Cast your minds back to the good old days of advertising.
When David Ogilvy, Bill Bernbach and Don Draper ruled the roost. When Print was the dominant medium and two months from a creative brief to a first client response was not uncommon.
Inter-agency teams didn’t exist because, well, there was only one agency. The lunches were long and the media plans short. Life seemed so simple back then.
Fast forward and it all looks very different now. We’ve moved from an industry of relative simplicity to one of overbearing complexity. You only have to scan a marketing jobs’ board to understand the complexity in specialism we have all now become used to:
Creative technologist, programmatic exec, SEO consultant, paid search intern, community manager, analytics director, data strategist, UX principle…. you get the picture.
Modern marketing is a team sport with each team playing a different sport
To achieve success in this brave new world, marketing clients and their agencies have had to embrace this complexity; leading, managing and coordinating these disparate skills as one coherent whole, towards a common set of objectives.
Those that do this day-in day-out know how hard it can be. The skill set required to balance these often conflicting agendas is as broad and as diverse as it gets, requiring a rare mix of both left and right brain thinking: leadership, diplomacy, emotional intelligence, creativity, decision making, relationship ability, commercial ability and marketing ability, amongst others.
Dive into a creative agency (and more recently some media and tech agencies) and that responsibility sits squarely on the shoulders of client service or account management. Sometimes they have an additional project management team to support on the more operational aspects of the process, but often they don’t. Consequently they are the team charged with driving, leading and owning the campaign delivery process to a satisfactory conclusion, which in its most basic form could read something like:
- – keep the client happy
- – keep the internal agency team happy
- – keep the inter-agency team happy
- – deliver brilliant work
- – deliver profitable revenue for the agency
- – grow the account
Not an easy task for a CEO let alone a junior account exec.
Conducting an integrated marketing process requires the same precision and timing as conducting a philharmonic orchestra
As the marketing landscape has increased in complexity, so has the role of client service in managing that complexity on behalf of their agencies and clients.
Yet we rarely talk about its evolution into the role it has become. We are so obsessed with other, perhaps more dramatic changes to the ecosystem, that we have lost focus on what has arguably become the most important role in an agency.
In my experience, one of the biggest sources of tension in the marketing ecosystem is the relationship dynamic between the multitude of agencies employed by clients today. A strong relationship between a client and its agencies is a key source of competitive advantage and business growth for both client and agency. Without a strong client service function, nurturing client and agency relationships, and managing process to a satisfactory outcome, that advantage is lost.
Recognising the new role of client service is key to fixing the problem
If you think your agency may have a client service problem here are my six tips for achieving client service success in the modern marketing world:
1 – Recognise that you have a problem
If the agency is suffering from poor client retention, low organic growth, or below average client satisfaction scores. Or if you feel that some of the agency teams are permanently on the back foot, or disorganised, or suffering from low morale. You most likely have some form of client service issue.
2 – Recognise client service as a discipline with a distinct set of accountabilities
To the uninitiated, client service is a dark art best practised behind closed doors or over a beer or two in the local pub with their clients. Yes, it can be this, but it is so much more.
Modern-day agency account handling is a complex and nuanced role that requires the broadest of skill set, but it is a discipline with a distinct set of responsibilities to fulfil and objectives to hit, and with a widely agreed best practice method of delivering against those objectives.
Yes, planners or creatives can “do client service” but at what cost? It is important to recognise and acknowledge client service as a distinct skill and department alongside say creative or planning or production.
3 – Recruit for the new discipline, not the old
It may sound obvious, but recruiting the right kind of people into the discipline is fundamental to the success of any client service team, and indeed agency. Whilst anybody can profess to be an account handler, it is a skill best suited to a specific type of person: intelligent (intellectually yes, but more important emotionally), empathetic, organised, proactive, multi-tasker, can manage process, interested in people.
T-shaped people is an old concept, but one I think is still relevant. I like client service practitioners to have a broad understanding of basic marketing theory but also a deep specialism in one area (experiential, media, digital performance etc.). Some experience client-side always helps too.
Hiring a leader for the discipline with proven agency client service success will fast track any solution. Don’t leave it for the MD or CEO, they’re often too busy running the agency to give the attention the team requires.
4 – Formalise your client satisfaction appraisal process
I’m amazed at how few agencies have a formal client relationship appraisal process. Too often agencies rely on a quick phone call from the CEO or MD to the senior client every once in a while to “check-in” and to make sure everything is “hunky dory.”
In this day and age when account teams are big, multi-skilled and working with multiple cross-functional clients (including procurement), you will never truly know how you are doing unless you have an open and continuous feedback loop that encompasses all clients.
Until of course you lose the business.
5 – Shine a light on your internal, client-agency and inter-agency processes
Inefficient processes are one of the most common causes of client and team dissatisfaction. Clients now demand that we move at the speed of light and as a consequence decisions are made in the blink of an eye that can have terrible ramifications later down the process. Once in a while it is important to take a step back to objectively assess processes to see if they are optimised towards the right outcomes. You’ll be amazed at what you uncover! A formalised client satisfaction appraisal process will go some way to highlighting significant issues.
6 – Commit to an ongoing course of client service learning
Whilst account handling is a multidimensional role and best practised by those with a leaning for the discipline, it is a skill-set than can be taught. Subjects such as project management, consultative selling, negotiation tactics, the art of persuasion, leadership, commercial skills, etc. are all subjects that can be learnt.
Equally, with the increase of disciplines that are now client-facing, there is an argument that they too should be educated in the ways of clients and client management.
In summary, I believe that now more than ever, multi-specialism agencies need world-class client service or account handling functions to act as the bridge to their clients and other agency partners. If you’re a client you should expect this. If you are an agency CEO you should provide this.
To build and shape that function though, needs dedicated time and expertise to achieve success.