When Client Intimacy Becomes a Bad Thing

By Alex Varricchio written about 2 years ago

Client intimacy, establishing great working relationships, collaboration, really understanding your client’s challenges and opportunities… getting closer to the client is usually one of the main goals for an advertising agency. Heck, it’s often one of the first things a client will say they value in an agency pitch.

And, while client intimacy is extremely important – crucial to creating the most effective, needle-moving work – I want to address an important caveat that all too often gets forgotten: Stockholm Syndrome. I’m not talking about legit Stockholm Syndrome (hopefully client kidnapping isn’t happening) but rather the threat of identifying too closely with the client.

Companies work with advertising agencies because they want someone to push their thinking.

The client has to manage internal budgets, politics, approval systems, sales figures, etc. that can often impede creativity. These are the day-to-day operational realities that can get in the way sometimes. So they rely on the agency to get away from some of those internal constraints, to “free think” on the brand.

But as we get closer to the client, we can sometimes – to the detriment of the work – start to take on some of those internal restraints. How often have you had account planners say things like, “They would never go for that,” “The sales team won’t like this” or “We just need something quick and dirty”?

Every time we put ourselves too close to the client we essentially lose the agency side of the creative equation. We become an internal marketing team.

So what am I getting at? Am I saying that we should remove client intimacy from the mix? That we should get farther away from our clients to create better, more meaningful work? That client and agency relationships need to change more frequently? Absolutely not.

Client intimacy and a deep understanding of our clients’ realities is crucial. The more complex the marketing mix and customer channels, the deeper the understanding required. The more established the agency/client relationship, the deeper this understanding grows.

What I am saying is that we need remain cognizant of which side of the agency/client relationship we are on and make sure we always have at least one person on each side of this fence.

Here are a few suggestions I recommend trying…

1. Mind your “nevers.”

Be on the lookout for “client would never” statements. Make a conscious note of how often you’re saying internally, “The client would never go for this/pay for this/be able to get this through…” Make sure you’re not throwing around those nevers too often. Better yet, check whether they’re valid and that you’re not making an assumption.

2. Be conscious of your hat.

When you’re in the brainstorm room, always put on your agency hat. The brainstorm is not the time to talk about internal approval and creative constraints. You could even go as far to use different rooms for brainstorming and planning. It’s like the philosophy that says you shouldn’t work where you sleep – keep that stuff separate so you don’t default your thinking.

3. Role play (client appropriately of course).

In your client meetings, take turns playing the agency role and the client role. Have the client act as the agency, pushing further on the suggested ideas and solutions. Play the client side and look at the solutions critically. Talk it out.

4. Conduct “stranger” blue-skies.

Give the creative brief to another team in your agency – a team that has not worked closely with this particular client before – and get them to blue-sky ideas for the client. Make sure they don’t put any constraints on themselves and that they come back with the most way-out-there stuff. Afterward, vet it with the client unfiltered. Talk about the reactions you had to the ideas, see if there any nuggets of viability and go from there. You’ll likely catch yourself doing a few “client would never”s but it will get you thinking. And I bet your next idea will be better for it.

5. Assign an internal check in.

Get someone who is not on your client team to act as an external reviewer. Before new ideas/solutions go to the client, be sure to get someone who is not involved to take a look. Show them the thinking that got you to where you are, and ask them to challenge you. Have them ask lots of questions about where assumptions or constraints came from and whether or not they are really there or could be changed.

6. Talk about it.

The last thing I want to mention is to be OK with client intimacy challenges. An intimate client/agency relationship is a beautiful thing that should be protected. Make sure to talk about ways to keep the spark alive and the ideas fresh. Don’t let your in-laws get the best of you.