Years ago, my Ammirati & Puris colleagues presented a final version of a television commercial we were creating for Compaq Computer (now a subsidiary of Hewlett-Packard) to a gathering of client contacts.
The spot was good, but it was a bit dark, a point made to us by one of our lead clients. The possibility of a reshoot, at agency expense, hung ever so ominously in the air. That’s when one of the Compaq people we were working with, Jack Todd, spoke up.
“I was at the shoot with the Ammirati team," he said. "I approved the dailies and then the rough cut, so if there’s an issue with the spot’s lighting, it is as much my fault as the agency’s.”
In moments like this, most clients would remain silent and let the agency take the hit, even if it meant something as costly as a reshoot. Not Jack. He saw himself as our partner. He was brave enough to share responsibility with us, even though the consequences, financial and otherwise, could be serious.
The discussion went back and forth for a few minutes as we worked through the alternatives. In the end, we would do what we could to brighten the spot in post-production, but it would run as filmed, no reshooting required.
I was never close with Jack, nor was my team. He was a largely unknown, almost remote figure, but when it was time to stand up for the agency, Jack stood up. From that day on, I knew we could trust him.
This is a story with a (relatively) happy ending, but what happens when you find yourself not trusting a client? How do you respond?
There are a nearly infinite number of reasons why an agency might feel this way, but I suspect the majority coalesce around three issues: the work, the relationship, and the money.
Not trusting the client about the work
Put any two people in a room and there likely will be a debate about the work, by which I mean not only a piece of creative, but also a strategy recommendation, a media plan, or anything else you produce on behalf of a client. But trust issues? Most clients I know are quick with an opinion, but a lack of trust often occurs when a client is not being straight with the agency, is not helping make the work better, and is reluctant or reticent to share what they really think about what you presented.
Now you can try to muddle through, but I see the absence of clear direction as your problem, not the client’s. The challenge is to elicit honest and thorough feedback from even the most recalcitrant, uncertain, and withholding client, so that you extract input you and your colleagues can act on.
You do this by 1) framing the issue precisely, 2) listening deeply to questions and concerns, spoken and (especially) unspoken, and 3) addressing those questions and concerns by exploring every possible option. With an unwilling client, you need to work incredibly hard to gain "I really mean it" buy-in.
Not trusting the client about the relationship
With relationships, it simply could be your client doesn’t like you. But what should you do in this situation?
Your first recourse is to find someone on your team the client does like, then ask them to serve as the face of the agency, with you receding to the background. I have been in several situations where a client did not like me, but did like someone else on our team. Sometimes it was a creative person. Sometimes it was a strategist or planner. On occasion, it was another account person.
In these instances, I took on a supporting rather than the lead role, ceding terrain to the person the client felt more comfortable with. I was happy to do this, grateful there was someone (or someones) the client liked and respected.
Your last recourse, after you’ve explored all other staffing options, is to change the casting, knowing that it is better to change personnel on an account than it is to lose it, even if it means “firing” yourself from the account.
Not trusting the client about the money
The client’s goal: To get as much service, productivity, and output as they can from the agency for the fewest dollars possible.
Your goal: To be paid fairly for your efforts.
Mind you, none of this is personal; it's business.
If your client tends to grind you down on price, build in some financial cushion upfront, providing the necessary “give” in your fee that you can concede that won’t bankrupt your shop. If you still find yourself consistently unable to command a fair fee for your efforts, you face a decision: Do you keep the client, asking other, more profitable clients to, in a sense, underwrite this underperforming one? Or do you make the difficult choice?
If the account is small in fee and the work unremarkable, you likely shake hands and wish them well. If the account is large in fee and the work is amazing, you have to think long and hard before you make a decision. In many cases, you keep the client, knowing how deep the impact on staffing would be were you to cut them loose.
A Matter of Trust
Even if you don’t fully trust the people you are dealing with, you still can like them, and you can find a way to manage the relationship. The only thing that truly should erode trust is if your client is being dishonest, dishonorable, or worse.
In situations like these -- rare though they be -- there is only one option at your disposal, and you already know what it is.