Why don’t you see agencies & clients celebrating their Ruby anniversary?

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I’ve been married 21 years this year. That’s apparently celebrated via the gift of Brass things (which seems a bit mean). But it’s rare to see a design agency celebrate past paper (1 year) or cotton (2) or leather (kinky – but also 3rd year) with a client.

We’re about to celebrate our Leather anniversary (that’s three years to the unromantic amongst you) with Cancer Research UK.

Why is this? At SomeOne we have clients going back over a decade. Many over 5 years. It never seemed to be an issue, but increasingly we are meeting design companies and creatively-led agencies who are complaining that they can’t seem to hang on to a client once the initial thrill has gone.

What’s going on?

The relationship design companies have with their clients is rarely discussed in public – a bit like leather. But, unlike cowhide, it’s central to the amount of time the two are given to create work. Really great work takes time. And you spend time with people you respect, trust and like.

Our rebrand of WorldPay took over 18 months — but took the brand to a position where it could be put up for sale for £3.5 billion on the UK stock exchange — the largest sale of the year.

All the giga-brands have great relationships at their heart and time spent getting things right. Apple wasn’t an overnight success. Facebook has been going for over a decade and actually, even the more rapid risers of the tech world like Instagram have got history behind them racking up their 10,000hrs faster than the casual app developer.

This relationship or lack of it is also central to a design companies creative success at scale and of course their financial performance. I’d argue it’s also a key variable that affects the effectiveness of the output. Yet few discuss it in creative circles. Far more exciting are matters surrounding ‘content strat’ and multi-channel communications.

Design companies and other creative agency types from digital to post-production houses are traditionally made up of creative people who’s ideas are valued. Those people are seen as worth paying for. And therefore those creatives often care enormously about what people think about them. Possibly a bit too much. Particularly their peers. And particularly within their specific creative sector. Egos are fragile at the best of time and so these companies spend a considerable amount of time entering awards shows and filing complimentary press releases to keep these people happily floating in their bubble of praise.

Someone completely losing their mind winning a thing.

This extends to the way they behave with clients. They present work that will make them look good. But not necessarily to the client. And certainly not to the business paying for it. Too many design companies (but others are oh-so-guilty too) present work that will help them win awards and sound good in their industry rags. Rather than present work that actually solves the problem facing the brand they are working with. Such is the pull of their peers accolades.

Curiously. This flagrant flying in the face of a more professionally correct behaviour often goes on for quite some time, making the design agency (for example) think all is rosy. The lack of criticism from the other side of the coin actually fuels the agencies misguided thinking.

I’ve heard of agencies actually swallowing their own mind-wash pills so regularly they present decks filled with the details of their office design and ethos only to spend a brief page discussing the possible woes and challenges of the party looking on in hopes of finding a partner.

The great food & drink laid on at pitch won’t last — you know that right?

After the madness of pitchageddon is over. When actually working together for real. When the amazing breakfast pastries & cappuccinos have been replaced with an out of date cereal bar and instant coffee. Curiously, nothing happens. Things continue as they were for quite a while, just without the hospitality. Sure the worry starts to creep client-side — but there’s nothing actually said. But what the client is thinking ‘Oh no. We’ve made a terrible mistake. The agency is a nightmare. Again.’

The reason the madness is enabled to continue is simple. The commissioner of the work is really, really busy working on all facets of the brands challenges. From cash-flow to legal to licensing deals to product availability to customer complaints. So with all the hard deadlines and unflinching facts surrounding the running of an organisation – the colour of the logo or the composition of the website may not be their first priority. In fact it could well be their last concern. So rather than enter into a spicy debate, they’d rather just let it go this time.

That finance meeting tomorrow is far more of a worry than the agencies fickle fancy surrounding the right crop of photograph.

But this is not to say that the agency drift does not affect things. Oh no. They really, really do. In fact every time the agency ignores the real issue and tries to sell in yet another wacky layout or design-purist system they rack up another little shot of hate behind the bar of the client. And it is hate. And it festers. It multiplies and spreads. And when the bar is overflowing with it, the pitch is called.

Every time the agency presents another ‘award winner’

Now sometimes… because to call a pitch means that a client really is at the end of their tether. (It’s a royal pain to call a pitch. They take ages. Are fraught with worry. The decisions are complex and the cost the business a chunk of time and wad of cash.) Being professional is often interpreted as not really saying what you think.

That means the pitch will be delayed to the last possible minute. In other words – called when the new marketing director arrives.

These arrivals generally happen every 18 months after someone either does a great job and gets promoted or poached. Does an awful foot in mouth and gets disposed of. Or gets fed up double guessing what the CEO really thinks.

