For nearly 25 years now I’ve worked either in an agency, or as a client managing an agency [but you look so young, I find that hard to belive – Ed]. During that time, some of it in traditional design or advertising, something that I’ve seen far too often is the breakdown of the client/agency relationship.
Shotgun weddings aside (and if you’ve ever had to deal with a large corporate procurement department you’ll know what I mean), like a warring couple, no one intends for it to happen when they swap virtual rings, eat digital cake and embark on their honeymoon.
So what can we all do, no matter what side of the bed we sleep on, to help build and maintain a good, productive working relationship? How do we keep the romance alive, and share thelove?
Yes dear, how awful
In the agency, you don’t see all the wrangling that’s usually been put in by your client contact. The painful extraction of budgets, the protracted negotiations over the deliverables, and if you’re lucky, the teasing out of a brief – it all happens out of agency sight.
The agency bit is often the last link in a chain (more so for design and build, rather than marketing), but your client contact may be pretty beaten up already. They’ve probably had a really bad day at the office. Be nice, support them, and see what you can do to make it a success.
And clients, dumping a quick turnaround, small budget, poorly briefed bit of work on your agency late on a Friday afternoon has consequences (bitter, regretful tears can stain your project manager’s desk something awful).
You wash, I’ll dry
I know it sounds pretty basic, but as a client you’ll get the best results by briefing up work to the best rostered agency who can deliver against it. So don’t give an SEO project to your UX agency and expect a good result. When I've been client side, I’ve always maintained a roster of agencies, all with varied (and sometimes multidisciplined) but specialised skills – design & build, marketing & SEO, testing, usability, technical build, translation, content maintenance, mobile and so on – and briefed work out appropriately.
And as an agency, learn to say “no, I’m sorry, it’s not really something we have the skills in house to do at the moment”. That way, no one can say you didn’t tell them if you have a hitting-the-fan moment.
So, shall I just move the couch right back to where it was at the beginning?
Briefing late, briefing incompletely, and briefing something that you know you’re likely to change is the digital equivalent of suddenly deciding you want to rearranging the furniture in the living room.... and then to change your mind and move it all back....half an hour before your mother is due for lunch. Please, don’t do it. Ever.
And agencies, learn to say “we’ll need to see if that’s going to work first” before you roll up your sleeves and get stuck in.
No, the dress doesn’t make you look fat. Your fat makes you look fat.
Good, constructive feedback is vital to an agency. Without it, everyone is really working blind, and creative execution (either graphic, content or technical) becomes a mixture of guess work and divination. However, just saying to your creative or technical director that “you just don’t like it” or (as has happened to me in the past) “who wrote this, the MD’s dog?” really does fall somewhat short of anything constructive. De-personalising your feedback for both parties is really important - things become much less about fragile egos and more about the job in hand.
A good agency will be under your skin already, know you well, and chances are will produce a piece of work to fit the brief you gave them. After all, noone in an agency wants to spend hours on a piece of work that they know is poor quality, or which is knowingly going to be miles off target. A constructive, honest and trustful dialogue is key to critiquing work – as an agency, if you’re going to go a little off piste tell the client beforehand, prep them, let them influence your direction more closely, that way there are no surprises.
And clients, please be really boringly pedantic when you prepare a brief. If there is no creative wiggle room, them say so right up front. If there is, then work with the agency, talk them through what you think you can get away with together, and what really will end up in the recycling bin in the kitchen.
And notes stuck on the fridge door are never taken constructively. Over the phone or face to face is better from a relationship PoV than trashing something in an email.
That’s it, you’re in the spare room
When things do get tricky, or there’s an issue that needs addressing, sulking and complaining behind each other’s backs to their friends really isn’t going to fix things. [Haven't we had enough of this analogy yet? - Ed.] Get it out in the open, talk about what went wrong, and why. Again, no one, either client or agency, deliberately sets out to fail, so talk about where the failure points were, and work out how best to avoid these in future. And don’t do this in the heat of the moment, nor leave it to fester. Remember; never go to bed on an argument.