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Getting to the heart of what makes client-agency relationships work

A paper by the IPA Client Relationship Group. Co-authored Kirsteen Scoble, Deputy Managing Director of MullenLowe, Nicola Ivory, Business Director at Isobar and Caroline Davison, Elvis Communications' Client Services Director.

Our Industry is built on relationships. The truly great creative work emerges from strong, respectful client-agency collaborations. Better relationships result in better commercial creativity.

And yet, if those of us in the IPA Client Relationship Group are anything to go by, the defining document of most client agency relationships remains a Master Services or Service Level Agreement, drawn up between procurement departments and lawyers, which requires a law degree to create and a real commitment to the cause to comprehend.

There have been a plethora of thought pieces around how to build strong client-agency relations in recent years, the IPA’s own ‘A is for Alliances’ among the most notable. Most advocate the idea of bringing more professional and psychological aspects to how we contract with clients, defining professional as ‘how we work together as professionals, the boundaries of the scope of work, and what each side will bring to the party’ and psychological as ‘how we work together as people to make us more collaborative, productive and effective’.

Working with Avis and DDB’s 1966 ‘Advertising Working Philosophy’ and the IPA and Julie Hay’s more recent ‘Psychological Framework’ as stimulus, we universally agreed in our session that such ‘charters’ would be a positive step toward creating healthier, more mutually beneficial relationships between ourselves and clients. At a time when cultural zeitgeist is questioning the underpinnings of business best practice, and emotional wellbeing is recognized as a human necessity, we as an industry have been relatively slow in challenging the status quo.

So what’s standing in our way? How can it be that the Avis-DDB charter from 1966 remains the best example of such agreements? Why do we read it, scoff a little at its forthrightness, sigh and think ‘if only’?

What follows are our thoughts on the barriers to putting emphasis on the professional and psychological aspects of client relationships, how the current IPA psychological framework might be adapted to counteract these barriers and create a constructive charter, how to introduce charters to clients, and how to ensure they remain embedded over time – delivering long-term value for all.

The potential barriers

1) Professional and psychological charters are not ‘the norm’ and therefore add elements of complication and risk into discussions with prospective new clients

When any of us enter into the negotiation phase of a pitch, we’re looking to secure that piece of business as quickly as possible. Therefore, introducing additional paperwork or points of discussion (especially around topics such as emotional values and psychological wellbeing) would undoubtedly complicate the process, and highlight the potential risk of uncertainty and conflict in the relationship going forward.

2) Proposing charters as contract extensions to existing clients can make them question what is currently in place

Initiating discussions with existing clients may make them look more closely at the relationship as it stands, and the value that they place on it. If the relationship isn't broken, why rock the boat?

3) The rationale for these ‘softer’ types of charters is based around theory rather than quantifiable results

The lack of case studies or quantifiable results for such agreements makes them a harder ‘sell’ and annex to existing, KPI-laden contracts, particularly to more procurement-driven businesses.

4) Such initiatives need to be championed within a business to succeed

Both sides need to be committed to guarantee success; there need to be likeminded individuals within agency and client teams to ensure the principles become embedded within the business culture and taken seriously. The desire to put a professional and / or psychological charter in place, and the value subsequently placed on it may not be as strong for certain clients as for their agencies. If there isn’t an obvious champion client side, the potential of such charters will never be realised.

5) The practical implications of such charters may feel too far-reaching or arduous

Clauses concerning regular face-to-face meetings and senior stakeholder presence, will undoubtedly result in more effective ways of working and stronger relationships, but would most likely require significant changes to the way a client business is run. Would clients truly embrace what is required or is it more likely the charters end up comprising of less meaningful clauses?

6) The terminology used in professional and psychological charters seems at odds with their objectives

For example, the very word ‘psychological’ feels counterintuitive to the more collaborative, emotional way of working and communicating that we are advocating.

Introducing the concept to Clients

For all the reasons we’ve discussed, even the most progressive of Clients are likely to want to run for the hills when you announce out the blue ‘let’s have a psychological charter’.

So, let’s firstly change the language. What we’re really talking about is agreeing a set of behaviours, a code of conduct, a ‘ways of working’ that goes beyond process.

Thus, this isn’t really a new concept, it’s one many of us are doing informally anyway. Our paper seeks to give advice on how to introduce the formal concept to both new and existing Clients.

