From Client to Partner: Tips to Create Lasting Relationships

shutterstock_75203164Like many, I waited tables during college. I worked at a local fine dining establishment, which mostly catered to out-of-towners, but had a fair number of local regulars as well. I could have easily gone from shift to shift making good money, but I quickly realized that the job was far more enjoyable when I started establishing my own “regulars.” Getting requested wasn’t just a matter of offering quick and friendly service, it was the result of making myself an integral part of the dining experience—my diners knew that I could recommend the best wine for their palate or what the chef may be offering off menu. By adding value to their dining experience, I became a trusted consultant, a partner if you will.

Years later as an ad agency account executive, I’m still in the service industry, and the same general concept applies in terms of adding value to the customer experience. Almost any agency can turn around a specific project request, but the good agencies form long-term relationships with clients based on trust. Given shifts in the marketplace, retainer-based agency of record relationships may not be as common, but years-long relationships can be built from project-based accounts by simply following a few guidelines:

  1. Don’t just take orders: Your agency is not Kinko’s, nor should it try to operate like one. Clients hire agencies for their design or strategic acumen (or both) to achieve objectives that serve their best interests. Offer recommendations and provide your perspective for “why” rather than simply asking, “what do you want?”
  2. Look for insights: You typically won’t spend countless hours researching the competitive landscape or digging into industry jargon if you’re not getting paid to do so. But keeping an eye on your client’s marketplace and competition as part of your day-to-day does prime you to speak in an informed way about your client’s business and recommend tactics or storylines they should explore.
  3. Think critically about design: We live in an age where design isn’t something that only luxury brands are thinking about. As marketing and design experts, “because it looks good” should never be a sufficient explanation of design intentions. As a brand advocate and steward, it is up to you to ensure a consistent and meaningful experience for your client’s customers—which means always thinking about the colors, shapes and other design components that define a brand.
  4. Be a good storyteller: Just as you should demonstrate thoughtfulness about design, you should be thinking about the story you’re telling. Whether B2C or B2B, marketing is all human-to-human and we all love a good story. Are you ensuring the stories you’re telling align to the brand? While you may not always be your client’s customer, put yourself in the customer’s shoes to ensure the words resonate.
  5. Become invaluable: By following the above items, you’re well on your way to becoming invaluable.  Beyond these things, it’s the details that matter and have impact. Pick up the phone instead of emailing or, better yet, schedule time for coffee with your clients. Be grateful. Be genuine. Be unexpected.

Becoming a reliable partner helps create an enjoyable and productive working relationship for both you and your clients. Not only can those relationships be long-lasting, but your “regulars” are more likely to refer you to others, resulting in even more happy clients.


Who wants some feedback?

shutterstock_227485012I began my career in advertising right out of school as a [very] green account executive. Like most recent grads, I started my career thinking that I knew way more than I actually did. While I had a graduate degree’s worth of book smarts, it turns out I had few of the real-life skills needed to be truly successful at my craft. Through the years I’ve had the pleasure of working with a number of very talented people, but working with junior staff always reminds me of where I started and those skills that I’ve honed over time. I often think about my first creative concept review…

The creative team had just presented a range of concepts in preparation for a client meeting that was a week away. Each of the senior account members provided their feedback and thoughts on the work. Meanwhile, I was sitting at the back of the room quietly, thinking I was only an audience to “the process” until my boss asked me, “Jonathon, what do you think?” I was caught off-guard and I responded in a mumbled way much as a child does when they try to explain why they’re secretly rummaging through the pantry before dinner.

I didn’t understand how my perspective would be valuable to the team and I certainly didn’t think that I could add anything to what the senior staff had already discussed. Further, I never expected the creative team to even consider my opinion. Fortunately, my trepidation was met with reassurance and encouragement from everyone in the room and I managed to stumble through a few half-coherent thoughts.

While I feel that agencies should foster an environment of constant feedback where everyone’s input is valued, on that day I realized that giving feedback is a learned skill. It is important for senior team members to help coach junior staff (and often clients) through the process to ensure appropriate and actionable feedback is given. Encourage participation, questions and challenges through supportive coaching.

As team members become more comfortable giving feedback and understand its value, the entire team is able to grow and achieve better results. As a learned skill, it is important for feedback givers to remember that comments and thoughts should be structured. To give the best feedback, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Know the objective of the feedback session – knowing the desired outcome of the meeting helps guide the type of feedback you should give. If you’re not told the objective at the beginning, then…

  2. Ask questions – knowing why a specific approach was taken will frame your feedback. If you don’t understand something, ask!

  3. Speak your mind – you are the only person with your unique perspective, so share it. Others should be empowered to challenge your position, but don’t hold back your opinion.

  4. Be honest but supportive – sugarcoating responses doesn’t help challenge people to be their best. That said, it doesn’t help anyone if you’re honesty is brutal (unless you just happen to be a jerk).

  5. Get beyond saying “I don’t like that” – be specific in your feedback, get to the “why” behind your opinion so the next round of changes are informed rather than arbitrary simply because “Jonathon just doesn’t like blue.”

Innovative and creative solutions to projects are the result of teams challenging each other, asking smart questions and giving useful feedback. I know that while there is always room to improve the variety of skills we call upon daily, I feel confident when giving feedback, and know that it is both needed and valued. This doesn’t change the fact that I might not like blue, but at least I can tell you why.

It’s OK to say “No”


The Pontiac Aztek remains a perennial punchline. So much so that when the writers of Breaking Bad wanted a car to exemplify just how much of a loser Walter White is at the start of the series, they gave him the Aztek. The Aztek checked all the right boxes.

As Former General Motors CEO Bob Lutz said in a recent Road & Track interview, the Aztek was born in a company committed to innovation and was a “vehicle that achieved all its internal objectives.” Yet, it still landed on Time Magazine’s 50 Worst Cars of All TimeThe truth is, the Aztek wasn’t a result of bad thinking, it was a result of never hearing “no.”

Says Lutz:

The guy in charge of product development was Don Hackworth, an old-school guy from the tradition of shouts, browbeating, and by-God-I-want-it-done. He said, “Look. We’ve all made up our minds that the Aztek is gonna be a winner. It’s gonna astound the world. I don’t want any negative comments about this vehicle. None. Anybody who has bad opinions about it, I want them off the team.” 

This isn’t just a problem for a major company like GM, it’s a huge problem in the world of communications consultants like HB. We pride ourselves on our collaborative method of doing business. We want our clients to say “HB is our partner and a valuable extension of our team.” It’s also why we often say “no” when a client wants to walk down a path we think would be harmful. Nevertheless, we all easily fall into the trap of doing things just because the client asked. After all, clients pay the bills and if they want it, we do it, right?

While there are certainly times when we can easily say “yes” to a request, we can serve our clients better if we pause to ask smart questions. Who are you trying to reach? What information is this supposed to communicate? What behavior are you hoping to change? How will you measure impact? More importantly, how can we make sure the initiative achieves its goals.  In these cases, diplomacy is key. So is integrity and the willingness to earn our keep by increasing every investment’s likelihood of success.

Maybe the Aztec should serve as a warning to agencies that want to foster a collaborative relationship. When collaborating just means saying yes because the person on the end of the line is “the client,” bad products and even worse marketing campaigns can be the outcome. When we foster a collaborative relationship with our clients where we can feel comfortable saying, “No, but we have an alternative,” award-winning work is likely to result.