The most telling line I’ve heard to describe agency account life is, “The day you win an account is also the first day you start to lose it.”
Almost every agency deals with a month to month (sometimes it’s actually week to week) ‘siege’ mentality that its accounts might go up for review, or could end suddenly because of any number of factors. Through years and years of experience, most agency veterans have acutely honed their antenna to sense any potential disturbances in the agency/client ‘life force’ which could lead to the business walking out the door. I know we face this ongoing challenge. Unfortunately, as we’ve all seen, there are certain instances where the agency is almost completely powerless to change the end outcome.
For those ‘Mad Men’ fans, think about how Sterling, Cooper, Draper & Pryce lost the Lucky Strike account after controlling the business for a number of decades. In one swift moment, the Lucky Strike Board decided to consolidate agencies, therefore combining all the brand accounts under the auspices of large agency partner. Roger Sterling received the terminal body blow over a seemingly non-eventful, ‘catch up’ dinner with the client, while global powerhouse BBDO reaped all the rewards (and subsequent billings) of being the chosen one. In the end, there was nothing Sterling or his partners could have done (or foreseen) that would have allowed them to keep this critical business.
We’ve certainly faced moments like that (thankfully though with smaller accounts) over the last 15 years. Anytime there is a management shift and a new CEO or CMO takes over as the head honcho, he/she also typically comes in with new ideas, relationships with other agencies that have been forged through past experiences, and often a general attitude of ‘out with the old and in with the new.’ In those cases, most agencies and a host of other vendors are cast out of the company without a thought.
Of course, there are other uncontrollable reasons for an agency’s demise as well. Cuts in budgets are certainly every-day occurrences (we all experienced a lot of that during the last two years). And, there are a few select times when the clients’ needs have changed or evolved to a point where it doesn’t have a need for any agency services. But, that’s rare.
With all that, the plain reality is that most agency/client relationships end because the client believes the agency isn’t providing the services/results that are needed. Sometimes that is the reality. But, my agency brethren would certainly feel that many times it’s really more about perceptions (or misperceptions in these cases). Still, it doesn’t matter at the end of the day. Regardless of who is actually correct, that client has all the power and in this case, is always right. Just in the last month or two, Peppercom suffered through a few of these scenarios. That got me thinking about some of the essential responsibilities that agency leaders need to consistently undertake to ensure (as best as possible) healthy, ongoing client relationships:
• Do you really understand what the client cares about? It’s not good enough to assume that (hypothetically) generating a lot of media hits will make the client happy. In fact, even if the client(s) say that’s what he/she wants, it’s up to the senior leaders to dig further to understand what will make the client look good to his/her boss and what needs do the most senior client level relationships have that the agency can achieve. Sometimes, it’s more a matter of constantly consulting with that senior executive to offer strategy and advise about how to sell programs through his/her organizations. Other times, it’s something else. The point is, one doesn’t know, unless one is regularly asking the question.
• Do you have relationships built at all critical levels? This leads to my next point. I think most agencies try to create relationships all the way up to the CEO. But, that rarely happens. There is an absolute correlation between having those good high level relationships and maintaining the account for longer periods. Sometimes, the day to day client doesn’t want the agency lead speaking to his/her boss or the CEO. That has danger written all over it. Somehow, it’s critical that the agency overcome this by finding ways to show value at higher levels. If that doesn’t happen, I can guarantee one of two things will occur. Either the relationship will not last long, or it will always be a bumpy ride with this client because typically the CEO has very little visibility into our program and that means senior management will ultimately start to wonder what their ROI is.
• Can you have a frank conversation with the client? I know this sounds obvious. But, it doesn’t happen as much as it should. There are plenty of times when we should be stepping in to speak to our highest client contact to discuss when we see the program going in the wrong direction. Or, to talk about hurdles that exist that are challenging what the team can do. Or, just discuss issues we see dealing with the client’s business. Most senior level clients want to hear this and appreciate the conversation. Those who don’t, well… at least you’ll be able to clearly understand the reality that this account may not last long because of it.
• You think the team is doing well. But, how do you really know it? We try to have ongoing conversations with both the main client contact and his/her boss every few months to listen to the good, the bad and the ugly (if any actually exists) regarding what our team is doing. I think it’s too easy to receive those good reports and then assume the client will reach out to us if he/she ever feels differently. That typically never happens. It’s always up to agency leadership to have those conversations. Consequently, those talks also provide an opportunity to build a deeper relationship, as well.