The Marketing Director notices he’s been in the job 18 months

So all that stored up hate means the agency is dropped like a stone when this newbie turns up. (A good test of an agencies relationship is to look at how many marketing directors they have worked for on a single account – or how long they’ve held an account for). Which is a curious choice in many ways. The SAS have a practice of crouching down. Motionless and silent, simply observing their surroundings for several minutes when dropped into a new location. They don’t speak. They listen. They don’t move. They watch. Then, when acclimatised. They go to work. But with a new CMO… it’s all guns blazing from the moment they touchdown…

The circle of life between agency and client is a repetitive and often idiotic one.

Agency pulls out all the stops. Wins account.

Agency presents work that answers brief.

Wins trust. Does stuff that answers their brief.

Annoys client. Who takes note. But is busy. So says nothing.

Finally marketing director moves on/out and is replaced.

New crew have new friends. Old agency has no bridges left.

Pitch is called.

Exit agency stage right. Enter new hopeful stage left.

Repeat every 18 months.

How is any brand expected to do anything if significant use in a year and a half? Yes, you can brief, develop, create and begin to roll out a new visual brand identity in that time. Just. But it really doesn’t go beyond badging. To really do it well you need double that time. But so often, the person who’s been driving it client-side is off to pastures new after that first burst. The 18month itch is in. And they are out.

It’s the trust thing. Once that’s gone, it’s pretty much sunk.

This is essentially what the client is thinking. You want me to do what?

One thing I’d recommend is thinking very carefully about re-pitching for work when that new marketing director calls for a pitch. The pitch will either be because you’ve screwed up. Or there’s a new kid in town who has his own posse. While these pitches are a tough thing for the client, the agency will really bleed money. Even if it’s just a strategic pitch. (It’s not unusual to see Ad agencies spend upwards of £50,000 on a big pitch). Retaining an account with no love and no relationship is so incredibly unlikely an agency needs to be desperate to go back for more.

We’ve re-pitched and every time regretted it. Even if you win, you’ve lost your position in the fun of it all. The banter is over. The thrill is gone. The game is up. You’ve probably lost a fortune as well as your girlfriend doing the work to retain the work. It’s better to walk on. There’s a lot of work out there. You just need to find it. But while trust is needed, respect is vital. And repitching kills that. Where’s the dignity it going back in a pleasing to be given another chance?

A typical re-pitch. Agency part played by Dog.

There’s one thing that agencies hate, and that’s saying no to work — and they hate even more to be seen as the loser who can’t hack it. So you’ll very rarely see an agency call a client up and ask to be removed from their list of trusted partners. However this is an excellent option if things are going badly…

At SomeOne we’ve always been honest to a fault with clients and have always held up our three golden rules of good times ahead — Do great Work that satisfies both parties (the first and most important rule). Have fun while doing that work, or find a way to have fun after doing that work (always amazes me how, in what is supposed to be a fun business, those involved often forget to have fun and end up closely resembling a brain dead computer operator). And finally get paid fairly (if you start with the money, it all goes wrong, but by doing great stuff, you’ll get asked to do more great stuff, and the money will come — always chase the opportunity, never the cash)

However, on occasion, one of the elements of the ‘golden triangle’ can fall away… and if you can’t rescue it quick, it should ring a golden alarm that sounds like this.

Sometimes, it really is best to walk.

I’ve called up a couple of clients and said that, while we’ve done our very best, we just don’t think it’s working. The odd thing is that every time I’ve done it the client has agreed and offered to fix the issue on their side — no blame was pointed at us and the offending process, person or project was neatly skipped over and life became golden once more. In fact the direct approach has often landed us with better work, better relationships and amazingly, more budget. Yep, we actually got a pay rise for trying to walk away. (Apart from one horrendous exception where we both agreed very quickly that it was a car crash and we both ran for the hills)

An old fashioned agency takes that tough call from the client.

So while firing a client plays havoc with conventional thinking, it’s occasionally a smart move.

Remember though, you really do need to want to walk away, this is a one time offer and try it either as a bluff or more than once and you could end up in a very sticky situation — in other words, fired.

There is of course a very simple answer to all of this age old dance of death. Answer the brief and over-deliver on service.

If you actually care. You have the advantage over those more traditional beasts that roll out the same proposal every time with a wheeze and shudder through their motions. And if both of you care, for each other — yes for each other— then things look good for your future.

We often share our manifesto with prospective clients, both to let them know what floats our boat, but also to open the door to hearing about their agenda. Often the unwritten one. Are they about to sell? Do they want to get up the ladder there? Are they bored to tears? Is the image of the place smashed up or are they on their knees financially? Because if we know the real story, we can help and we can care about it above and beyond simply serving the brief. And if they know what gets us up in the morning, they can play to those strengths. Everyone wins.

If you can find your common goals you’ll work better together

Whatever professional gloss you put on the relationship in commercial creativity—This is a marriage. Agency and client need each other to procreate and then to bring up the offspring.

But, as in life, it’s easy to take each other for granted. To get selfish. To seek self gratification over the bigger task of pushing through tough challenges together.

Both parties must continue to gain respect and trust from each other at every interaction. Because that’s not only the way relationships endure. It’s the ultimate business advantage.


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