Break Free of the Agency Blame Game—Listen and Take Ownership

The client world and agency world may be different, but in the trenches, you are one team

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In the case of client-agency relationships, grievance is not a substitute for good ideas, nor does it lead to particularly creative solutions. Rather, it facilitates an environment rife with negative emotions and blame-wielding. As long as you are the one pointing the finger, the finger can’t be pointed back at you.

But what will you do as an agency leader when things go awry, every ball is dropped and both sides are searching for answers? Do you take ownership of your mistakes, encourage resilience, continue to iterate, double down on partnership, remain patient, empower experimentation and boost flexibility?

Or, do you point the finger at your client?

The blame game

Too often, clients and agencies alike prefer to finger-point like a dysfunctional couple. This becomes especially problematic for those who care about the craft of creative communications.

In such an acrimonious environment, an all-too-familiar blame game or tug of war plays out. Here, long-term flags are not addressed, and problems are patched with short-term solutions. Further, the definition of “success” is no longer a shared vision, which makes the development of compelling, resonant and effective creative work a hopeless endeavor. In other words, grievance creates a delta between getting a project “done” versus “done right,” and nobody is satisfied.

Yet, regardless of where the fault truly lies or the shared client-agency dissatisfaction with the resulting product, it’s always clear who will be held to account: the agency making the work. It may be natural, but this isn’t good. So, what can agencies do to address it?

Double down on commitment and listen

First, clients and agencies need to recommit themselves to the success of the relationship. This is where agency leaders and client stakeholders step up, get closer to the work and casualize communications.

If the previous channels of communication weren’t sufficient, do away with them. If a layered review process led to an unsatisfying result, flatten it. We have to avoid the instinct to do damage control by creating separation from the work.

Instead of mitigating accountability, both sides need to own it. This goes a long way toward rebuilding, if not reinforcing, trust between client and agency.

The next and perhaps most important answer is to listen to each other more and assume positive intent.

The career path and experience of a strategist who approves work and an agency’s budget is completely different from a creative who’s steeped in the creative process and may have jumped around from agency to agency. So we cannot rely on shared professional experiences or a shared familiarity with workflow. We have to find alternative ways to empathize with one another.

The responsibility of properly framing conversation to encourage empathy between creatives and clients is principally that of the agency. It starts with listening.

Furthermore, creatives must immerse themselves into understanding the client’s market and using their product, not simply working off a strategy deck. Have they downloaded the app? Have they made an order?

If your creatives are not also consumers, how can they begin to understand what they are creating for? You can never know too much about how your client’s company works, how their product makes it to market and what they know about their customers.

Also, just be human.

We all know how burdensome tackling your inbox can be, especially when jumping from meeting to meeting. Make communication easy. Build a Slack channel or take it offline with texts, WhatsApp or a quick phone call.

Lastly, talk about something other than work! Understanding your client means understanding who they are as people. In doing so, you give everyone on the agency team the vocabulary and empathy to communicate more effectively about how they work.

Two worlds, one team

Creatives and clients don’t speak the same language. Clients who are action-oriented, embrace failure and iteration and encourage multiple contributions are bound to be bewildered by creative processes that at times appear bafflingly rigid. A stringent workflow for creative development feels counterintuitive given the fluffy nature of imagination.

Vice versa, creatives who are steeped in their craft and have fought their way to prominence by staying true to their authentic voice tend not to take kindly to unrefined briefs and shifting, even contradicting, messages they receive from clients who “don’t know what they want.” There is a natural aversion to controlling clients monkeying with the magic.

As long as the client and agency stay within these incompatible frames of reference, there can be no shared understanding. Although the responsibility falls upon agencies to help with the translations, the act of recommitting and listening needs to be mutual.

Creatives want to be recognized and valued as much as clients desire to be heard. Client world and agency world may be different, but in the trenches, you are one team. So make sure everyone involved feels this way.

Showing an appetite for engagement and understanding tends also to elicit an empathic response on the part of the client instead of trying to place blame. The best clients have a curiosity about and respect for their agency’s craft that arises from the individuals they work with.

We are all products of our experience, human nature and the world we inhabit, which, at the moment, feels quite saturated by grievance. Let’s avoid falling into toxic habits that only serve to aid conflict and not collaboration.

For all those who care about the craft, whether you are the client or the agency, it’s ultimately up to us to work together. Meet confusion and concern with compassion and compromise.