10 things I wish I knew about clients when I worked in an agency

I spent the first half of my career in media and creative agencies. I’ve spent the latter half on the client side within government organisations. I’ve read, with interest, a number of voices bemoaning the rise of conservative, risk-adverse communication driven by clients who should know better. Having been lucky enough to have stints both side of the fence and having done some of that bemoaning myself; I now realise that there are two sides to this story.

Here are ten insights into the life of a client that I wish I had known when I worked in agency-land:

1. We trade in different currencies: a Cannes Lion might be your pinnacle achievement but over here even a win would be unlikely to register as a blip on my horizon and it certainly won’t be celebrated internally. In fact I’m pretty sure no one would know what a Cannes Lion is. Our currency is very different – it could be a rise in the price of our shares, or behavioural change that takes ten years to eventuate, or a global engineering award, or a sales increase of 103%. If, and only if, we can demonstrate the contribution our marketing or communications efforts have made whatever is the pinnacle for our business will we record a ‘win’. This is why your award doesn’t mean as much to us – it’s nothing personal.

2. The campaign or project you are working on with us is only a tiny part of what we do: we’re also juggling HR issues, there is probably a restructure going on somewhere or we’ve got wind of one pending, we are being pestered by procurement or finance, we are filling in endless forms, we are running media relations, we are managing crisis. In fact the project we’re working on with you is probably one of the few things that feels in control because we have you working on it. This means it sometimes gets less of our attention.

3. Sometimes we can’t be bothered sticking our neck out even though we love your idea: we might already know that the AFL connection you’re proposing won’t fly with our rugby loving chairman or that executing this particular idea might mean writing a lengthy proposal to someone we know will be unlikely to read and even if they do there is a 90 percent chance they will say no. We might know that we will have to get a part of the business involved that we’ve always clashed heads with or we might recognise how much we’ll have to put in and two members of our team have annual leave booked. This might seem lazy but we’ve worked long enough in our organisation to know when to go after a win – we love you (promise) just not enough, in this instance, to put our neck on the line for you.

4. We actually don’t want to be involved that much: our best case scenario is that we brief you and you come back with the most brilliantly perfect idea, we crack open a bottle and you get on with the job. This is because we are still trying to keep our head above water as we deal with any number of combinations outlined in points 2 and 3.

5. You work in an industry where communication is revered – we unfortunately often do not: some of us are lucky enough to sit on the leadership team, the rest of us battle in the trenches just trying to get people to grasp the basic concept of a brand. Our wins are often tiny but hard fought – it is unlikely you would even consider them a potential battle in the first place.

6. We wish we had more money too: but we don’t and what we have we have already fought for long and hard. We’ve probably factored in a contingency but we don’t really want to spend it and if your first idea entices us to use it this is/was our one and only shot and there is NO MONEY LEFT. We can’t pinch it from elsewhere because that would mean dropping a whole program or rearranging things or going through a lengthy approval process or not doing one of the other eight projects we really want to this year. Instead we would really love it if you came up with a solution first time that spent what we allocated to you and no more – this is part of your creative challenge too.

7. Often we are the last to know and our weekends get ruined too: you know that moment when we ring you and say that ‘this needs to be done now’ and you’re eyeing the pub across the road because it’s Friday night and the rest of your team have called drinks? Well we’re also sitting in our office watching the rest of our floor high-five each other because it’s the weekend. Standing over us is someone more senior or a crisis or a demand from a stakeholder we can’t ignore and our weekend is about to be ruined too. The one thing keeping us going is knowing that you are here with us – recognise this bonding moment and be the best account manager/director you can. We won’t forget it.

8. People here think they can do our job – they don’t therefore understand why we are hiring you: because of point 5, and because most people have at some time written a letter or an email or contributed to their school newsletter, our job is something they are certain they can do. Getting their heads around your role in the story is even more problematic unless you are waving cameras or some other high-tech equipment that they haven’t had a chance to play with yet. Contrary to some of your beliefs there is not always an innate understanding of what an advertising agency does and sometimes it’s just easier not to mention you for fear of confusing people (again, it’s nothing personal).

9. We know all your tricks: the one where you present two concepts and one is so horrendous because you are actually surreptitiously steering us to the one you want us to choose – we know the bad one is not your usual high standard and we’ve checked it straight away. The one where you show us a brilliant piece as a ‘visual reference’ knowing we’ll fall in love with that idea and then hit us with a request for more funding so you can achieve ‘our’ vision – we have you sussed on this one too. We’ve got excellent poker faces but we’ll joke about it in the office later when the meeting is over.

10. We actually love working with you: amidst all the painful stuff we are working through we love your passion and your ideas and the fresh perspective you bring to something that we are often too close to. When we get things right together you deliver us a sense of pride and remind us why we joined this industry in the first place. You can help us (and we know it) so be brilliant, cut us some slack sometimes and together let’s achieve great things.

Disclaimer: I have worked, and continue to work with, fantastic agencies. The above is no reflection on them at all nor am I making any comment on my own place of work.


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