agency to be experts at what they do, and not to have to spoon-feed them an endless supply of content ideas.
But for this to happen, you need to trust your agency to know what they’re doing. Understandably, you’ll want to know what they’re working on at any given time (and how it contributes to your marketing goals), but us creative types work best when we’re in control of the content we’re producing.
Of course, trust needs to be earned, but you’re unlikely to see the highest standard of content – or the best results, for that matter – if you can’t take a step back and leave your agency to it.
Client/agency relationships work best when your agency is basically an extension of your business, with the added benefit that – unlike your real colleagues – you don’t have to make awkward small talk with your writer or account manager every day, or contribute to their birthday fund.
But it takes a little effort – on both parts – to achieve this lofty goal. One of the biggest barriers here is transparency; your agency can never truly be like your own in-house marketing team if they don’t know what’s going on at your business, whether that’s a restructuring, a key employee leaving, a new product launch, or any number of other things.
We understand that you can’t fill us in on literally everything – if a piece of information is on an ‘if I told you, I’d have to kill you’ kind of level, we’d probably rather not know. But if it’s something that’s connected, directly or indirectly, to the work we’re doing for you, it’s going to be better for all parties if we’re in the loop.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. If you really want me move slow, there’s things about me you just have to know. (nb one of these is a Britney lyric.)
I think you can see what I’m driving at here.
As frustrating as it sounds, don’t expect results overnight. As much as you want your agency to immediately triple the size of your Twitter followership, content marketing is all about playing the long game, and the more you try to take shortcuts to fool the system, the less effective your efforts are likely to be.
Don’t think we’re all take, take, take
I appreciate this article might read a bit like a list of demands about how clients simply must act in order to satisfy their hard-done-by agencies; for that, I apologise.
As with the greatest relationships in history – Antony and Cleopatra, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Toby Anstis and Priscilla Presley – the partnership between client and agency requires work from both sides.
Essentially, we agencies need to practice what we preach: earn your trust by delivering results, strive to be flexible, and communicate just as well when you’ve asked us a tricky question as we do when we’re chasing you up for feedback.