The Grass Is Always Greener — One Agency Lead Weighs in on That Infamous Client-Side/Agency-Side Debate and What He’s Most Thankful for This Season

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By Oli Bealby, Managing Director, Iris San Francisco

In agency world, there’s a well-worn narrative that life is easier on the client side. Traditional 9-to-5 hours, better pay, more perks, bigger benefits, and so on. Equally well-worn and likely no surprise as we’ve all heard the tales of frustrating clients: “They don’t know a good idea when it hits them in the face,” “how can they possibly take this long to make a decision,” “they say they want bold and irreverent thinking but then they give us feedback like this?!”, “it’s good, just make the logo bigger”…

Fodder for memes, yes. But perhaps now is the time we walked a mile or more in our client’s shoes to get a sense of what they’re grappling with, too.

Firstly, and perhaps fundamentally, our clients are the ones who have to secure the budget—Not us. That usually involves a series of negotiations with a CFO and plenty of reassurances that the investment will pay off and to what extent. That takes courage, and it means making commitments, because if those commitments don’t pay off, then what? They’re left holding the bag.

We also expect clients to do big, bold work from day one—and we expect them to trust us, an outside agency, to come up with those ideas and help them buy in. Trust us, a team of people that they don’t know and haven’t worked with before, and not to mention have a different way of working and which don’t know their business yet. And we’re not always all that patient (I count myself among this group) when building that trust takes time.

But believe me when I say that big and bold original thinking has zero proof that it will work. In fact, that’s what makes it original. And yet we still expect clients to confidently put their neck on the line and say, “well let’s give it a shot, shall we?”

If you have clients in tech, then you may appreciate that entire business models have been built upon huge leaps of faith that “this might just work.” And now, LinkedIn feeds are filled with layoffs. Stock prices are tanking. The ticker is blinking red. The stakes are ever higher, and what may have once been an easy decision may now feel like a big bet.

And let’s not forget corporate structures that require endless stakeholder management, procedure, and politicking, making it harder and harder to find space in your mind for the most important perspective – the customers’. Our clients are typically beholden to these—and we should be thankful that we aren’t.

Finally, while everyone knows that investing in marketing during a recession is good for business in the long run, that comes from a privileged place of perspective. Not every company will actually have the money to invest during a downturn, even if they’d like to.

So how do we make sense of all this “fresh” understanding?

It begins with partnership.

Because—you guessed it—it’s hard being agency side too. Partnership can only be built on a spirit of shared understanding and shared values and a desire to live them on both sides. Equal empathy and respect for the agency process ultimately creates a better partnership for the client, which leads to a better product. It’s a circle of life, so-to-speak, based on symbiotic relationships.

So knowing what our clients are up against, how should agencies shift their approach?

I’d say we need to model the same behavior we want in them: Have courage, but also be committed, highly collaborative, transparent and accountable.

Courage is where it starts and accountability is where it ends. Accountability means sharing our clients’ problems as if they were our own, because they are our own—until the project closes and sometimes even beyond then. If your agency is anything like my own, you probably talk  about clients all day long, so much so, that you barely talk about yourselves. Accountability and transparency are the ingredients for real, earned trust and it pushes us to consistently do better and learn.

As for courage, we all must be courageous in our own context. We’re not firefighters or soldiers, but if our clients are sticking their necks out on the line, then shouldn’t we extend them the same courtesy? In other words, “get comfortable being uncomfortable”—the outcome being to bring original thinking that gets our clients noticed.

Remember that collaboration is a signal to clients of respect. Gone are the days where agencies can disappear for weeks on end and crack the answer. The problems we solve are shared problems, and so are the answers. Agencies and clients should both have skin in the game and bring shared value to the process.

Commitment means seeing things through to the finish line with the same energy you started with, and then keeping pace after. Keep pushing and striving to deliver the best you can and then be accountable for where you can be better.

With all that in mind, this Thanksgiving, I’m grateful that I’m not a client. And I imagine my clients will be grateful that they’re not working at an agency. And we’ll all be grateful for the partnership.

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