Jonathan Trimble: why the crucial first 100 days can define a client/agency relationship

Unknown-3Jonathan Trimble, CEO of London agency 18 Feet & Rising, explains why building a successful client/agency relationship really begins after the ‘nuclear arms race’ of the pitch.

“You are bloody hard work”. An ex-agency head told me recently that this was how his agency was described by one particular client twenty years or so ago. It caused a wry smile. And begged the question: has much changed since then?

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak on behalf of 18 Feet & Rising at the IPA’s ADAPTATHON alongside Rob Calder, Head of Marketing for client Kopparberg. Whilst it sounded like a televised charity event, this was an immaculately staged gathering of the great and the good for which the subject matter – stronger client-agency relationships – was as obvious as it was bitterly overlooked.

No doubt, the economic uncertainty of recent years has had a dehumanising effect on business. So what state has the client-agency relationship ended up in? What should it look like? Do we need to re-focus attention on the relationship itself, not just all the other demands around us? The energy, quality and honesty of the debate proved these were poignant questions.

Rob and I spoke frankly on the subject of ‘starting as we mean to go on’ – the first hundred days as a relationship of two hundred and twenty one days old. It was not a slam-dunk pitch win for 18 Feet & Rising. We were appointed on potential. So the natural response was to make sure that leap of faith was disproportionately rewarded.

With so many end-of-level baddies to navigate at pitch stages, it’s easy to forget that being appointed is the start game, not the end game. Talk about the relationship up front, write something up, get the team together for beers and, critically, break the seal and make some work. These all emerged as the basic steps for success. The power of early and candid conversation  – on an even footing – also came up.

But an even footing is not easy to establish. With hindsight some things were left unsaid. The nuclear arms race to win pitches means agencies are increasingly fielding specialists in the art of giving seriously great meeting but who are flat-footed in real world creativity and delivery. Equally, clients are commonly staging pitches just prior to restructures, leaving the agency with a different team, objectives and budget.

Our colleagues who spoke bore this out – the client who was pitching the business did not end up the ultimate client and work had only just been made some two years after the pitch.  The irony was how much the client stressed the importance the agency had placed on relationship during the pitch process as the key to winning.

Interestingly, the word ‘creativity’ or ‘ideas’ didn’t come up in the debate. Ultimately, strong relationships are only what they deliver. A good relationship is only such because it yields output, the quality and difference of which enable unfair returns to the business. This is where I think the term ‘happily dysfunctional’ which emerged elsewhere in the day is helpful.

Anyone who conducts relationship surveys on clients knows that the curve drops downward during periods of production and usually shoots back up once work is running. Argument, discomfort and lack of certainty are all traits of the successful creative relationship.

For businesses to grow and stay competitive, they must continually experience the next scary thing. Let’s not attempt to flatten the emotional arc of the relationship and strive for comfort, but instead shoot for the delirious highs and lows that come with progress.

There were many good ideas coming out of the day, one of which was the 100-day charter. Whether you call it that or something else, it’s at least an idea to focus attention on the relationship itself above all else. In my experience, a simple quantitative survey of the fundamentals before and after the 100 days reveals (usually big) gaps between expectations and realities on both sides.

This early clearing of the air critical to creating the conditions where open conversation is possible – and indeed being able together to take the strain of the inevitable twists and turns of getting to and producing the best creative answers.

Back to our client who thought the agency was ‘hard work’. The story goes on that it turned out the ex agency head and client ended up friends, partly through having second homes in France near each other. Over lunch, the client went on to say that it was the agency’s tenacity that changed the fortunes of the brand concerned and that, due to them staying close, confidence grew to trust the agency to do the right thing.

A model outcome in every respect I’d suggest.

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