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The key to great client relationships? Don’t forget your toothbrush

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How do you ensure a healthy client-agency relationship?

There is no hard and fast rule of course, and different approaches may work for different teams. Some are content with keeping client relationships to just feedback calls and general meetings. Others, like the team at Bokeh, prefer more transparency and openness of communication. Because there cannot be a great project without a human connection.

We reached out to David Bates, CEO and creative director at Bokeh, to hear his opinion on the topic.

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Photo by Crowd

Rebuilding the client-agency relationship

Our team once slept on the floor of Airbnb’s headquarters following a late night of work. I can’t say this is something we do often, but I can say it’s something we would do and will do when we need to.

When I shared this story with a friend - a 20-year industry veteran and agency leader - he said that while he’s spent many a night working late at the office, his contact with clients was generally limited to presentations and feedback calls. Communication was always structured, buttoned-up, “professional.” It occurred to me that perhaps our background in production taught Bokeh something that comes less naturally to agencies: hands-on mutually-driven collaboration. As tired and overused as this c-word is, there’s something to be said about working side-by-side with clients and not siloed in our own agency space. To be seen as more than a vendor, as an integral part of our clients’ team.

This approach may be idealistic, but we’ve seen, time and again, that our transparency with clients and desire to collaborate in the truest sense of the word help us win and do better work. While we don’t claim to have all the tools for success, we have developed several principles that work for us. These include: sell problem-solving, not solutions; don’t claim infallibility; and function as an extension of the client.

Sell problem-solving, not solutions

We can sit in our offices and theorize as much as we like about what a client wants, what their process is, or what answer will best address their business’s problem, but until we actually put ourselves in their shoes, it’s all hypothetical. So we immerse ourselves in their environment and perspective. We don’t pretend to know how they tick, and we don’t peddle pre-packaged snake-oil solutions. We ask questions. Questions like, ​What is the review process?​ ​How do you measure outcomes?​ ​How can we make your job easier?

Our goal is to confront hoops and tackle problems together. To find solutions that our clients can take back to their team, putting them in positions of success. We spend time at the beginning of each project learning about our clients’ internal processes and adapting our workflow to complement it.

Don’t claim infallibility

It’s easy for agencies and creatives to become preoccupied with their roles and the posturing that traditionally accompanies them. There is just too much ego. We tend to forget or dismiss the insight, drive, and creativity of the people – the clients – who sit across from us at the table.

There is just too much ego

People with their own ideas, and constraints – shareholders and bottom lines they have to answer to. It’s easy for us as agencies to think, “We know best. That’s why you’re coming to us.” But the challenge, and what produces the most successful working relationships, is to keep ourselves humble by acknowledging that our clients are human too. They also care about the work and share the same goals. This understanding helps foster a sense of trust between ourselves and our clients.

Work like an extension of the client

We don’t see ourselves as a separate entity from our clients. Instead, we function as an extension of their brand, marketing, strategy, art department, production and design teams. It’s why we sometimes sleep on their floors or how a line can get updated in five minutes instead of five rounds of feedback.

We tell our clients to put us on speed dial. Seriously.

Our goal is to have the easiest and most seamless means of communication. To reduce the layers of accounts, project management, and production so our clients can work directly with our creatives. Nothing gets lost in translation. We all work on the same level allowing ideas to flow freely and criticism to be expressed with candor. Two entities, one team, the same objectives.

Over the past 7 years, we’ve learned that each of these tenants is rooted in listening. Asking the right questions, finding what it is your client wants, and needs, to be successful and fostering open unadulterated communication. This last point is key. It’s what garners trust. It allows you to show passion, and passion fuels admiration. It lets clients know that you care about more than the bottom line. You care about them and helping them achieve their goals.

And that’s when the real work can begin.


David Bates is CEO & creative director at Bokeh. Header image: Davide Saraceno,
 

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