The situation was fairly tense. This was the third meeting to discuss the new campaign and the client had just suggested some fundamental changes in the creative which would have a major impact on the budget.
I was the Vice President, Client Services for our agency and was leading the meeting at our client’s office. We had a small team of five from the agency at the meeting.
Before I could say anything Jim, our Chief Creative Officer responded, “Yes we can do that, no problem” without any hesitation, or suggestion for discussion. Game over! Or was it. The client now requested a few more changes and suggested a virtually impossible deadline. Jim again agreed.
The meeting finished and as we left the meeting room, I struggled to control my frustration. Who was in charge here? Who was responsible for the account? Who was going to be measured on the now reduced margin? Was the client confused? Was this going to affect my relationship with them?
Creative may be able to meet the almost impossible deadline, but there was no increase in revenue for the campaign and the round the clock creative hours would be billed into the project. I was now left with the task of managing expectations for something I believed we should not be doing.
Have you ever been there? Have you ever seen this play out? These situations can undermine any trust and respect that has been built and can cause confusion in the mind of the client.
However, it can also be a dream for the client. They realized they could push and get more for less, but this practice is often a short term success. The client is NOT always right and smart clients understand that any good agency will want to debate their work rather than just accepting suggested changes. They will want to point out to the client why there shouldn’t be any changes, for their own good.
But more worrying here was that although the Creative Officer was more senior than me, he shouldn’t necessarily have the decision-making power as he is not overall responsible for the account. He had potentially undermined the relationship that I was forging. Furthermore, who would the client now call for decisions? Our Chief Creative Officer was becoming our Account Director.
Yes, Jim was in charge of creative but when a decision needs to be taken that involves a change in direction of budget and timelines, then it needs to be taken with the Account Director, and as a team.
The smart call in the meeting would have been to debate whether the changes were really necessary now, or perhaps could be made later in the campaign and if the client insisted, then the Account Director should have been allowed to make the points that such a decision would have implications on the timeline and budget. There had after all been two prior reviews.
What did we learn from this little scenario, which by the way was real? Here’s 5 ways to lead with Your Customer.
1. Be prepared to debate
If you acquiesce quickly without some discussion and alternative points, then some clients will see this a weakness and push for more. Furthermore, if we don’t have a contrary point of view, then they could question why we presented what we did in the first place. Clients want good advice that is defended and fought for.
2. The client is not always right
They will respect you if you push back and provide good reasons why a change is unnecessary. Obviously if they insist, then we do what they want. They are after all paying (hopefully), but at least we have given our view on why we believe our recommendations were sound.
3. Be clear about who is leading
It needs to be clear internally and with the client that the Account Director is exactly that, the Director of the Account. They are in charge. They are responsible for the relationship.
4. The Account Director needs to take charge
Once the discussion has taken place that the Account Director is indeed leading then they need to take charge and show leadership. In other words, be responsible for opening the meeting, going over the agenda and setting the objectives and facilitating discussion for the agency.
5. Defer decisions to the Account Director
Although there are many people in the agency that have relationships with the client, one person has to be responsible for meetings and for the clients business so that there is the focus and clear direction. The client needs to understand who is in charge and it is not always the most senior person in the room. By the way, this approach takes the pressure off a more senior person, who in my experience is more likely to readily say yes, when the correct response should be maybe or no.
Do you lead in front of your customer?
Have you faced situations like this and how have you dealt with it?