The Prodigal Client


Three years in advertising followed by another three in marketing give me the benefit of understanding both sides of the story. Marketing managers are comfortable saying the agency is at fault, and agencies are used to muttering under their breath and carrying on with the standard ways of working.

The question then is how marketing managers can remedy some of their ways of working and this post is prompted by my photographer friend, Neha Ramabhadran (check out her blog here) and her experiences with clients. My attempt here is to suggest some simple, practical measures that can be undertaken by marketing managers, but could easily be replicated in other formats of client-supplier relationships as well.

“Our client is an idiot. He doesn’t know what he wants.”

“Is he an idiot? How does he expect us to deliver this by tomorrow?”

“The idiot should seriously stop telling us how to do our job”

While I’d be the first one to say that agencies always have plenty of room for improvement, it is often overlooked that marketing managers can follow some basic ground rules to better their relationship, and hence the results that their agencies deliver.

The one prominent word in the examples above is “idiot”, an ambiguous word that expresses frustration and anger more than a description of the client. It could easily be replaced with “jerk” or “moron” with little effect on the message it conveys.

1. Treat them as individuals
Remember that your agency is not one person. Just like you treat individuals in your team as separate entities, the same should hold true for your agency. Statements like “our agency is very slow” are inaccurate. Pin-point who from the agency is slow. Is it a particular account manager? Is it the creative? Is it their finance team?

It is important to bear in mind that each member of the agency team has a career ambition and needs professional growth as much as someone in your team does. Making the same mistakes over and over again is a clear indication that the person responsible for the work is either hates his job (unless he is plain stupid). A lot of people getting into agencies hoping to be creative minds but get stuck with monotonous jobs that they didn’t sign up for. Is that the case? The end goal is to zoom in on the crux of the problem, not to make broad statements like “My agency sucks”.

2. Do your homework
Briefs are rarely inaccurate, and that’s obviously a good thing. But the problem is that briefs are also rarely complete. Unsatisfactory work can often be traced back to a brief that was incomplete, fuzzy or too abstract. An extra hour spent in preparing the brief can save days and often weeks of work that’s never going to see the light of the day.

3. Response time
Agencies are sometimes guilty of being slow in responding to emails and phone calls. It is completely unacceptable that an account manager does not receive phone calls during work hours. There is no two ways about it.

However, as the client, we can often set the standard for response time. Always take agency calls. Set yourself a response time – that you are going to respond to our agency’s requests within 2 hours of receiving them. Sometimes work gets delayed by weeks just because the marketing manager is too busy to take 2 minutes out of their schedule and respond to an email. Once you set the quick response standard, the agency will be inspired to follow suit.

4. Transparency
Clients are often not transparent about their business to their agencies. Assuming agencies always sign an NDA, there is no harm in sharing with them the state of their business. This allows them to better understand where you are coming from, and how they can influence that. This forces them to think not about how they can come up with the most creative idea, but how they can come up with the best solution for the problem at hand.

5. Be precise
“We are launching a new product. Can you come up with some activation ideas?” is not a brief. So then what is? Let’s try and explore further.

“We are launching a new product. This is different from our previous products, and our competitors’ products because it has a new widget. Our market research says that most of our consumers value this widget and its availability plays a vital role in their purchasing decision. Can you come up with some activation ideas for this?” Is this a brief? Maybe, but it’s not complete yet.

“Our measure of success for this campaign is to engage at least 20,000 consumers and demonstrate to them how this widget can revolutionize the way they use this product. We need to engage these 20,000 consumers over a 4-week period. The ideal way would be for us to seed 1,000 consumers after which the idea should be engaging enough to draw in the remaining 19,000. Our budget for this campaign is $200,000″ Much more complete.

“We do not want an online quiz because we have done it before. We do not want a mall activation because we do not believe that this will generate enough traffic for our target of 20,000. We do not want television partnerships because we cannot afford it.” This rules out any proposals that are a waste of time because you know from the very outset that you do not want them.

