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Can’t we all just get along? Tips for clients, agencies, and creatives.

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Are you an asshole? Hopefully not. And if you’re reading this blog, chances are good that you’re definitely not! But that doesn’t mean that we all can’t use some helpful tips and insights on how we can not only not be an asshole, but also be the best creative partners we can be, on every project, every day – no matter which side of the table we sit on.  I’m personally very excited about this post because this is the sort of content that this blog is all about, and we’re really going to dive deep into both the mind of the client AND the agency about what really goes on behind the scenes during each side’s creative process. I recently moderated a panel at the Promax/BDA conference in New York, an annual industry event that is attended by marketers and creatives from client and agency sides of the TV business.  Our panel – titled “Don’t Be An Asshole: Strengthening the Agency/Client Dynamic” featured a bi-partisan group of both clients and agencies talking about the importance of strong relationships (and of course, not being an A-hole) in this critical creative partnership.  We also took the discussion further by creating and sharing an industry survey that polled both agencies and clients. Thank you to the four talented creative executives on the panel who shared their valuable perspectives: Scott Edwards, SVP, On-air Promo and Operations, FOX Broadcasting; Melissa King, Creative Director, Drama, Movies and Specials, ABC Entertainment Marketing; Jordan Hayman, Creative Director, Broadcast Division, AV Squad; and Elizabeth Kiehner, Founding Partner of Thornberg and Forester. And lastly, it should be reinforced that “agency” in this discussion can mean any external partner – from the largest Advertising Agency down to a solo DP – these truths hold no matter how large or small the partner may be!

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LET’S FOCUS ON THE NEGATIVE. (CLIENTS FIRST)

Any good therapy session such as this should start with some good old fashioned bitching, right? So we started off the discussion with each ‘side’ listing out some of their major frustration points with the other. Besides being fun to just wallow a bit, it’s also extremely important to understand the issues before going about solving/strengthening the dynamic. Going around the table, starting with agencies, here were some of the top issues (in no particular order):

1. Lack of clarity on approval process. Timing, who approves things, general steps of approval.

2. When an agency is called a “vendor.”  Vendors sell cotton candy.

3. Being disrespectful when giving notes.  (Don’t be an asshole.)

4. No advance warning about project challenges.  Be upfront when you know a project will incur late nights, weekend work, etc.

5. When the client asks for freebies, discounts or other budget issues.

6. Poor operations – slow payment, delay in asset deliveries, etc.

Each of these issues is fairly self-explanatory – it’s about clear communication and respect, ultimately.  Clients need to realize that agencies aren’t in business just to make art – they gotta pay the bills and their employees. Saying that out loud to the audience is the first step in my mind to making them aware that you can’t ask agencies (or photographers, writers, designers, filmmakers or any smaller external creative group/individual) to work harder and longer than the initial scope of work called for – then ask it to cost less money. It reminded me of a funny meme I stumbled across recently:

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It’s stuff like this – asking for freebies or having unrealistic expectations – that drives me crazy and gives clients a bad name. Heck, it’s one reason I write this blog!  And truth be told, of course those situations will naturally come up where a client needs help on budget – and in those situations, the clients should ask themselves – “have I been clear and fair from the beginning of this project?”  In some cases, I do believe that it’s learned behavior on the clients’ part because too often agencies will find ways to cut budgets and reduce overages – but that can quickly be abused. Having a healthy, honest dialogue along the way and respecting that your agency needs to make money to continue to be successful and help you is critical.

Here were some of the direct quotes from the larger agency community from our survey. Some very similar issues/complaints to be found.

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AND WHAT DO CLIENTS HATE MOST?

Transitioning to the client side, some of the complaints were related to the actual creative process, but many were focused more on the process of how agencies secure business. Here are some of the quotes from clients in the survey.

AGENCY SLIDE

What we found in the survey was that the #1 biggest complaint was over-solicitation for work by agencies or reps for agencies. Cold calls and emails are a huge issue. And speaking from experience in this matter, clients will get literally dozens of calls or emails a week from a host of agencies – it can really be too much, to the point that clients may screen calls, or see phone numbers they don’t know to let it go to voicemail. Never mind that even if you DO want to work with that company, maybe what you are working on right then just isn’t the right fit, so you feel bad constantly rejecting people. But an interesting paradox surfaced when we looked at the responses from agencies in the survey.  34% of creative shops say that their #1 method of landing new business was…cold calls and emails. So what can we make of this? If the number one complaint of clients is the #1 way that agencies get business…no wonder issues arise. But the panel all agreed that ultimately, it’s about forming relationships. That’s a huge deciding factor, and once agencies are fully aware of it, perhaps the solicitation style and methods will change.  Build relationships – and if you are really trying to get your foot in the door with a new client, ask yourself if there’s a more creative way to do it.  Ultimately, it’s a buyers market – there are more agencies than clients – so you’ve got to find ways to distinguish your product as well as your method for selling yourself.

Panel

Moderator and panelists in action. From left to right: Andy Baker, Elizabeth Kiehner, Jordan Hayman, Melissa King & Scott Edwards.

Other issues that clients have also involve budgets – situations where concepts are pitched that are larger than the budget assigned to the project, nickel and diming the client, or even not giving heads up about overages. Melissa King, Creative Director from ABC, reiterated the critical need for communication on these sorts of details. “If the agency is in a situation where they’re going to incur overages beyond the budget as a result of my notes or weekend work – let me know that. I may be able to prioritize some notes or tell you that you can wait until next week to address – but either way give me advanced warning before sending that overage invoice.”

