Why long-term retainers could be bad for your client-agency relationship

31st Aug 2016

As a business owner, what is the Holy Grail? Long-term retainers with good clients, doing work you love, would be mine. You know the clients, the money rolls in and it is fun.

But while this is incredibly attractive, there is always a bit of an undercurrent. If the relationship becomes too comfy, creativity can start to dull and before you know it, you are turning out mediocre work that doesn’t do you or the client any favours. It just leaves you exposed to the competition, who are forever circling to take your business.

Complacency can kill and the bigger your client, the harder you can fall. An often seen problem is self-censoring. When you know the client won’t like it, or it is a bit against the brand guidelines, so you bin it. It never sees the light of day and is pushed down immediately. Before you know it, you are just implementing guidelines and are a yes man or woman. Worse still, you are using phrases like: “Nice idea, but they won’t buy that…” You might not realise it, but you are your worse enemy and what you think is good for the relationship, might be shortening it.

So why does this happen?

A big part of any successful relationship is getting to know each other well. With clients, you take an initial look at their brand guidelines and start working out what you can and can’t do. You realise quickly the underlying rules and realise more and more what is acceptable and what is not.

To start with, this can be laborious and take a lot of tedious checking. As you get better, it gets faster and more efficient, you hit the right note first time more often than not. But this can be the beginning of the end if it results in a dumbing down of ideas and a move towards a more vanilla version of life where everything is the same. It can become very easy to go with safe.

No one got fired for buying IBM, but was it just the safe, boring and expensive way to go forward? It happens because it is a line of least resistance. You get a 'yes' every time and don’t have to do endless amends, surely that is a good thing? It might be good for now, but not for the long-term. It leaves the door open to aggressive competitors who are prepared to go further and harder.

What can you do about it?

Think back to the first days, when you started, there was a certain naivety, a blurring of the lines and a desire to create great work and take risks. You used to see if we could get away with something, whether the guidelines could be stretched and a willingness to put forward riskier ideas that could be shot down. But where are you now? You need to keep an element of that naivety, to challenge conventional thinking and to push ideas to the edges. This is not necessarily a natural thing, so you need to plan it in.

Take time to look at other things you can do. Commit to present an idea that will stretch the boundaries with other more conventional ones.

There comes a point when you need to ask yourself some serious questions:

  • What would we do if we did not know about any of the restrictions or personalities involved?
  • How would we treat this as a stand-alone piece of work?
  • Would we react to the brief differently if this was a pitch?

You don’t want to do this in the dark, feedback needs to be a two-way street and feedback is the light that lets you see what you are doing. See if you can get your client to review what you are doing and what they are happy with and what they would like done differently. It is not easy to get straight answers face-to-face, so use an anonymous survey to get really insightful information.

Changes are good and a natural one is to look at is changing location. A new neutral location can take you and the client out of the normal space and give you both a chance to think about things differently. Come up with some new and exciting ideas. Embrace the crazy ideas, then look at how you can make them relevant and useable, rather than just automatically squashing them.

How should you view relationships?

Good relationships are where people value them and are aware that complacency is a risk. It is much cheaper to retain business than to win it, so what are you doing to retain and refresh the relationship?

When did you last bring some exciting new ideas to the client? When did you entertain them? When did you challenge and push back on something?

A good relationship is an honest two-way one, yes you need to know each other, but you also need to challenge each other. Business relationships, like personal ones can go stale. Getting to the seven-year itch is less likely in a business setting, as it tends to cut in a lot faster. Clients move, purchasing gets involved and there are always a barrage of companies who want to take your place. So don’t take your relationship for granted, nurture and refresh it and like the best relationships, it will go on and on.

Top five tips

  1. Stop self-censoring, if it is good, show the client.
  2. Forget your preconceptions for a day and go back to basics.
  3. Wild ideas can be tempered, boring ones are hard to improve.
  4. Brands will always flex guidelines for brilliant ideas.
  5. Don’t take your business relationship for granted.

Tom Tuke-Hastings is the author of new book, It’s All About The Idea. The book contains more examples and 52 creative steps to make you and your team more creative in the next year, and is available from Amazon priced £9.99.

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