“We need this campaign to be live 4 weeks from now. So we need to finalize the activation by next week. The way I would like it to work is if you can come to next week’s presentation with 10 ideas, of which we finalize a couple. Don’t worry about making them look good – what I am trying to do is to finalize the idea. So it’s okay if you present them on a flipchart not PowerPoint.” In my opinion, this is really key. Agencies spend a lot of time working on what they think is a “big idea”. As a client, when we see it, we realize it’s not really that big an idea. Given that we have time constraints more often than not, we are forced to rule out the choice of starting from scratch, and are left with the only option of making the best of the presented idea. The way of working described above makes the marketing manager a compass that corrects the course of the ship along the way, rather than wait until the ship deviates for too long and then make a feeble attempt to get back on track.

6. Prioritize
Reality is that agencies are going to be overburdened most of the time. Reality is also that half of that work is either not time-sensitive or not business-sensitive. So there is always room to prioritize.

This allows the agency to focus on the more important stuff and relegate the less important jobs. This also earns their trust because it shows that you are a sensible manager who understands that it’s impossible to do everything at the same time. So if you often say, “John, please make this a priority. We need this tomorrow,” then make it a point to also be conscious and say whenever possible, “This is not a priority. We need this by next week.”

7. Know what you want
A fairly generic one this, it is important for the client to nail down his objectives for a project and how he sees it manifesting rather than changing his mind several times during the course of the project. This is a clear pre-requisite for many other suggestions in this blog.

8. Be responsible for minutes of the meeting
Status meetings can be a disaster if not utilized properly. Agencies often try to speed up the parts that they are not comfortable with, or have messed up. So it is important to be on the alert and ask them to slow down if they are going too fast.

Also, in an average status meeting we discuss around 30 different jobs. So it is hard for the agency to keep track of the important ones versus the unimportant ones. This makes it really important for the client to retain control over the minutes of the meeting, in order to highlight the important jobs versus the secondary ones. And to make sure the complicated ones are not getting delayed or swept under the carpet.

9. Create structures/frameworks
When clients ask agencies for reports, proposals, ideas, etc. it often turns out that they are not satisfied by the manner in which the content is presented. While it might be too much for an ad-hoc presentation, it would be well worth the time, in cases of repeated presentations, to sit together with the agency and draft a format for presentation that would satisfy the client without burdening the agency too much.

10. Explain and prove why you are right
“I don’t like it,” might not be adequate feedback for a proposal that saw input from several agency members over several weeks. There is a good chance the proposal is uninspiring because the brief was bad, but in any case, the least that can be done in such a situation is that the client properly addresses the reasons why a proposal does not make sense, and how it can be addressed in an optimal timespan.

“This does not work because the widget is not properly positioned and does not hit the limelight. This can be fixed by reducing the focus on other features and using the widget as the single reason-to-believe. It needs to be the hook to draw consumers to our product.” is slightly better than “I hate it.”

As a way of working, you could always et expectations from the very beginning. “My default answer is going to be NO unless you present something that is bang on strategy and different from anything we’ve (or the competition has) done before.

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2 responses to “The Prodigal Client

  1. Sarita Lakhiani

    Excellent article, very well written and quite apt!

  2. Hi Prashanth,
    Thanks for your comment on my Econsultancy blog and sorry for such a delay in getting round to reading your link – no excuses, I’ve been busy loving my travels in Asia!
    I really like your writing. Some of the points are bang on the money. I think for me it all wraps up into a simple truth – treat someone with respect and in the way you wish them to treat you and expect from them the same. That is how an effective partnership is built. If you do that, the quality of communication and output will invariably increase.The references to being concise and accurate in what you say/write are salient – often poor execution comes from poor planning and poor planning can often be traced back to poor communication. If you aren’t happy with something, you’ll get the best response from other people if you explain why carefully and calmly so they can understand your perspective. As you say, simply trotting out “I don’t like it” is not professional or productive.
    Thanks for an interesting read
    James Gurd

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