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Ok, so we laid out the issues, the complaints, the biggest grievances. And many of these are able to be improved or solved, and some are simply a result of not fully understanding how the other side operates. The example I use all of the time is when agencies complain about how long it can take to get feedback from a client – but they may not realize that their client has 5 more clients above THEM in the food chain, and it takes time to pitch them work, get notes, and go to the next client, and so forth. Now, that client should also clearly communicate that process back to the agency, but certainly understanding that those layers of approval exist would probably go a long way to make the agency feel better about their client. So, let’s talk first about the client’s process – and that can start with understanding their decision-making process. Polling clients, we asked them why they pick certain agencies, and what influenced that decision. Here’s what we heard. (Apologies for the use of “vendor” in the following slides!)

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That list clearly shows that relationships are essential. Of course, that begs the question of how you establish that relationship in the first place, but at least we know that over solicitation isn’t a good place to start! All of these reasons in the list involve people communicating collaboratively, reasonably, and fairly. And here are some of the factors involving hiring agencies for the FIRST time.

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Now, there weren’t 99 other things listed before phone/email solicitation, (we took creative liberty there) but the point was that according to clients, it’s not a real factor in the decision-making process.  Being reminded by reps or business development people that ‘we exist’ via phone and email might not have the desired effect you’re looking for.  Another subject that came up often in the survey was item #3 in the list above – the in-person pitch. If you DO get that opportunity to showcase your work directly or in person to the client, how should you handle it?  That is a huge chance to show your work, display your company’s strengths, and build a relationship. And we heard some more great feedback from clients about best practices for those pitches.

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There are some real truths in that list above, and one I can attest to is the doing your homework. Melissa remarked on the panel that she’d had agencies come and present their work to her team (which only produces marketing work for dramatic series on ABC) that was comedic – which is of no use to her. Know your audience, their content, and previous work. Watch the channel or know the content. It shows you did your research, and leaves no doubt about how hard you’ve worked to nail the pitch.

THE SECOND PARADOX.

In that last comment on pitch advice, we heard clients saying “don’t tell me you can do everything well.” And in our second interesting paradox of the survey, when we asked agencies to describe themselves, 35% of them (the large majority) described themselves as promo shops that “dabble in everything.”  So basically, clients want agencies to tell them what they do BEST – and agencies tell clients they do everything. Why is that? “Definitely, the fear of ‘missing out’ on business is a big reason” said Elizabeth. “Agencies are afraid that if they sell themselves as one thing, they won’t get a chance to get their foot in the door.”  Her agency, Thornberg and Forester, has worked hard to focus their business, and it has actually helped them get more business with clients. Scott Edwards (FOX) remarked that in some cases, he hires companies MORE when they have a greater focus on selling their strengths. “I may not hire them for EVERY job, but they’ll be the first I will turn to when I have a project that suits what they’re good at.”  And I totally concur with that – I hire a lot of different agencies for work at Nat Geo – but when I have a big shoot project, I know who does that really well, and I am more inclined to hire those specialists because the end result will always be better than a generalist who does everything pretty well. So ask yourself when pitching your company, agency or even yourself – what are you good at, and what are you BEST at? That’s an important distinction to make to your clients.

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THE ELUSIVE ‘GOOD’ CLIENT.

We’ve all heard that phrase before “So-and-so is a good client” – but we all wondered – what makes one client better than another? Of course, there’s the all-important and seemingly obvious “don’t be an asshole” advice. But drilling down a bit more, what are things that agencies admire in their own “good clients”?  Turning again to our survey, we asked agencies to list out their favorite things and rank them in order. Here’s what we heard.

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#1 – this cannot be overstated enough. Clarity in your communication, whether about your internal approval process, in your creative brief (assuming there IS one), in your notes, feedback, everything. Be clear, and direct. Don’t dance around tough criticism – agencies we heard from more often than not want to hear it so that they can nail it for you. Not just for the obvious reason of wanting to do a good job, but the secret of many successful agencies, directors, photographers, designers – whomever – is repeat business. And they’ll only get to that point by delivering great work.

I thought the second-ranked attribute of a good client was interesting as well – being tough, but getting the most out of the agency to get the best work. That also speaks to honesty – being clear what works and doesn’t work for you and pushing to areas you never expected creatively.

CONCLUSION.

Ultimately, agencies want to help the clients – and to do great work. Jordan Hayman from AV Squad summed it up very well on our panel: “It’s all pretty simple – you’re going to do your best work and get the best work when you’re more collaborative, respectful and understanding of the other side’s process, pain points and politics. And from an agency perspective, all we want to do is make you look good.”  Hopefully, this post has helped reiterate some common themes discussed here before – and not being an asshole is near the top of that list! A huge thank you to my four collaborators on this panel for their insights and sharing what has worked for them in their careers. It was a blast to speak to a big audience about these very important issues, and a big thank you to Promax/BDA for not only the courage of having a panel with the word “Asshole” in it, but also to help give a larger platform to this topic. I’ll leave you with two more slide from our presentation, which includes more quotes from the survey about successful collaborations. Thanks for reading, and as always, please share this with others if you enjoyed it.

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