Bravery: challenging the client

The best client-agency relationships involve a creative partnership – listening and inputting on both sides. The client knows their business and their sector best and may also have a strong in-house marketing and communications team. Meanwhile, the agency knows (or should know) the best routes to market and have a strong sense of what’s going to resonate most in the media and other external forums.

To simplify what can be a complex equation, it’s when content knowledge meets communications and brand knowledge that the best results are born. Getting the interaction and combination right can lead to some wonderful successes as a campaign takes off and a client begins to feel the benefits.

But what happens when a client is hell-bent on a certain campaign or story – and the agency has serious misgivings about it? We’ve probably all seen the scenario of an agency carrying out a client’s wishes, going through the motions on a campaign they don’t really believe in. It can be hard to excel when you’re doubting the fundamental concept or idea.

Guts and credibility

At best, the results will be average. But at worst, the client’s brand may even suffer some damage as they make a faux pas. The impact of this can be massively amplified in today’s social media age. Advertising campaigns cancelled, marketing pushes or promotions scrapped, apologies issued – we can all think of examples, I’m sure.

The additional irony is that the finger of blame will often be pointed at the agency.

sometimes you have to put your credibility on the line

Yet I believe that this is actually a fair challenge and why one of the key differentiators of a really good agency – be that marketing, creative or PR – is the ability and willingness to truly challenge the client when needed.

I’m not saying that it’s easy. In fact, it’s one of the hardest things to do. It takes guts and sometimes you have to put your credibility on the line. You may also begin to doubt yourself. “Are they right after all? Is there something I’m missing?” you and the team may begin to ask.

Neither am I saying that the client is never right, after all they are the experts in their business and there have been many instances in which the agency has pushed the client to do something that simply hasn’t worked.

Strong relationships

The strength of the relationship you have with the client will make a significant difference here. If you have been working together for some time and have gained their trust and confidence through various successful campaigns, it’s going to be easier to put an opposing view to them and you will know to what extent you can challenge them.

If the relationship is new or has only been intermittent, it will be harder to challenge. No one wants to look like they’re just being negative or are taking a defeatist attitude after all.

But if you really believe that the client’s idea is a poor one, it can prevent whole worlds of pain by speaking up at the outset and having a sensible debate.

it should all be part of the cut and thrust of a healthy, creative relationship

That word is also key – debate. Because it’s not about just saying no and throwing the whole idea out. A constructive relationship sees you talking it through with the client, looking at it from different angles – and most likely finding a good idea at the heart of it that perhaps just needs to be slightly repositioned or reworked.

This notion goes both ways of course – sometimes we as agencies get carried away with and need to be reined in by the client! Ultimately, it should all be part of the cut and thrust of a healthy, creative relationship. If you’re right and stick to your guns and argue your case, the client’s respect for you will grow. It will strengthen the partnership, not weaken it.

Yes, we are all in the business of generating brilliant coverage and engagement for our clients. But at times we are also guardians of our clients’ brands. That means sometimes we have to speak up when we think something won’t work or will even have a detrimental effect.

You’ve got to handle it sensitively and be constructive. You’ve got to be brave. But at the end of the day, providing that challenge is part of what we’re there for.

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