From Taboo to Trust: Sweetening the Client-Agency Relationship

Over almost two decades of working with scores of clients and agencies, I’ve witnessed many relationships. As you’d guess, some get sweeter while others sour—and it shouldn’t be any surprise that the sweeter relationships make for better use of time, energy and budgets that are already in short supply in marketing for technology brands. Let’s address a few common taboo topics in client-agency relationships, the underlying fears that make those topics so sensitive, and some tips to help keep us all on the sweeter side of collaboration.

#1: Avoiding the budget

Clients commonly fear:
If I tell them how much money I have, they’ll just spend all of it.
What if I limit the chance to do something greater? I want the best ideas.

Agency folks commonly fear:
Asking about money makes me feel pushy or salesy.
What if I limit my creative team’s ideas by getting a budget set too soon?

Postponing money discussions can often sabotage the creative process, using precious time without producing actionable ideas. It’s an unnecessary risk that we allow because we feel awkward about it.

Maybe this perspective will help. Author and professor David Burkus said, “Creativity doesn’t just love constraints, it thrives under them.” We don’t mind talking about other constraints like deadlines or required assets, but budgets somehow feel different. But in the end, budgets are also just a necessary constraint for anchoring the creative context.

Tip: Discuss creating a budget range and agree to assess ideas on both the lower and higher ends. This will allow a range of thinking and the opportunity to compare and contrast trade-offs.

#2: Unclear creative feedback

Brand managers commonly fear:
I have never done a ____ before; what if I look dumb?
What if I approve the wrong thing?
What if they make me look bad to my team?

Creative teams commonly fear:
What if they reject my idea?
What if they make me look bad?
What if they already know what they want, and I’m just spinning wheels?

This situation repeats itself many times over the course of a project. The creative process is a practice in vulnerability, and we all fear rejection at the core. So we overcompensate in many counterproductive ways, including:

  • Beating around the bush to avoid hurt feelings, postponing the real issues until it might be too late to adjust.
  • Overselling our personal perspective, closing our minds to other ideas with false confidence or bravado. This undermines the potential to build better ideas from diverse perspectives.
  • Going into “fix mode” to avoid the discussion in the name of saving time. Agencies start taking orders, and clients get frustrated thinking they have to give them—meanwhile, we all stop solving for the right idea as a group.

Some tips for keeping the process open and productive:

  • Assume the best intent when discussing creative. Takes suspicions out of it.
  • Ask open-ended questions to uncover the assumptions and insights behind each solution—it’s important for staying aligned to the overall strategy.
  • Refer to the brief. It is our shared accord and a powerful tool for evaluating creative without triggering emotional responses.
  • Prioritize direct conversations over email chains in the early rounds. Humans are social animals, and more personalized engagement can make for better collaboration—and ideas!

#3: The disagreement

Clients commonly fear:
What if I don’t seem like I’m in charge?
What if they don’t respect me?

Agency folks commonly fear:
What if I make them mad?
What if they don’t want to work with me anymore?
What if they reject my idea?

A productive creative process involves a lot diverse viewpoints. But that also means we’re bound to disagree. And again, like feedback, our fears are anchored in rejection.

Gandhi said, “Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress.” That perspective alone is enough to encourage disagreement throughout the process.

Some tips for keeping disagreements productive:

  • Again, assume the best intent.
  • Express encouragement for differing ideas.
  • Acknowledge a differing opinion. That doesn’t mean you agree, but it affirms you heard the other party.
  • Take ownership of your position: frame your comments with “In my experience…” Avoid declaring a position that accidentally speaks for all.
  • Reaffirm the group’s goal of the meeting or the collaboration. The foundation of one agreement makes other disagreements feel more palatable.
  • Seek a compromise to keep momentum. We’re all creative people, after all.

For more on this topic, listen to our Ignite podcast with former Samsung Electronics client Joe Fraler.

And subscribe on the right sidebar for more insightful perspectives and posts from the world of marketing for technology brands, services and products. Happy collaborating!