adam-and-eve-1525During my long career on the agency side of Advertising I’ve had the privilege of working with some remarkable clients. I’ve been energised by their brilliance and done some of my best work because of it. On the flipside, I’ve had clients who did not earn my admiration, a hand most advertising veterans have been dealt at some point and simply had to make work. However, there is one irrefutable commonality across both – when it comes to the client-agency relationship there’s no point kidding ourselves. It is always the client who holds the power.

No matter how delicately advertising people try to skirt this issue, I’ve never had any illusions about it. It may well be an unpopular view, and is certainly a topic that’s frequently dressed up in PC terms like ‘partnership’ or ‘mutuality’, but let’s just call it as it is. Let’s apply the fearless candour and pragmatism that makes for great advertising people by acknowledging we’re on a date where one party is always going to pick up the cheque.

I understand why agencies shy away from the proper description of this ‘special relationship’. There is a lot at stake and even the best of relationships can feel tenuous when the competition is nipping at your tail. But to me, being realistic about its parameters and understanding the role each party plays within it confers a silent power. It allows you to be the unapologetic agency professional you need to be – the advisor, the counsellor, the devil’s advocate, the purveyor of un-sanitised truth. It is a role that is utterly complementary to the client’s. And only when you recognise that can you truly flourish in the relationship.

It’s not always a glitch-free liaison. There are many emotions to manage and tricky personalities to juggle. It demands courage and honesty, sometimes it requires blind faith. But I’ve never had a client who has not responded well to knowing that while I’ve got their back, I will always tell them what I really think.

The relationship between clients and their agencies is not some dirty little secret that needs to be described in euphemistic terms. It is a powerful intellectual exchange that goes way beyond what clients are able to achieve on their own. So long as brands exist there will be an inherent need for that service, and calling it anything other than what it is undervalues it.

Clients engage many other brains trusts – management consultants, lawyers, investment bankers. No one else seems to feel the need to skirt around what it is they bring to the table.  We might be doing ourselves a favour if we followed suit.

Caroline McLaughlin

Consultant, former MD and Client Service Director and Legends & Leaders Coach

Caroline Coaches in the Agency/Account Service and Relationships Modules

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