Dorothy Crenshaw October 5, 2010 | 10:30:13

Five Things I Learned On The Client Side

Guest post by Patricia Gibney

After many years in the agency world – from boutiques to multinationals – I found myself in that magical place called in-house. As a client, I looked forward to developing a company-wide communications strategy. I envisioned following an orderly protocol for media relations, being the internal expert and adviser to senior management, and having smart agency partners.

The reality was very different. Senior executives called journalists directly without consulting my department. PR firms were considered vendors, to be held at arm’s length. Communications strategy was frequently a work in progress.

The bottom line: being on the client side comes with a whole set of issues and challenges few agency people understand or take into account. Here are a few learnings from the other side of the table, based on my experience as a client at two different companies, working with several major PR firms.

Agency teams are myopic. Working with the agency is just one small part of a typical client’s job. Want to really understand why a client doesn’t get back to you with those edits or feedback on a proposal?  Spend time with them. Ask them about their job, what they’re responsible for, how they like to work with an agency/team members, and what their bosses expect. Not only will you come away with a greater respect for the client’s depth and breadth of responsibilities, you may discover ways to make a real difference in their work and grow your business in the process.

Service trumps all. Creativity and strategic skills are the price of entry, but what sometimes set agency teams apart was how quickly they returned my calls. Would you believe that I regularly had trouble getting monthly reports from one mega-firm whose fee was over $50,000 per month? Poor service can drag down the entire relationship.

The best teams take responsibility. Even when they’re not responsible.  While ideally a single e-mail or call from an account person should put an issue back in the client’s court for resolution, it often doesn’t work that way. Myopia aside, helping to keep me on top of my job helped avoid the black-hole syndrome for the best teams I partnered with, and it helped our relationship even more. Don’t confuse a lack of response with a lack of interest.

Budgets are sacred.  Few things upset a client more than a mishandled budget, and agency people can be cavalier, or even sloppy, about overages. Don’t let it happen…but if it does, launch an early warning system and be prepared with potential solutions.

Perfection is hard to come by. Not all executives are great with media, and not all corporate stories are compelling. It’s just a fact of life that an agency must sometimes work with raw material that’s less than ideal. While concerns need to be expressed and realistic expectations set, the agency’s job is to help me make the best of the situation by working hard, not complaining about what is lacking. A team who does that will earn my respect, and my business.

Patricia Gibney has held senior communications positions both in-house and at major public relations firms. She was most recently Director of Communications at Avaya.

5 thoughts on “Five Things I Learned On The Client Side

  1. Patricia,
    Nice article. Seems like these are things you probably learned (or should have) on the agency side but now, more than ever, realize the importance of now that you are a “client.”
    Regarding budget, however, sometimes it’s the client who disregards the budget with major late changes. Can’t always blame the agency for that!

  2. Thanks Tricia for demystifying some of what goes on “in-house” – especially insightful for agency folks? talking with your client about their actual job – seems obvious but i know from personal experience we get so bogged down in servicing the account we dont always make time to get to know the client and his/her day-to-day experience. Great post.

  3. Dear Bob —
    Glad you liked the piece.
    You are absolutely right on both counts. I can only speak for myself — there are many things I probably should have seen when I was on the agency side but the fact is they were really driven home when I was living in-house. As for budget — yes, many times it is the client’s issue but an an agency wants to make sure it’s not their issue.

  4. Tricia,
    This was a very interesting read. I especially enjoyed the bullet about staying within the budget. I often get caught up in my quest for success and overdo. Then, I’m stuck with either eating the time or going to my client with the overage. This was a good reminder to be more careful!

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