If you’ve been in business for any amount of time, you’ve seen that some client relationships are better—or progress more smoothly—than others.
I think this largely has to do with expectation setting.
Too often, business relationships employ power dynamics that are detrimental to their overall success. They’re viewed as win/lose or subject/object, when they should be viewed as synergistic and mutually beneficial.
Collaborative relationships—especially in the agency world—are ones where each party understands the integral role they play in the engagement and shows up to perform that role to the best of their ability.
In that sense, the agency and client roles in a project are interdependent.
To effect the outcome, we need you, and you need us.
But this is precisely why we both chose to work together in the first place. There are lots of agencies out there, and lots of clients, too.
So if we’re choosing each other and making a commitment to work together for a certain amount of time, then we should do so with our eyes wide open.
In an effort to clear up some common misconceptions, here are a few of the things we’ve learned over the years about what makes a good agency-client relationship.
I can feel you cringing.
But notice how I didn’t say that you shouldn’t question us or that you shouldn’t challenge us. Because you can. And you should.
What I mean is that it’s important for you to remember that this is the work we’ve trained for and went to school for and performed for many other clients in prior engagements. It’s the work we’ve built our reputation on. The work for which we’ve sacrificed. The work that has defined who we are as an agency.
Out of all the work in the world that we could have focused on, this is the work that we’ve chosen to do, in this particular industry, for clients just like you.
This makes us uniquely qualified to lead you to the best, most creative solution to your challenge, even if that solution stretches you.
So let us lead in the engagement. Question us and challenge us, too, but be sure to trust us as well.
After all, our fate is tied to yours.
Perhaps the idea of transparency around your budget is unnerving. After all, there’s a long-held belief among some people that revealing your budget to your agency somehow puts you at a disadvantage.
However, if you spend even a few minutes thinking about this, you’ll likely realize that it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
When asked why they won’t reveal their budget, some clients respond by saying, “Because the agency will use all of it.”
But isn’t that the point of a budget? To use it?
If the concern is about using the full budget amount, then you should reduce the budget. Because it’s the budget that dictates the fidelity of the solution we will ultimately deploy.
As an agency, we’re staffing a project and selling a solution that’s based entirely on your budget. If your budget is $50k, we’re going to figure out the type of work (and the size of the team ) we can do for $50k. If your budget is $100k, we’ll do the same.
Imagine if you were searching for a home to purchase but you refused to give your real-estate agent your budget.
They’d be guessing at what you wanted to see and you’d be wasting your time looking at homes that either didn’t have the features you want or that you couldn’t afford to buy in the first place. It would be a wasted effort for both of you.
It doesn’t put you at a disadvantage to disclose your budget.
Being transparent about your budget is the correct way to get the solution you need for the price you want.
We’ve adopted a medical analogy for this that we think makes perfect sense.*
When you visit the doctor, you tell the doctor what’s wrong. You tell her what you’re feeling and where it hurts. She gives you an exam and then prescribes a treatment. She keeps her medical license and you get better.
What you don’t do is walk into the office, tell her your shoulder hurts, and instruct her to schedule you for laparoscopic surgery after writing you a prescription for Vicodin. If she listened to you and did what you asked, it would be malpractice. And you might have surgery when all you needed was some rest and stretching.
Of course, there’s a chance you may have been right, and you do need surgery and Vicodin, but the doctor needs to examine you herself and come to an independent conclusion.
If her diagnosis is the same as yours, great, she might know of a newer, better treatment that you aren’t privy to. But even if that’s not the case, at least you now have the validation of a trained professional.
When clients come to us, the best thing they can do is tell us what hurts and where.
Sure, you may think you know both the diagnosis and the treatment—and to be fair, you just might—but that’s a conclusion that’s better arrived at together, after a full examination and a review of all the available treatments.
This isn’t a superfluous process. It’s how we ensure longterm project, financial, and relational health.
There’s no getting around it. When it comes to our thinking, we diverge and then converge, over and over, until we get to the right solution. We have hard conversations. We criticize people’s work. There’s waste involved—in both time and output.
This is because creativity is inherently wasteful and the process is far from linear.
That’s completely okay, though, because that’s the magic of the creative process. Little by little, draft by draft, design by design, we narrow in on the right solution.
Good clients understand that this is how creativity works and they embrace the process. Yes, we still hit deadlines. Yes, we still have constraints in place.
But the creative process works, and good clients trust it. They know that nothing good ever comes easy.
And they wouldn’t have it any other way.
*Credit to Blair Enns, who proposes this idea in his book Pricing Creativity.