Why client/agency relationships should come with a sell-by date

For more than 25 years, I ran a constantly evolving creative service agency. In the eighties, we called ourselves an ad agency. In the nineties we had morphed into a design firm. By the 2000’s we were packaging our skill set as a brand consultancy. Ultimately, the offerings all centered on core identity.

Perhaps an even more unifying characteristic of all of these firms was a core business model: attract clients and retain them for as long as possible. It’s what agencies do. In fact, one of the most common measurements of agency success is retention rate.

But then life intervened in the form of an international financial crisis. Consumer confidence and spending took a nosedive, and right behind this collapse, any and all spending on advertising, design or branding slowed to a trickle. And there’s no time like a crisis time to check in on the health of a system.

So I took a hard-nosed look at what was and was not working in the way that creative service agencies had been delivering their services forever, at least since the days of Don Draper. I talked to clients about their needs, and how they were, or were not, being met.

The biggest value clients get is a “step-back-first” perspective

Most clients reported that they felt they got to most value in the first few years of a relationship. This is the time when assumptions about who the client is and who they serve and how they help are – momentarily – suspended. Rather than jump to conclusions, or worse, fall into already established patterns, new agencies help clients to step back, see the ecosystem of ideas in which they exist, understand member needs and member journeys to get those needs fulfilled, and develop meaningful buyer personas. This “left-hand side of the U” work (in the language of Theory U) is priceless.

And very typically clients also reported great value in the first blush of creative – copy and design – that followed this “step back first” approach. But this is also where the bloom starts to fall from the rose. Because in reality, keeping a full service creative agency on retainer costs a lot of money. And after the initial flush of new insight and fresh solutions, the ROI on this investment tends to fall off precipitously (at least according to clients). It’s definitely there at the start, but by year three or four, clients report feeling like it’s more about routine maintenance than an irreplaceable new start.

Clients can – and should – learn to be their own ad agency

In turn, since this turning point in both the economy and the creative services industry, the Clarity team has taken a completely different approach: to coach and train clients to be their own ad agency, to be their own creative services firm.

Because know what? Creativity is a design process, and as such, can be modeled and learned. And while I personally believe that great creatives are born – some just get it more than others – there is nothing keeping an organization from attracting and hiring those same great creatives to their in-house team.

This DIY attitude has been furthered with the advent of social marketing. At the end of the day, marketing is communication and communication is the most authentic (read: effective) when it’s done not by an external agency, but by your own flesh and blood.

Do you need an external agency to help you understand your story and how to use this story as a tool for transformation? Yes, unless you’re lucky enough to have a seasoned brand pro on your team. But that same agency should also be teaching and coaching you to one day do much of the creative work yourself.

So, please do hire a branding firm to get you started. Just make sure that on the day you bring that agency onto the team, everyone is also clear that they’re there for a very specific – and dated – job.

Image via TwinCity.

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