Creating a starter for ten

Happily, the IPA’s Psychological Framework’ represents a great foundation from which to work when developing a mutual charter for relationship behaviours. 

Consider agreeing the bedrock values which underpin the professional and psychological promises you will make and ensure these run through the document like a red thread.  Simplicity of language is key, as is a tone of voice which makes the expression of cherished values feel ownable by the working team - both client and agency.  At the same time, it is key to drive understanding that individuals learn, work, and celebrate success in different ways – a positive, inclusive charter should recognize that though the values shared should be consistent across client-agency teams, manifestation of these on an individual level will vary.

It’s important also to include some suggested enablers, to ensure the charter doesn’t become just another document that lives on the server, rather than in the minds of people.  Consider co-investing as agencies and client organizations in training around competencies which will support delivery of your key values – or even soft skills coaching.  Encourage a process of reflection against the charter at intervals – how well are teams living up to the professional and psychological ambitions they’ve have made a commitment to?  What are the best examples of these behaviours in action that can be celebrated to reinforce and embed what good looks like?  Create an environment of secure, constructive feedback – don’t use a charter as a stick to beat with in times of challenge; use it to support ever better ways of working, and as a tool for effectiveness.

Consider adding a sense of jeopardy – what is the impact of not agreeing such a charter in terms of the relationship and commercial health of the business, and indeed career fulfilment of the individuals invested?  Optimally, KPIs should be developed that bring delivery against the charter into the scope of contractual obligations – show you mean business and elevate the charter beyond the status of ‘fluff’.

A tool to woo new Clients

Being honest with ourselves, there is little real differentiation between the actual services agencies offer. Pitches are lost and won on the smallest of detail; there’s folklore about a pitch that was won on the basis of one agency’s bacon sandwiches. You could make the charter your bacon sandwich i.e. make the pitch the moment that you set out the stall of a professional ways of working to start the relationship as you mean to go on – clear in how you’ll work together and what behaviours will help to get the output to outstanding. Consider this a point of real agency differentiation.

Getting existing Clients on board

We acknowledge that it’s likely to be easier to introduce a charter at the beginning of a relationship, than midway through, but that’s not to say you can’t and shouldn’t.

Most businesses will have a yearly review/check in, which presents the perfect opportunity, as this is an agreed time set aside to take stock.

If the review is positive and all are happy with how things are going, then you could introduce a charter to formalize the values which are supporting this wonderful harmony and stand out business results, to cement it for the future. Highlighting that a charter is also an effective onboarding tool, useful for anyone when they join the business to ensure they’re clear on the behaviours expected.  

If the review isn’t the high-fiving everyone had hoped, but secretly knew was the case, then again this could be the time to introduce it.  What have you really got to lose? The business is rocky anyway.

Of course, all clients are different, as are all people, so the method of introduction is not one size fits all. However, one tried and tested method is workshopping with all key clients (difficult to co-ordinate, but well worth it) to come to the key principles of your professional ways of working contract together. Basic psychology shows that (most) people are more likely to buy into something if they have had a hand in creating that something, rather than receiving a top down dictate. Though you will need senior sponsors at both the agency and client’s business to give their support.

Keeping momentum

There is little point having a formal agreement if it’s not used on a regular basis. It should be an active document, used to steer meetings, to praise or call out certain behaviours publicly and in appraisals - remind people what they helped to develop and ultimately signed up to.

Get started today

Ultimately, we work in partnership as clients and agencies to pursue mutual growth.  Master Services and Service Level Agreements are robust expressions of our minimum commitment to each other, but it’s high time our industry recognized that professional and psychological harmony is what elevates performance, and drives greater results overall. 

A relationship charter which cements values and desired behaviours – whilst respecting individual idiosyncrasies – can extend the terms of your commitment as partners and establish more harmonious working relationships.  Make sure it is actionable, socialized, and a living artefact that constantly reinforces what good looks like.  Your charter should be a sales tool for new prospects, a rallying cry for existing business, and a recruitment tool for talent coming into your business.

We hope this paper provides useful food for thought and some direction on how you can create your own professional and psychological relationship charter.  If you have any feedback on any of the above, or indeed any feedback on how you have implemented this guidance, we would love to hear more at phillipairving@ipa.co.uk

The IPA Client Relationship Group represents and works primarily for those in agency client servicing and account management. It serves to raise the real and perceived value of the client service discipline through contributing to a range of issues affecting the industry at large. Find out more about the group here.

Last updated 12/07/2017

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