When Melinda Street said she’d invited their new neighbours to dinner, did David Ogilvy think much would come of it? Clearly, they hit it off. Only a few months later, David’s neighbour (an exec at American Express) became a client. To this day, it’s Ogilvy’s longest-standing account.

So, what’s the secret sauce of sticky client-agency relationships? How have they changed? Are they the key to great creative work? For answers (not necessarily the right ones), we gathered together a Nokia client and a few Ogilvy creatives (sadly, not over dinner).

Here’s what they think about perfect client-agency partnerships, and how to improve them and the work.

What does the perfect agency or client look like?

Heather Ritchie, Head of Strategy, Portfolio and Services Marketing, Nokia: We want agency people who are smart, know a lot and offer diverse perspectives. They challenge us on different fronts and always bring fresh ideas to the table. There’s so much more noise out there – we’ve all got to take creative to the next level.

Clare Russell, Art Director, Ogilvy: That sounds like my perfect client – the one who’s prepared to be challenged and challenge others. Maybe we give clients and stakeholders too many options when we present our ideas? So, the brave creative route – the one we’d really love to do – gets watered down. The perfect client is willing to be brave and contest the stakeholders in the room. But how many brave clients are actually out there?

Glenn Sturgess, Head of Copy, Ogilvy: The only thing I’d add is the perfect relationships are founded on honesty and trust. Feedback should be given and received in the spirit intended – to make the work more effective. There’s no room for ego when the foundations of the relationship are right.

Darren Bolton, ECD, Ogilvy: I want clients with big ambitions. If they believe in the idea, they need to have the confidence to follow it through, and not keep looking over their shoulder. I’d also swap bigger budgets for fewer stakeholders any day of the week. The stakeholder merry-go-round can kill creativity. And finally, honesty is massively important for the relationships and the work. Sometimes we get positivity for the sake of positivity which keeps everyone happy but doesn’t get us to where we need to be.

How is the client-agency relationship changing?

Glenn: A massive change is the move to a much more scientific approach. Somehow, I think it’s changed relationships by emphasising things that are less human. So, the chemistry that sparked the relationship in the first place can get a bit lost in all the noise.

Darren: I think projects have become less linear. Once, we knew the beginning, the end, what we were creating and when. Now it’s less joined-up, and there’s less clarity over how or where the customer signs on the dotted line. As a result, key questions are missed. Did it work? What’s the point of it? Did the audience engage? What’s the follow-up? Now, it seems more about delivering tool kits (with little or no understanding of whether they work), and quantity – three pieces of video uploaded somewhere, box ticked, job done. Nooooooo! It’s not good enough, and clients need to be more accountable for what they produce. I think we’d have better, and more effective work on our hands if they were.

Heather: That’s a recipe for producing a volume of stuff people never look at. For us, that’s the big thing about coming to an agency. It’s a different sort of partnership. They’re on our team – here to create something special and do much more than the churn-and-burn option. 

Clare: Things move faster today. Presenting over the phone more than face to face is difficult for the relationship side of things. It’s the difference between hearing that weird silence and seeing peoples’ reactions. From a creative point of view, we need that. We need people to be smiling and laughing to gauge creative and understand how or why you were drawn to it.

How do you deal with the highs and lows of the relationship?

Heather: A fail isn’t a fail – I hope this applies on both sides. It’s about being open and honest about frustrations and how to resolve them.

Darren: With some clients, we’re not constantly having to prove ourselves. We’re in it together, and we want to deliver for them, personally, as much as the brand, which changes the way we talk to each other. Having creative rejected is awful, but seeing a client’s disappointment and frustration is so much worse. You feel you’ve let them down.

Heather: That’s when it’s crucial to communicate. If I am feeling frustrated about something, I value my account director picking up the phone and dealing with it head on. And it goes both ways – you’ve told me off several times for not-so-good briefs or missing the point of the story. I can sense the frustration at times. And that doesn’t make us feel great either.

Darren: That’s the hardest thing with briefs. Briefs aren’t easy, for anyone, client or agency. Sometimes just getting a brief from a client is a positive (you all know who you are). When it doesn’t go to plan the brief is where we turn to. Have we asked the right questions? Why aren’t we understanding or getting things right? Have they just chucked it over the fence hoping we will solve it? Sometimes it can fall into place and everything’s fine, but other times a lazy brief can cause a tricky relationship. And when we hit these kind of lows, we question ourselves a lot. 

Clare: From a creative point of view, we need to rise above any relationship difficulties. Negative feedback should just spur us on to come back with better work.

How does everyone stay motivated?

Glenn: It’s the problem-solving. It doesn’t have to be big weighty business problems and we don’t get that feeling every day, every week or even in every campaign. But when we do, the sense of satisfaction keeps us coming back for more.

