Clients just don’t get it.

During my marketing agency days, it was hard to walk down the hallway or hold a meeting without hearing this phrase.

It was a rallying call of the disaffected. A mantra for marketing service providers.

It was dead wrong.

During my agency career, it was common to hear grumblings about “how clients just don’t get it” or even how clients can be just plain dumb. Great ideas got shot down, projects got killed, budgets cut — it happened all the time.

Among my young gun agency peers “the Client” was the problem, and we (i.e. the agency) were the people hard at work, doing their bidding.

I’ll never forget the day that all changed.

From Agency to The Client

I was talking with a friend who had been hired away from his agency to work as a brand manager at a large consumer products company. He was one of the few agency people I had ever known to have crossed to the “other side.”

Now he got to be The Client. Sweet gig, right?

He was eager to share with me just how differently he viewed the Agency; now that he was a corporate guy. He admitted to having a total paradigm shift after a just a few months being The Client.

Newly indoctrinated to the Corporate World, he openly admitted that there was so much he simply never realized before.

The Client? They weren’t dumb, they were just overwhelmed by everything involved in managing an internationally renown brand.

As brand manager, my friend was now responsible for managing the P&L for a $100+ million dollar brand. Their duties included financial forecasting and product development. They even stepped in to lead the charge with manufacturing and testing new products.

And then there was all the on-going internal meetings about those projects.

“Staying on top of day-to-day marketing activities is my 10th priority right now,” he added, ironically, “that’s why I am paying you to get the job done.”

What it Takes to Survive on The Client Side

His corporate peers were more “MBA-types,” they were wired differently from “agency people.”

MBA-types think of their business as a chess board. Each piece has their function, and the objective is to use them for their strengths.

Marketing agencies? They were pawns. In high supply and ready to be exploited (and maybe even sacrificed) for their highly targeted expertise. Their company came to genuinely rely on marketing agencies for their outside objectivity and continuous fresh ideas from the front lines.

Outsourcing certain specialty tasks to an agency just made solid business sense. As brand manager, he had more in the marketing mix than could be realistically handled in-house. Their agency bought the bandwidth from agencies that allowed them to better focus on the rest of the marketing mix.

“Agencies are wired differently, and that’s good! But it drives me crazy to think of all the opportunities that we missed at the agency. I could have created a more ‘symbiotic’ relationship had we asked all the right questions… We thought that we were the kings and queens, with clients being the pawns in our game. Turns out, it was the opposite.”

He continued: “And that’s the hard part – In order to grow, we will need to rely on agencies to innovate, share ideas and help us grow our brand equity. Our strategy is to find the best pieces we can to win the game.

In other words, the client isn’t dumb. They are the most valuable piece on the chess board.

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