How To Be A Great Client – 9 Ways To Inspire Your Agency’s Best Work

T his is an op-ed from Jared Belsky, CEO and co-founder of Acadia. It originally appeared in Ad Age on August 17, 2023

At age 28, Coca-Cola made me brand manager on Fanta, with a multimillion-dollar budget and a 10-person team at agency Starcom Mediavest. My briefs to the agency were rushed and lazy. My instructions were vague demands with speedy turnarounds. My feedback was clipped. So, my agency team turned over constantly.

The problem was equally my arrogance and lack of training. Coca-Cola had one of the most intense onboarding processes on company operations and values, yet I learned nothing about how to manage my most important asset: the agency team and budget.

Over the years I’ve made it a point to ask chief marketing officers, CEOs and other top executives whether they have ever had training in how to get the best work from agency partners. Most told me they wanted to learn how to be a better client. By navigating moments when things go awry, a great client creates a virtuous cycle that reinforces confidence, candor and, ultimately, great work. We can create more great clients by setting a new standard in training and practice. It starts with a shift from coercive to curious leadership, viewing agencies as critical support and focusing on understanding the source of different perspectives and ideas.

Try these 9 behavior shifts to get the most out of your agency:Make great agency stewardship a KPIIn most companies, there is no consequence associated with failing to maximize an agency relationship. The old adage is that people respect what you inspect, so make this matter.Pick agencies for human skillsToo many RFPs are referendums on silly things such as tech stacks. Client and agency trust is usually forged at 7 p.m. on a Tuesday night when emotions are high. Who do you want to partner and compromise with in that moment? Test for agencies’ ability in critical problem solving, active listening and ideation. Prioritize the ones that take feedback and collaborate best. These values will prove more definitive day to day than advertising craft.

Onboard intensely

When you bring on an agency, you’re engaging a group of creative and analytical souls who desperately want to feel part of your mission and vision. So, devote at least a month to focus on five things. Share your core values. Walk through historical work that succeeded or failed, from briefs and plans to end products. Take the agency through your retail world and detail how the business model works. Then articulate the real goals, both your company’s and your own. As you do, take the time to meet the entire team one on one.

Reveal what inspires you

Fernando Machado, former CMO of Burger King, used to spend an hour briefing his agencies. He went through the history to define what inspired and disappointed him about the brand’s advertising over time. Agencies respond to humanity, vulnerability and passion. Share pictures, share stories and talk about your family and passions. Share work, hopes and ambitions, and what “great” is to you.

Have a well-crafted, realistic goal

Make it specific, measurable and attainable—not the mission impossible of a 50% gain on a 50% lower budget. Show everyone why the objective and pressure matter in human terms. When people know what it’s for, they get inspired and push together. That’s the real engine of efficiency and power in agency relationships.

Make feedback about the brief, not the person

Focus on feelings directed toward the work, not the people who make it. Always bring it back to the brief and keep the conversation within the team; resist the urge to call upstairs.

Use a now/new/next framework

The modern marketing plan is meant to adapt. Let the agency know there’s room for opportunism and spontaneity, and with it their role as continual challenger of the status quo. That creates an opportunistic culture.

Take a long view and understand if it's personal or systemic

Look at the agency relationship longitudinally and emphasize whether things are improving over time. You’ll sustain the feeling that there is one team by acknowledging there will be good and bad days and months. Also, take inventory to understand if you just don't happen to vibe with the account person (you can always ask for a rotation) versus saying “the agency is no good.”

Reset before review

If the work diminishes and tensions build, ask for a reset meeting that includes the agency’s CEO, team lead and top two subject matter experts. Write up a one-pager so you’re clear on what’s not working, what alternatives you envision, when you want to see changes and how you’ll evaluate them. If that stalls, contract a third party to help surface underlying issues and create solutions. You’ll likely avoid the $1 million and months of wasted opportunity the recent ANA/4A’s study found on agency review costs.

Within an agency, the best ideas flock to the best clients. The best team members flock to the best clients. And the greatest velocity of work gravitates toward the best clients. After 20 years managing agencies, I can assure you there is both a motivation credit and a motivation tax. You want the credit.

Marketing’s biggest opportunity isn’t new data or technology—it’s reenergizing relationships with agencies whose talent can change the fortunes of a business. When you make your agency team members feel cared for, human and part of your team, retention goes up, ideas get better and they dig deeper.

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Jared Belsky