Closing the Gap Between Clients and Agencies – The Lost Art of Collaboration

These days the majority of problems that exist between agencies and their clients, the gap between what is needed and what is delivered, can be traced back to one thing – confidence. Or lack of it. A “yes men” culture has emerged, one that sees agencies ask for and respond to briefs, without making any real attempt to understand the bigger picture. Clients need more than production houses that simply “do”. They need collaborative partners, not just suppliers. Agencies that can think as well as act and have the confidence to do so. The key to this is senior team involvement, from the very beginning and throughout the process.

Communication Counts

Everyone understands the importance of client servicing, but getting it right involves a lot more than simply responding to a brief. A ‘wait then do’ approach simply isn’t enough, agencies need to pull their fingers out. While communication methods are evolving at a constant – and to some extent alarming – rate, relationship dynamics haven’t changed in a hundred years. Back in the day you’d pick up the phone, these days technology gets in the way. So much communication is two dimensional now, and that’s inherently dangerous. That’s because accurately gauging a situation is impossible to do over email, you need to speak to each other. The best ideas are only arrived at when you’ve been on a journey together, discussing elements along the way, challenging each other as you go and achieving a meeting of minds as a result.

Relationship Dynamics

There is more than one expert in the room. Never forget that. Step back from the brief and ask what their problems are, you need to engage as equals. Obviously, that can be easier said than done, particularly when agency account leads are often still in the early stages of their careers. That’s why we made a conscious decision to have an unusually top-heavy team; at Initials we’re a 50-strong agency with eight board members. It’s not about having a hierarchical structure, far from it, but it is about being able to offer years of experience. All our senior people are hands on when it comes to accounts, I’d argue providing this level of seniority is more important now than ever.

The person behind the challenge

Personal connections are an essential part of any successful collaboration. They give you a vivid picture of who your client is and what they need from you, to an extent that can’t be obtained via other means. Instead of zeroing in solely on the brief, go back to the person. A fundamental understanding of their role is important. What pressures are they under? How does their supply chain work? When is their bonus due? What language do they use? Heard an acronym for the first time? Find out what it stands for and start using it. It all comes down to investing time in understanding their business better; that, and who they are as a person.

Genuine Understanding

There are much faster turnarounds client-side these days, people move around frequently. That makes it increasingly likely that your client contact won’t have been in post for long. If they have been in post longer they will have more of a vested interest in the brand and are therefore more likely to take a different approach. If someone is new it’s more likely they’ll be looking for immediate solutions to short-term issues. The brief they’ve given you might not even be theirs; it’s just as likely that they inherited it from their predecessor. Someone might have handed it to them and told them to crack on.

This is where agencies have a real opportunity. While your client will have run a handful of campaigns in the past year you’ll have worked on dozens. This means whatever their wider problems might be the chances are you’ll have come across similar issues previously. It’s your job to offer solutions. To answer the brief of course, but also to go beyond it.

The Gap Partnership

Our work for The Gap Partnership is a case in point. The original brief was to fix their website, this evolved into a two-year project that saw us refresh their entire proposition, from their positioning, to their logo, to the interior of their offices worldwide. They knew their website needed work, but that was just one element of wider issues that needed to be addressed. Quickly developing a genuinely collaborative relationship, built on trust in each other and excitement in the work being undertaken, meant we were able to take them where they needed to be by challenging them along the way.

Knowing what needs to be done, and having complete confidence in your ideas, is what clients need when they’re making the big changes that will revolutionise their businesses, whether that’s a new website, a new brand identity, or an entirely new proposition. The importance of turning down work that isn’t right, while pushing for work that is, has far reaching implications for agencies and brands alike. If you have the confidence to bridge the gap, everyone benefits.

Richard Barrett

Managing Director at Initials
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