A view from Hugh Fletcher

The client/agency divide: mutual respect is the key to symbiosis

Both agencies and their clients need to respect each other's expertise to work together successfully, writes the former Audi UK head of digital.

Six months ago I jumped ship from client to agency. Perhaps the biggest gift of this change has been the ability to view agency and client interactions from two perspectives.

This change has given me a unique insight into why achieving symbiotic client/agency relationships is so challenging, and it would seem that one of the major contributing factors is a lack of perspective, understanding and appreciation.

To help my transition, I’ve been reading as much as possible, and recently found a book called The Unprincipled by David Croydon about how he set up and ran a marketing promotion agency.

Perhaps its most interesting and revealing insight is the disdain with which Croydon holds most of his clients.

Now Croydon is clearly an intelligent man and it may be that the concepts and characters are exaggerated, but his attitude is representative of why symbiotic relationships are so hard to achieve – namely he judges the ability and intelligence of those on the other side of the "divide" uniquely from his point of view.

The following assessment of marketing clients was particularly revealing:

"…there are two types of marketer… the first type has worked in several other departments of their corporation and is appointed from within as a safe pair of hands, even though they know next to nothing about marketing… the second type is the career marketer – much younger, probably a graduate, who has chosen marketing because it seems more creative and exciting than most departments in commercial business… This lot know it all, or think they do… they like the (relatively small) power they wield, and enjoy the many invitations they receive to lunch, dinner, and a whole heap of other entertainments."

So which one are you? Both types seem to be entirely devoid of any expertise whatsoever. Is that really a fair assessment of all marketing clients? My experience tells me it’s not.

In Croydon’s defence, this negative perception is not the preserve of agencies; it’s a disease which afflicts clients too. Moans about the quality of the brief and lack of client imagination are as frequent as accusations of limited commercial understanding and blue-sky bullshit of agencies.

So why, when both sides should be working together, do these feelings exist? I think the most important element is that neither side really sees the full picture.

I’m not saying it’s impossible, just that people are more inclined to concentrate on their areas of expertise and knowledge, and this disdain is frequently used as a defence mechanism to hide what isn’t understood – be that agency or client-side. But shouldn’t we drop this pretence, deflate our egos and swallow our pride?

What I’m advocating is trust and understanding. I’m advocating trying to see a situation from someone else’s point of view. That’s easier said than done, but it is the route to better relationships. Just taking a moment to think why someone is acting a certain way can enable you to understand their actions.

Mutual trust and understanding is needed. Agencies need to trust that their client knows its business best. They need to trust that the client is doing the best job they can based on the culture, pressures and organisation of their business – most of which will be shielded from the agency. They need to trust that the client does have expertise to bring.

On the flipside, clients need to trust the creativity and insights that their agencies can offer. They need to trust that a fresh approach may help with new ideas. They need to trust that the cross-organisational, cross-industry experience gained from agency life is invaluable in the cross-sector pollination of ideas.

But most of all, everyone needs to remember that everyone else is a person, trying to do the best they can. The best relationships I ever had with agencies were when I viewed them not as organisations but as people. Once we started to view each other as people with skills and insights to bring, we started to be mutually successful.

Now I know what you’re all thinking;  this utopian view is somewhat muddied by the fact that one party is paying the other, and ultimately when a service is being procured, it is the right of the budget holder to judge the services they are receiving against their expectations.

True. However, my experience tells me that the best relationships are also those where the exchange of money becomes secondary to a mutually beneficial exchange of information and mutual success.

Agencies can help businesses grow commercially. Companies can help agencies grow commercially and the best way to do this is through respect, understanding, and full utilisation of each other’s skills and knowledge. The less energy expended on low level sniping about levels of expertise the better.

Hugh Fletcher is digital business consultant at Salmon. He was previously head of digital at Audi UK.