When it comes to client relationships, agencies are either naive “johns” or reluctant whores.

May 4, 2011

What’s it gonna be?

I’m working with an art director/partner on some pretty terrific projects. It’s good to be thinking and writing about clients again. More on that later…

Meantime, my partner suggested our goal be building relationships with clients, not just doing “projects” for them. Relationships, he reminded me, are longer term, healthier and just plain better.

That’s the theory anyway. And it used to be the practice. But not anymore. Not for a long time. When clients hire and fire agencies willy-nilly; those aren’t relationships they’re hook-ups or, worse, prostitution.

Which begs the question: Are we agencies “johns,” and dumb johns at that? We eagerly get into bed with each new client thinking this is “the one.” We will grow old and happy together. In order to insure that we staff up, open a regional office, promote the members of the pitch team. Ha. Within seven months the client is indifferent to us or even mad. Maybe we’ve done a campaign they don’t like. Maybe they’ve been hit on by another agency. Probably both. After nine months they put us on notice. The next quarter we’re fired. Few agencies and clients are exempt from this contempt. It’s more than merely a trend. It’s the way it is.

On the other hand, maybe we agencies are more like reluctant prostitutes; after all we are getting paid…sort of. But even then we want to be loved for our personality and willingness to commit. But the client wants it fast, cheap and AWESOME! Against our instincts, we try to accommodate. We are good girls. We don’t want to be dumped. If we fail the client will find another eager beaver willing to turn a trick.

And so the idea of projects becomes evermore desirable. Projects have a beginning, middle and end. They can be accounted. Unfortunately, it begs the question of why agencies need half their staff. Planners? What pray tell, are we planning for –to get fired? Grooming an account executive to hold a brand manager’s hand seems silly given they don’t want to fall in love. As for the rest of us, it seems the wisest course –better said, the only course- is to put as small a team as possible on the business and swing for the fences. Hit a homerun and maybe we’ll keep the account. If we’re let go we’ve got minimal overhead to “reorganize.”

As someone who grew up at a long-term idea factory, I bristle at the ‘wham, bam, thank you Ma’am’ approach but what’s a girl to do? Oh, I know: show your cleavage in social media and whip out the digital.


8 Responses to “When it comes to client relationships, agencies are either naive “johns” or reluctant whores.”

  1. you struck a chord here, Steffan as I’ve been experiencing this very same ‘trend’: impossible asks, rude treatment, late payment and more… yet we created our own monsters when the floor fell out 2 years ago and we went pimping for work. cheap-fast-great was what we promised, since there was always someone hungrier than we, waiting in the wings. How now do we regain that lost respect? dunno 😦

  2. Tracy said

    The effort goes into the wooing, the flowers (digital) and the morning (only) after. All around it’s a short-sighted culture hooked on industry-specific endorphins. Somebody always ends up broke and embarrassed shortly thereafter. And the other party finds themselves vilified on Don’t Date Him Girl… wait, what was I talking about?

  3. Roswell Thomas said

    I like your digital/social media metaphor at the end there. They’re of dubious practical use but they drive people crazy; as a gay friend once told me, “they’re boobs, they don’t have to make sense.” The question, “what will this brand gain from its Facebook page?” is not one that is asked nearly often enough. It’s way too easy, especially for someone my age, to make more experienced advertisers feel outdated and helpless by speaking really quickly and saying a lot of phrases like “social graph, like score, Twitter, viral” all at once. I’d argue that the exact same principles of advertising still apply to social media — you need big ideas, a compelling story, good knowledge of your base, etc.; social media “gurus” are just good technicians taking advantage of perceived complexity. Social media is a good trick to make yourself look important within an agency, but also a good ploy for an agency to make itself look indispensable to a client.

    That being said, I’m winning major points with a client over here putting together a Facebook page in a country with single digit internet penetration. Don’t worry, though, there’s a pretty solid rationale behind this particular social media campaign; hopefully it won’t turn out to be a fascinating but useless jiggling lump of fat.

    Regards from Phnom Penh,

  4. jim schmidt said

    Have to disagree. Relationships are what business is all about. Find like-minded people and work towards a common goal with them. Problems occur when it’s a forced-fit or one side takes advantage of the other.

    • SRP said

      I don’t think you’re disagreeing with me. I believe in ‘marriages’ and the effort to make them work. But i cannot ignore the ever-growing majority of people who don’t.

  5. SRP said

    I like this agency response…as reported from Adpulp:

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