Think Ahead of the Client: The Best Agency Advice You’ll Ever Get

“I want you and your agency to think ahead of me,” said one frustrated client to his agency account person, who always seemed to be talking about current schedules, sign-offs and delivery dates.

Certainly, these are all important issues to be discussed between an agency and its clients, but it did not satisfy what this client felt he wanted from (in his mind) his costly agency relationship.

What then do we owe clients? How can we proactively think ahead, getting out in front of their wants and needs? How can we avoid falling behind… or simply being lulled into the false sense of security that comes from just keeping pace?


This article may serve to turn you into a much better account executive, account supervisor or even a better creative director.

How to Stay Ahead of Your Clients

Know Their Industry

Nothing is more frustrating for clients than spending time with their agency rep discussing the specifics of their business… only to find that the agency contact isn’t grasping the details, or in some rare cases, is failing to care.

The contact people on each account should take the time to be fully informed about the client’s business, their sales channel, regulatory issues, innovation possibilities, etc. All it really takes to get up to speed is some regular reading of industry trade magazines, white papers, association publications and even basic searches for news.

“How will we be paid for this?” you ask.

Aim to work on partial retainer. A partial retainer is a small sum that a client pays to an agency over and above the project work. It is not to be confused with a full retainer. The partial retainer is money well spent by smart clients who want their agency to be at the top of their game.

Your agency people can turn all that client and industry information into additional work, upselling projects into programs on the strength of the research and resulting insights.

“When will I find the time?” says the busy account executive.

If your AEs are so busy that they need help to get through the day, they will not have time to research and become familiar with the intricacies of client businesses and industries. And they will certainly not have time to “think ahead” of the client. It may be time for the agency to hire an account coordinator to help out. This entry-level person can do much of the basic research, tag items of interest and pass them on to the AE, with just a little training to get them started. Really good information should be shared with the entire agency team.

Regular Meetings

Nothing beats regularly meeting with your clients, not only to find out what’s going on in their world, but to present your thoughts as well. Most clients are not able to do what agencies do. They can’t pick up the phone and call a competitor. They have trouble talking frankly to their retailers or their sales force about the pluses and minuses of their products or services.

Regular meetings are a great way to pitch new ideas, fresh insights, review your research, etc. If at all possible, meet “in person.” You can have more impact and get more work if you are present to read the client’s body language, facial expressions and the general vibe in response to your ideas. If you just can’t do it in person, please, please learn how to use Go-To-Meeting or WebEx really well. A big TV set and a HD camera will do the trick. Teach your tech-challenged clients about video conferencing as well. Email, or even voice conference calls, are just not satisfactory these days for selling ideas.

Always Ask “Why?” Not “What?”

I’ve written about this a number of times. Less experienced account people almost always ask, “What’s happening? Anything for us?”

More experienced account people will probe deeper, will always have a plan in their pocket, and are always ready to expand a client project into a program.

It is our philosophy that all client projects can be upsold and turned into fully integrated, multilevel programs. Well-conceived programs are frequently more successful for clients than one-level projects. But you must ask the right questions. What are your goals? Do you have customer research to guide you? How will you measure effectiveness? Will this help shift brand perceptions, gain market share, and/or increase sales?

For example if your client asks you to develop a website, they really mean, “We would like you to create or update the site, perhaps refresh our brand, make our SEO ‘stickier,’ add social tools, integrate a Google Adwords buy to bring potential customers to the new site,” etc. These things transcend the site assignment and allow the agency partner to get deeper with the client… even move out ahead of them. Most clients really don’t know how to conduct full-scale, fully integrated marketing programs. As a Second Wind agency, you should.

Asking “why” leads to more business for your agency and helps you to move ahead of the client, who now thinks you are smart, quick, responsive, and “deep as the ocean, wide as the sky.”

Don’t Go It Alone

In my experience, every good account runs even better when serviced by a team. Account execs are more effective working within a team service environment, and accounts are more efficient and profitable. Ideally, each team should have a daily leader, someone back at the ranch taking care of details, and an agency manager paying executive-level attention to the account.

What is executive-level attention?   

Drop in once a month to make sure the client is feeling good about the agency. Bring “gifts” with you—research, insights, spec’ work on new ideas generated by the agency, etc. This helps the client to feel you are ahead of them and not behind them.

As racing “legend” Ricky Bobby’s father said to him when he was a child, “If you’re not first, you’re last.” I now say to you in the form of salient agency advice:  If you’re not ahead, you’re behind. Agencies who are behind don’t make the cut. 

AEs may use this worksheet to plan a meeting with a client, taking them from simply collecting project assignments and giving updates to being in front of more profitable program opportunities that anticipate client needs.


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