This morning on the way to work I noticed that the light had changed to green – just a bit sooner than the car in front of me. The result wasn’t catastrophic, but it was a little messy and uncomfortable for everyone involved.
That’s what it can be like when agencies get ahead of their clients on strategic and creative direction. Sometimes it’s just a little ahead of where the client is ready to be, resulting in a fender bender. Other times, and we’ve all heard the stories, the lack of coordination between the parties can result in a major collision.
Pushing the boundaries of what the client already knows is core to the agency-client relationship. It’s often why clients choose agencies: To bring fresh thinking, new energy, creative advances and informed strategy.
Yet every day agencies forget that there is no single stance for them to take in their client relationships. It’s not just lead, lead, lead. The best account management practice is determining whether to lead, follow or accompany.
Leading: Seems that everyone wants to lead all the time. Imagine the chaos that would cause if it ever happened. Fact is, it’s something everyone wants to do but few accomplish often enough. Leadership is not strong-arming your client into a direction it’s not prepared to embrace. Instead, leadership is bringing well-grounded new information and perspectives. It is persuading. It is seeing beyond and translating that into a vision to which they can aspire – and to which you can lead them. Lead as often as you and your client can agree on that role. But always lead with respect.
Following: No matter what your ego tells you, your client is not wrong, uniformed or just plain dumb all the time. (Read an earlier post on this topic, “Think you’re smarter than your clients?“) Sometimes you should follow their lead, and not just because they own the purse strings. They often know their own climate for risk better than you, are more likely to know their particular marketplace best and above all know what they can get through approvals among the higher-ups. They’ll use your strategy/creative smarts plenty if you use your political smarts to earn that. One caution: By all means follow when it’s right, but following too often could relegate you to pure vendor status.
Accompanying: A good deal of lip service is given to partnering and collaborating with clients. During the pitch, that is. “Ooooh. It will be heaven on earth when our agency partners/collaborates with your team to create beautiful music,” the siren song goes. Yet how often does that actually play out. Not as often as perhaps it should, and rarely as often as it should with intent. There is room for genuine cooperation despite some agency styles based on a superior-subservient worldview. Genuine partnership can be the key to a trusting and lasting relationship.
Lead. Follow. Accompany. When it comes to agency-client relationships (or any relationship for that matter), the real leader knows when to assume the appropriate role.