How do you cultivate the best possible client-agency relationship? In this three-part series, we take a closer look at the process of working together, obstacles faced and overcome, and ways to nurture success in the quest to do everything a bit more brilliantly.

Here’s a confession: As much as we love Star Wars, we couldn’t recommend the films’ signature “Jedi mind tricks” as a communications best practice. So what do we recommend?

When three Hailey Sault account managers from three different generations—Boomer, Gen X, Millennial—took a not-so-rare moment to chat, a central theme quickly emerged. And it has more to do with smart collaboration than wielding a powerful light saber.

Openness. It’s something we deeply value and crave in our work.

Laurie O’Melia O’Neill: Candor from the start and throughout the process is invaluable. It means being able to shut the door from other “work noise” and talk about real challenges, now versus later, and how we can tackle those challenges together with creativity, vision and sometimes simply sheer chutzpah.

Austin Tofte: It’s true. Openness allows our abilities and our clients’ insights to intertwine more. Rather than drawing a stark line between “their” position and ours, openness creates a more personal and engaging work relationship. It allows us to understand the depths of what they need, to see where we can be more of assistance, and to fill in those gaps. It’s personal, not programmed, and it’s not the same approach for every client, because people and organizations have different needs.

Laurie: Exactly. With an open process, we really gain a vantage point to see the client’s obstacles—those that could create limits on what we could do together. That’s such a nut to crack, but an essential one for ultimately focusing more energy on possibilities.

Austin: And our role is not simply delivering client messages within the agency. It’s about delivering agency ideas that can expand a client’s horizons and opportunities.

Laurie: It makes me think about why an outside partner is beneficial. Often our clients’ world has several internal clients, some with very differing requirements, which take up a great deal of their time. We get to be an arm of their marketing department and help them see more of what’s on the outside. It’s our challenge every day to extricate the client from the need to please the internal audience and shift the focus back on the objective. That’s what their internal clients want as well, but we can help them see the way there.

Mardy Maki: Absolutely. Openness allows us to understand “their world,” which yields better work. Here’s an example: we were presenting a striking creative concept for a challenger hospital. It was well researched, bold and true to the brand’s humble roots, and poised to create a compelling contrast to a behemoth healthcare competitor. Our client nodded along throughout discussions, but I could sense something was holding her back. Thankfully, she opened up about new challenges that had been brewing internally—a decline in staff engagement and patient satisfaction scores. So, together, we strategized. How could we compete with Goliath and improve staff engagement and patient care? The team evolved the approach to include 60 front line staff. The work bolstered employees and brought their unique experiences and compassionate views to light. The social media engagement that followed was incredible. They were the heroes. And it all happened because of openness.

Laurie: That’s a great example. On the flip side, it is too bad when these conversations happen at the end of a road, out of frustration, rather than at the front end when there’s time to adjust and adapt together. I think our most successful relationships exhibit several critical qualities. Mardy, I really liked something you wrote recently about two of those qualities: trust and being direct.

Mardy: Hey, thanks. Well, here it is from our client onboarding manual:

“We are in this together. Period. We can only conquer incredible odds when we trust each other. Be open. Share: insights, resources, in-house experts. Define the safety net for our partnership. Look out for one another’s best interests. And give each other the benefit of the doubt along the way.”

“State the challenges transparently, clearly and honestly. Don’t hold back. Don’t wait. Tell us now. And if something is holding you or your organization back, let’s talk about it. And vice versa. Challenges tend to mount and not recede. The status quo is not a strategic advantage. So let’s go and get after them, together.”

Austin: That reminds me of some experiences I’ve had. Budget conversations are not always easy, especially in a new client-agency relationship. In an industry like advertising, where our ideas are the currency, placing an exact value on that can look differently to each person. This is why openness is so important to us; it helps us balance our creative thinking with budget realities. Which by the way would be a great blog topic. Let’s talk more about budget discussions next week.

Hailey Sault’s take: Opening up is a gift to your agency partner that ultimately reaps huge dividends in the work we do together.

Your take: let us know your thoughts. We’d love to hear from you.
How do you cultivate the best possible client-agency relationship?
What obstacles do you confront and how is success nurtured?