The Failed Art of Client Relationship Building

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Of the many frothy messages floating up from the beaches of Cannes last week, where agencies and clients from around the world met to celebrate their industry and each other, the headline above struck me as a telling reminder of the hollow core at the center of much of the marketing communications business today.

The Cannes Lion awards honor exceptional creativity across the advertising and design world and it is no small achievement to return home with an award from among the thousands of entries competing across multiple categories. But for all of the self-congratulatory fizz surrounding the winners, and the extravagance of the countless events, parties, dinners and receptions where client-agency schmoozing is supposed to build deep and abiding relationships, the reality appears to be quite different back here on planet Earth.

According to a new USA Today/RPA survey reported last week in MediaWeek, the state of most client-agency relationships—the part measured by simple interpersonal communications—is woefully underserved at present. Among the senior marketing and agency pros queried, virtually all agreed the most effective work happens when clients trust their agencies. Yet over half of the surveyed clients believed their agencies were actually more interested in creative awards than in solving their business problems.

When it came to judging the ROI on their agency investments, the discrepancies were even more pronounced: 76% of the agency executives claimed they were good at demonstrating ROI, but only 40% of the clients concurred! As the warden in “Cool Hand Luke” famously liked to say, “What we got here is a failure to communicate.” Sad and ironic considering we’re all supposedly in the communications business!

There was a time when the great ad agencies actually invested in training their young account execs in the fine art (and critical importance) of building client relationships. This, of course, was back in an era when clients and agencies actually had 20 and 30 year+ professional associations. Today, of course, any client who stays with its agency more than a few years seems a notable exception to the rule. Could there possibly be a correlation here somewhere between proper client management training and evaluation and actually having long-term clients?

Tom Peters, famous management expert and author of the industry tome In Search of Excellence, puts it clearly: “Today’s wisest companies are those that are tops at consciously investing in relationships – steadily, over time with purpose and passion. But even the stellar, pioneering outfits don’t try to measure them– and that is a mistake.” Given the current costs, intense competitive pressures and ever lower odds of seeking out and winning new accounts by marketing communications agencies of every stripe, it seems astonishing that so little time and effort is expended today in effectively building clients vs. wooing them.

One could confidently argue it is far less costly to invest in the fine art of growing existing clients vs. constantly chasing after new ones. It’s not overly complicated, but like anything else worth doing, it requires some discipline and insight. Here’s what Relationship Audits & Management, one of the leading consultancies in measuring effective agency/client partnerships, suggests:

  • Encourage regular and transparent feedback between agency & client
  • Empower / appoint relationship managers within your business
  • Hold regular relationship reviews
  • Involve agency partners in what is measured
  • Offer agency partners anonymity– the opportunity to speak “off the record”
  • Appoint an independent third party to review and assess the relationship on a consistent schedule

Maybe one day there will be a Cannes award for “most creative and effective agency/client relationship?” THAT would be one gold Lion you could probably take to the bank!

Read the full article in MediaWeek:

To learn more about Relationship Audits & Management:


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