Any kind of relationship requires work to be successful and long-lasting. If either party becomes complacent then the quality of the relationship is likely to deteriorate.
The warning signs are clear: Pants will start being left lying around the house. Wet towels on the bathroom floor. Overflowing rubbish bin in the kitchen. These little things might start to grate.
It’s the same for relationships between agencies and their clients: There is the glow of the honeymoon period after winning the work but this will tend to fade over time.
Updates will be less frequent. Results might dwindle. Creative work will lack its original edge.
Lots of partnerships will plough on even if things aren’t working as well as they should. This is often due to one key senior agency/client relationship holding things together.
From my experience, this scenario is more common when the agency is operating in a space that is over saturated with undifferentiated businesses. Why would a client make a change if they feel the service they can get elsewhere is going to be largely the same as they are getting already? In this scenario, when a change is instigated, it tends to be driven by the desire to find a cheaper alternative.
Is this healthy?
The agency feels happy because they are continuing to make reoccurring revenue but are they being challenged to do their best work? Probably not.
The implications of this relationship are likely to have a knock on effect to other parts of the business. As far as the agency is concerned, the relationship is successful. They have no reason to believe otherwise.
Most agencies will be looking to replicate successful relationships when it comes to winning new business. If the model for this isn’t as successful as it appears, you aren’t putting your best foot forward and could be setting yourself up for failure on the new business front too.
The client in this kind of relationship also feels happy but for different reasons. For them, it’s about comfort, ease and the perceived lack of different options. If the agency is doing an OK job and similar suppliers are ten a penny – why go through the hassle of changing things (other than to find a cheaper alternative)? Sounds reasonable but the client is almost certainly not getting the best out of the arrangement.
I know this dynamic is going on more than we might think. It feels safe, cosy and unchallenging for both parties but is this status quo really helping anyone?
I don't think so.
The Wider Problem
At the root of this kind of relationship is positioning (or lack thereof).
A well-positioned agency will be employed for their expertise. Chemistry or the personal relationships central to the partnership might be a factor but as the relationship evolves, the agency’s expertise and the value they create should be what keeps things going.
An undifferentiated firm may put extra emphasis on the chemistry to compensate for the fact they aren’t doing anything particularly unique. Business can be won with chemistry alone but it’s starting things out on the wrong path and there is a distinct danger the relationship will lead to the comfortable stage mentioned above. We now know this doesn't help anyone.
When Clients Become Friends
Relationships are important but it’s much more difficult giving negative feedback to someone you see as a friend. The best business relationships come from a place of mutual respect, trust and honesty. These are all elements of friendship but this is somehow different.
One example that springs to mind is the relationship between Steve Jobs and Lee Clow (former CEO of Chiat/Day). They probably became friends eventually but this wasn’t what made their work together successful.
"He was always demanding that [Apple's advertising] be better, always demanding that it be breakthrough, different—'Ah, that looks like shit like everybody else does,'"
- Lee Clow, former CEO of Chiat/Day
Their relationship was built on trust and honesty. This is an extreme example as Steve Jobs was an incredibly exacting individual but his drive meant Apple got the most out of the relationship and Chiat/Day kept them as a client for decades. This simply wouldn’t have happened if either party became too comfortable.
I’m not saying agencies can’t be friendly with their clients but it shouldn’t be the thing that holds things together. If this is the case, it could be an indication of issues elsewhere in the partnership.
What happens if you think you’re in an overly comfortable relationship with a client?
You have a few options:
1. Do nothing. Keep plodding along until one of you (usually the client) says ‘I can’t do this anymore’.
2. Break up. This is less likely to be instated by the agency but there is a world where this might happen.
3. Do the work. Think back to why you got together in the first place and reflect on how things may have evolved since. Review your positioning and ask ‘Do we still click?’ If not, it might be time to move on.
Option 1 or 3 is where most people will land but the third option is the correct course of action. In this instance, identifying the overly comfortable relationship is a catalyst to address the more critical issue of a weak or outdated positioning.
The client relationship is merely a symptom. Take note.
Without the hard work required to strive for a better positioning, nothing will change. You might keep the client for another month, year or longer but the rot has already set in. If you do nothing, new clients will be harder to come by and these relationships will inevitably suffer the same fate.
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