why delivering ‘What the client wants’ is a slippery slope

I wrote 18 months ago about how agency account management was increasingly becoming agency project management and that the art of account handling or client service was being lost. It’s safe to say that the tide has still not turned.

I’ve recently worked with an agency to deliver training not only to improve their account handler’s creative brief writing skills but to improve the strategic added value that the client services team was adding (or in some cases not adding) to the client brief before it hit Creative. Delivering exactly ‘what the client wants’ and no more is not really what clients really want – otherwise they’d just inhouse all their communications needs. The research and analysis legwork (however modest) carried out by the agency and the resulting insight and strategy are what will help to deliver the client brief’s objectives, not “They’d like a big photo of a tractor on the homepage and a flashing call to action in the top right-hand corner”.

Delivering the minimum possible added-value doesn’t just result in worse creative work that then works less effectively, it also sets a precedent for an ‘exactly as I say’ relationship between client and agency. As a freelance, recently I’ve experienced clients try to rewrite copy lines in the middle of a creative presentation and had a client pick up a handy flipchart pen and scribble on top of freshly presented creative with his ‘improvements’. Neither of those client relationships should ever have been allowed to get to that point.

Young account handlers are effectively being ‘trained’ not to (respectfully) challenge clients, to be Yes Men/Women and to do whatever the clients wants so long as it gets the work out of the door on time and on budget. They’re being trained to act like a supplier not a professional advisor and therefore they get treated as a mere supplier by their clients.

But that isn’t the way to build long term client relationships and it certainly isn’t the way to add value and aid client retention. It’s all very well to say that kind of relationship is built by more senior account handlers, but these whatever-you-say-Mr-Client account execs and managers will be account directors themselves in a few years, but without the skills or gumption to build a mutually respectful client relationship.

I’ve recently been working with some very senior industry figures (in a team of four I was effectively the junior with only 20 years’ experience!) and the amount of client contact they actively sought out was refreshing – over just a couple of weeks there were conference calls, skypes, facetimes, actual face to face meetings and even a client/agency team dinner. The result of course was that they quickly got inside their client’s heads and had their trust to gently push the envelope. Which will, of course, result in better, more effective work.

It makes me want to put a sticker on every account exec, account manager and project manager’s laptop reading FFS, just talk to them.

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