Heather: Celebrating successes. It’s so different when you start to see people’s reactions and they’re energised about what we’ve created. These are big milestones, so we need to take time to celebrate. I get excited and motivated by that. People remember these creative moments – they really do stand out.

Clare: It’s great when you’re in the room and can see that response.

Darren: Having your opinions valued and listened to by the client will always motivate agencies. Having the expertise we bring to the table acknowledged and respected. It’s wanting to move the brand forward, and at every stage asking ourselves “what did we learn?”.

What does success look like?

Clare: A shiny awards cabinet, I guess. Getting work through properly from brief to execution and getting buy-in from the client for your favourite idea.

Glenn: The work has to be something the audience gets. It must land otherwise there’s no point. If we’ve made work we’re pleased with, but it hasn’t landed then it’s a wasted opportunity. Work that is memorable and original is success.

Heather: And success for us is also changing – accountability will be higher than it has ever been before. We are looking at data across so many different touchpoints.

Darren: That for me is the dream – that clients are accountable for what they’re doing, in the right way, but very few are. Knowing how many sales were generated brings more power. The data and insight show why this will have impact, rather than a gut feel from a client.

Clare: We need to spend more time measuring success through data. Results from our live campaigns can help us decide intelligently what is working well and what isn't. Also, further analysis of competitor campaign activations could inspire our thinking for what methods and mediums are really grasping the audience’s attention.

Heather: We know a lot of our customers, so what role does marketing play? There are many people in technology who think it’s down to good products and good features, delivered well.  For me, the marketing dream is to turn up at the table and say, “this is why and this is how”.

Darren: If you haven’t got the results it’s harder. Without them, it’s starting from scratch. But armed with the results adds credibility and helps you build on what you already know works.

What could we all do differently?

Heather: There’s much more work to do in preparation than we’ve done historically. And the notion of how it all fits together to capture a customer’s interest. That’s the big one for us.

Darren: I think the best way of getting better creative out, is to make sure that the client feels part of it. They need to be invested in the work. Without that it’s really hard to make people feel as emotionally connected to the work, as we do. Little and often presentations help us ensure it’s a joint effort – that’s potentially the best way.

Glenn: On investing time, there are points for creatives and clients. First, creatives can be a tad lazy about investing time and brain power to learn about the client’s company – and that’s just not good enough today. Secondly, I’d ask clients to invest too. Like any Premiership manager knows, it’s about getting results. If your agency is genuinely not getting you results, maybe it’s time to move on. But often I feel that if neither has invested enough time, then relationships start to break down because that hasn’t happened.

Clare: I agree that you need to immerse yourself into what the client’s business is doing and their competitors. Easier said than done, and not simple when you have multiple clients to work on. The more we get together to share work and ideas the better.

Darren: I also think clients need to spend more time looking at work, within and outside their organisations and industries. They need to take a view on what makes great work. The more they see, the more they will appreciate it, plus their expectations go up which is good for us both.

So, are clients getting the best out of their agency? Currently, I think not. Not in the B2B world. When I look at the award-winning work, publications and digital stuff, it just isn’t good enough.  Clients, start to challenge your agencies with what is expected, put them under pressure, expect and demand more. Ditto for agencies. It will only improve if we both play our part.

Top tips on achieving the perfect agency-client relationship

Tip 1.

Agencies, invest time and intellect in the brands you work on. It takes time to understand how complex brands work internally. And what works externally. This is a journey that the agency and client should be on together.

Tip 2.

Look to minimise stakeholders where possible (both agency and client side). This will produce creative work that's more single-minded, effective and has greater impact.

Tip 3.

We all need to be more ambitious and braver. Clients should expect agencies to produce work that pushes them beyond their comfort zone and agencies should be prepared for clients who demand work that's different, original and more challenging.  

Tip 4.

Clients. Start looking at more work (not just your industry and not just B2B), and get to understand what makes this a good piece of creative. This will empower you to be able to judge work better.

Tip 5.

Agencies. Look to get the client emotionally invested in the work. This might mean more meetings, with less defined work early on. If it feels like ‘our’ work, they will fight for it more.

Tip 6.

Honesty should always be a two-way street - what's important is expressing your opinion in the right way and always being prepared to see things from the each other's viewpoint.

Tip 7.

Everyone needs to take ownership for their part in the creative process. And agencies and clients should both be accountable for the outcomes – specifically, the impact the work has on the world.

Tip 8.

Whether the work flies or bombs, there's always something to learn. So let's make sure we always get results, understand what hits the spot and learn from our mistakes.

Tip 9.

Always celebrate success. No matter how small. Together.


There's more from our Creative Conversations series - read "Is creativity essential to B2B" here.