I recently settled down for an end of week glass of wine and a chat with a friend of mine. She still works in the media agency world. It immediately struck me that she was looking distinctly dispirited, which was most uncharacteristic of her. On being asked what had put her so out of sorts, she sighed, “Oh, you know, it is clients…” Britta Reid recalls some clients from hell.
Indeed, I did know, having decades of media agency service under my belt. I commiserated cheerfully, reminding her of some of our shared experiences. We once worked for a client who spent each and every meeting with us deeply engaged with cellphones and a sleek Mac. Even if this client was the consummate multi-tasker, the effect on the agency team was deeply demotivating. I will always remember the delight of two of this client’s team members who had the opportunity to present to another client, who sat down and focused on their presentation. After the meeting, they could not stop talking excitedly about this client who actually listened and engaged with them. They were ridiculously grateful and stimulated.
Then I recalled the client who would always phone at lunchtime and breathlessly make complimentary remarks about one’s expertise, before asking for a “small favour” for a meeting she had at 14h30. This was invariably something like a budget proposal for a new launch, about which she had not yet briefed us. It was true that she required only a topline set of figures from me, but to get to those numbers, required me to make numerous assumptions and projections in an incredibly short time. My attempts at pushback were met by an energetic range of responses from groveling to hysteria. Eventually I realised it was easier to tackle the task than deal with the emotional assault.
With the benefit of distance, I was able to laugh about the client who was always late, always kept the team sitting way into the night, while pontificating about his illustrious career and his innumerable marketing triumphs. These were, he repeatedly told us, the result of his “maverick” working methods. In retrospect, it seems these methods comprised rudeness, naked abuse, poor time management and the development of some unhealthily close relationships with some media suppliers.
My friend was not in the mood for simply laughing off the foibles of a few marketers. She pointed out to me that most of what we had been talking about could be solved if Clients could just remember basic courtesy, human decency and a bit of time management. Unfortunately, we could not find a solution for the madness of the few megalomaniacs and narcissists we had encountered.
The problem was deeper, my friend asserted. Her week had been decimated by long drives to futile meetings and hours of wasted work. Clients simply don’t articulate what they want she said. Sometimes this is through inexperience, and where media is concerned, it is sometimes because they do not understand the discipline. Sometimes it is because they do not want to hamper the agencies’ creativity. Often it is simply because they have not sat down and interrogated themselves as to what they are looking for. Without knowing that, and without formally recording that in a brief, clients are setting themselves and their agencies up for frustration and failure.
My friend, besides being an experienced and dedicated professional, is nothing if not fair. Perhaps, she ruminated, the blame is with the media agencies – they need to insist on the briefs, perhaps even spend the time at the beginning of the process, to try to extract briefs from their clients. That would be a good start, but it requires clients to be amenable to the process and to engage fully.
It also requires that the decision-makers on the client side are involved in the development and sign off of the brief. This often does not happen, especially in large corporates. Junior staff brief the media agency and oversee the development of the strategy. Then it gets taken back into the marketing organisation to be taken up through multiple layers of decision makers. Each layer adds another kink into the process, and may result in changes. Finally it gets to the ultimate decision maker, and it is discovered that it is time to go back to the drawing board. This discovery can take weeks. Such dishearteningly wasted effort could be avoided if the senior decision maker had signed off the original brief.
My friend pointed out that the trend is for clients to appoint multiple agencies – PR, social, media, creative, digital etc. If this is done in the pursuit of specialist expertise, it requires that the client manage these resources, and clearly define the expectations of each. If this does not happen, everyone wastes a lot of time and effort. Agency personnel are trained to impress clients and to look for additional revenue opportunities. If the client does not manage them, then there is a lot of stepping on toes and fruitless hours spent chasing after illusory billings. In our experience, we did not really manage to find any good examples of where this predatory behaviour had actually resulted in a hugely improved campaign for the client. We also could not recall a situation where the client really successfully delegated the management of multiple specialist agencies to the so-called “lead agency”. It is the client’s responsibility to manage his/her agencies.
Putting the time in to educate clients in media would also help, we thought. Again, this needs clients to wish to come to terms with the media discipline. It also needs them to be prepared to invest in their education. Media agency fees in South Africa are notoriously low and under constant pressure, so expecting education to be thrown in as an added benefit is unrealistic.
Indeed, when these fees are negotiated, a very clear scope of work must be developed. All clients, especially junior staff, need to be thoroughly familiar with the scope of work, so that they do demand unpaid out of scope work from the media agency. Such work just detracts from the focus on the core agency business, and creates frustration and resentment.
Perhaps it was just that second glass of wine, but it did begin to seem some fairly simple behaviours could radically improve media agency/ client relationships.
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