Six tips for building a great agency-client relationship

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The best agency-client relationships are built on a foundation of partnership and collaboration, according to Denise Williams, director of strategic marketing at Goodman Marketing Partners. “Agencies are people who know their business because of the variety and sheer volume of clients they serve,” she says. “Clients who recognize the value of the agency are in the best position to get the best work.”

Williams has learned a lot about the factors impacting client-agency relationships. In her work, Williams leverages two decades of direct marketing and agency account management experience partnering with b-to-b and b-to-c clients. Her background includes stints on both the client and agency sides, giving her a first-hand understanding of what it takes to deliver from an agency perspective while also knowing what keeps clients up at night. She says the ability to put herself into her client's shoes has helped her see hundreds of clients through the highs and lows of business cycles, from upsizings and downsizings, to new management, acquisitions, mergers, booms, busts and recessions.

While both parties hold responsibility for establishing and maintaining a quality relationship, Williams points out that agency account people must be willing to work on improving the client relationship every day, “in ways large and small.” Here are some of the key insights Williams shares.

The relationship rules. “It used to be the average life of a client-agency relationship was 9.5 months. It's less than that now,” Williams says. “To maintain these relationships, agencies must continually prove their value over and over.”

Agency account managers must steep themselves in the brand. Williams says she uses her clients' products and services to improve her understanding and share in the customer experience. “I work with ADT, so I have ADT service. When I worked with Verizon, I used a Verizon phone. I want to use and experience and feel the brand. People who don't do that miss out on a lot of learning,” she says.

Conversation trumps fancy footwork. Collaboration and partnerships are based on collaboration and meaningful discussions, not entertainment. “Let's put away our dancing shoes,” says Williams. “Don't expect agencies to ‘pitch' you and ‘sizzle' you and ‘wow' you. [Good relationships are] about conversation.”

Follow up every meeting, every call, every decision. Williams says some agency account staffers assume closure has been reached and fail to follow up with clients.  Although direct marketing work is often about tests and trying out best practices, good account management practices like conference reports never go out of style. “Put it down in writing. You're telling the client, ‘I hear you,' and ‘are we all on the same page?'” explains Williams.

Clients get what they give. “Every product exists to solve a problem. If you don't know the audience or its hot points, how can you create solution messaging?” asks Williams, who adds that agencies and clients can work together to determine those answers. “Sending over focus group documents with no conclusions and then asking for a plan isn't going to work.”  

Account managers must be the advocate and voice of the client. If an account manager battles colleagues, the battle should be about doing a better job for the client, according to Williams. “Everything should be about the client. If I don't like the work product, how can I sell it to others?” she says. “I am the voice of the client. The agency's purpose of being is to deliver.”

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