It’s the Agency’s Job to Disagree with Clients

When two people in business always agree, one of them is unnecessary.

Wm. Wrigley Jr., founder of Wrigley’s Chewing Gum company

I have worked with many account service people in my long ad agency career. In smaller agencies, many AEs saw their role largely as ferrymen—collecting the client’s instructions and delivering them safely to the agency creative department for execution. In larger agency settings, the role of strategic consultant came to the fore; account service was seen as more of a guidance and advice role, not just that of order-taking. In the most advanced agencies, even that guidance fell short of where strategic planning agencies should be, where the agency’s role is as top questioner of client assumptions.

A truly strategic ad agency looks beyond short-term goals and objectives to see the much larger picture of a client’s overall strategic plan. Ideally, the agency has a role in developing and managing that plan; at the least, the agency must have access to client strategic plans, so marketing efforts can be aligned to strategic goals. But even if the agency has no role in developing the strategic plan, the agency can serve as strategic marketing consultant. This means the agency does not blithely accept the client’s marketing goals and supporting data. The agency must always examine the data and question every assumption to ensure that marketing goals are true and aligned with customer wants and needs. Anything less results in a waste of client marketing dollars on low-priority, or the wrong objectives.

I recently read an Entrepreneur article that talks about critical thinking skills, and how as consultants, agencies can help clients divine the real, immediate leads that are preventing them from achieving their top-line goals. Every business is unique, so agencies must offer clients their best, customized solutions.

How can agencies fill the role of chief questioner of client assumptions?

Be the voice of the customer. Ad agencies and marketing firms should always analyze customers’ point-of-view. What are their wants and needs? Is the client’s product or service filling those wants and needs. Are they offering a solution that customers will welcome? If client assumptions are off-base, what better approach or solution can the agency recommend?

Speak in support of mission/objectives. Sometimes, even when they have a plan, clients can be led astray by the current “shiny object”—a new tactic, or a buzzy new channel, or even a short-term promotion when they really need a longer-term effort. Agencies can rein in the starstruck client by building strategic planning goals into all work.

Question assumptions. Always ask how clients know what they claim to know. What research did they do? Who collected the data and how was it analyzed? Did they begin with, and do research to prove an assumption, rather than doing research to discover the facts? Agencies need to push clients to make sure assumptions are not faulty. If necessary, agencies must do their own research to refute clients’ assumptions.

Push for more memorable, higher risk ideas where appropriate. Research and data reliance too often lead to dry, uninspired thinking. Dull ideas move no one to action. Agencies should fight to create creative messages that stir customers emotionally, and that often means using ideas that will seem to clients to be higher risk. Make sure you can back up riskier creative with sound insights and research. And measure results to prove risky ideas have a higher impact.

Don’t just take orders—confirm, confirm, confirm. When clients come to you with preconceived ideas about a promotion or campaign, do your own prep work to make sure the client’s idea is on-target and considers the customer. Listen to your gut; if instinct says, “This does not feel like the best approach,” dig deeper to discover why your gut is resisting. Then build your argument for taking a different direction with research and customer feedback.

Proactively propose. In this era of project work, agencies should not wait for clients to call them with a job. Always watch for opportunities to help clients exploit a moment or take advantage of a competitor’s weakness. If you can propose a winning move that lifts client sales or helps achieve a strategic objective, your agency will be golden.