From agency to client and back again

Our newest Stranger Caitlin took her first Feed to reflect on how agencies and clients can play better together. Here's what she found out...

By: Caitlin,   5 minutes


Our newest Stranger Caitlin Gould took her first Feed this month, reflecting on how agencies and clients can play better together. Here’s what she found out…

Over the past four weeks I’ve hopped the fence from client to agency. It’s given me a rare perspective on client/agency relationships. I got Feeding on the lessons learnt.

How did I get here?

From 2009-2014, I worked as Client Development Director for a digital marketing agency called Distilled, based in London. I looked after clients of all sizes, from rapidly growing start-ups to major international brands. I used to pride myself on understanding client needs and focusing on the ‘why’ behind their decisions. When I listened, I really listened. I got them. I was delusional.

“You don’t really understand a client until you are one.”

You don’t really understand a client until you are one. You can try to understand the targets, budget constraints and the pressure to deliver, but until it’s actually your job, or even the company, on the line (rather than just a client contract) you can’t really understand everything that’s riding on the success of a project.

Returning to work after the birth of my son in 2014, I was feeling adventurous. It was time to try something new. So I left the fast paced London agency life to work as maternity cover for Invest In Cornwall, an inward investment company responsible for bolstering Cornwall’s businesses.

I was set the task of enticing exciting and innovative organisations to bring their business to that Cornwall. We needed some strong content and a killer strategy. So, working with the rest of the Invest In Cornwall team, I wrote up a brief, spoke with three agencies and wound up hiring Stranger Collective.

As the project progressed I got to know Stranger Collective and they got to know me and before we both knew it I took a full time job as their new Commercial Director.

And now, like some strange corporate Alice and Wonderland, I suddenly find myself on the other side of the mirror, delivering a project that I wrote the brief for just three months ago. I am essentially my own client, and I can be very difficult to please.


What now?

While this move is new to me, it’s not unusual in the creative world. So how have other people tackled the change?

After some desktop research, I stumbled across a number of articles that told me I’d made a massive mistake. Apparently working client side is the best thing in the whole world and agencies are hungry talent vampires that will destroy your creative soul. A post titled Why talented creatives are leaving your shitty agency was particularly sobering.

“Apparently working client side is the best thing in the whole world and agencies are hungry talent vampires that will destroy your creative soul.”

Before descending into a self-doubting panic, I took a breath, a walk and, most importantly, stopped for coffee and cake.

A breath of fresh air reminded me that I’m now working for an agency that encourages the Feeding process that led me down this path in the first place. In my new role I’m surrounded by creative people who love what they do and strive to push themselves and our clients to produce bold, impactful work.

I then found a great post by Jon Bradshaw and, bolstered by his enthusiasm, I started to focus on the lessons I could learn and share from this strange schizophrenic experience.

A lesson for clients: create an honest brief

While working client side I was fully aware of everything that could threaten the project’s success, internally. I knew every penny we had in the bank, where my team was awesome and where we were lacking in skills, and all the dark secrets you only know if you’re managing a marketing campaign from behind the scenes.

I now feel a bit like an inside agent on the project. I know what will work and what’s realistic. When we have to make tough calls, I know where the priorities are and what can wait ‘til more budget is approved. I know the target market the client needs to reach and the questions they get asked on a daily basis.

So how does a client replicate this with their agency, without loosing someone from their team to the other side?

Be brutally honest, from day one. If you have project limitations around budgets, timing, resources or sign-off, do everyone a favour and let your agency know in the project brief. A warts-and-all approach will prevent you from getting pitches that are way off the mark. It will also help agencies understand what challenges you face, so they can start thinking up creative ideas that are actually realistic. Worst-case scenario, you get feedback that what you want to achieve isn’t possible. It sounds negative, but it’s just the ammunition you need to fight for more budget or resources.

“Be brutally honest, from day one. If you have project limitations let your agency know in the project brief.”

Keep your agency up to speed. Moving forward with the project make sure you let the agency know about any changes to the project, team, budget, or expectations as soon as possible. Don’t be afraid to trust them. If they’re good, they should be your ally, not the cause of your stress.

A lesson for agencies: care like a client

After a caffeine-fuelled all-nighter to complete an exciting, groundbreaking, achingly creative project, it can be easy to forget that it’s not the only thing on the client’s to-do list. You might not even be in their top 10. This doesn’t mean you should stop doing amazing work. It simply stresses the importance of understanding your client’s priorities. Remember, you’re there to help them solve a problem.

On that note, make sure you really understand what that problem is. And what’s the problem behind that problem? There’s a Six Sigma process improvement technique called the 5 whys, aimed at helping you find the root of a problem. This is a great way to understand the driver behind any client brief. They want a new website. Why? They don’t like their current one. Why? It isn’t performing? Why? It isn’t helping them reach their target audience. Why? We don’t know actually. Why?…You get the point. In this instance client X doesn’t just need a website, they could also use some conversion optimisation research and maybe a bit of user testing, for example.

Get into their heads. Understand their problems. Forget trying to think like a client. By trying to care about the things your client cares about, you get a new empathy for their situation and a much better understanding of the rationale behind their thinking.

Swapping shoes?

A final thought – what about the old adage of walking a mile in someone’s shoes? Agencies and clients alike have been experimenting more and more with having someone sit in the office for a day, a week, or even longer. This requires a lot of trust, but it has the potential to build some great client/agency relationships.

Relationships of any kind are hard, but empathy can go a long way towards understanding.

And remember – a smile, a warm cup of coffee, and a biscuit might not fix everything, but it can give you time to reconnect like real people, not just client and agency.


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