How empathy can unlock opportunities and boost your client/agency partnership

Welcome to the Client Service Couch

I have a client who is continually saying how little budget they have, and their boss is demanding they get more for less. Our relationship is strong, and the work is good. However, it’s an increasing struggle to balance delivering good work in a profitable way within an ever-diminishing budget. Do you have any advice on what to do?

Yes, this is certainly a familiar scenario. And I suspect it’s not one that’s going away any time soon. But don’t despair. Opportunities lie within the challenge. The key is to respond with empathy, creativity and treat your client as a partner. Let’s unpack that.

Act with empathy and add value

If we as agencies are feeling the pressure of needing to do more with less, then be sure our clients are too. They’re almost certainly facing internal pressures as their businesses demand more justification for their marketing spend, alongside an expectation to understand new channels and a changing landscape. To some marketeers it must feel that as soon as they’ve built a solid foundation, the sands shift again.

Agencies can usually adapt more quickly than big organisations. So, when your list of deliverables seems to be growing disproportionately to the budget, resist the urge to feel like the victim. Respond to your client with empathy. Behave like a partner, sharing the challenge and reinforce the areas agencies can add value.

‘Of course we can help you work through these challenges. Yes, there are different ways we can approach things. Yes, we’ve done this before with other clients – you’re not alone. Yes, we can move quickly and adapt.’

When clients are under pressure, they need to feel supported. The partners that help them navigate their challenges will be the ones they turn to in the future.

Unearth the opportunities (or create them)

Fundamentally, agencies are problem solvers. Clients pay for creativity they don’t house within their organisations. And we as client service folk spend most of our days solving problems. Let’s put that superpower into practice.

It might appear the opportunities aren’t what they used to be – ‘We’ll never get that big director with this budget, whilst also capturing all this social content!’

But think about what the biggest wins are for the client, where you can add value while also making the work viable and valuable for the agency. For example, that big event the client is investing in will be of greater value if more people see it. Perhaps a clever content idea to amplify it is more useful to the client than a more traditional approach. And that might actually make for a more interesting case study for the agency than another TV ad on the reel.

Perhaps a production event focused on creating a whole stream of assets in a different way presents an opportunity to up-skill some internal talent who can do the work in a more agile and efficient way – meaning more deliverables for the client while protecting profitability.

And once you start thinking that way, perhaps it’s an opportunity to change everything that wasn’t so great about the ‘good old days’ anyway…

Efficiency is a team game

A final thought. In a world in which you’re being asked to find efficiencies, you could also share that expectation with your client too and take the opportunity to optimise how you work together. It would be entirely reasonable to set out some requirements in terms of how your client briefs, reviews and approves the work.

While not every organisation can or should try to adopt them wholesale, there are some really helpful principles from the agile methodologies developed by tech companies that can help. For example, empowering small project teams to make decisions; adopting a test and learn mindset rather than waiting for perfection; and simplifying process and stakeholder engagement to reduce the likelihood of repeating stages of work.

The empathy you show at the outset should reinforce the partnership, helping you and your client achieve the best holistic solution rather than providing a response to a transactional, one-way demand. Instead of feeling powerless with ever increasing demands, hopefully these suggestions can empower you to be an active participant, unlocking opportunities, while learning and helping others along the way.

The Client Service Couch is a new column from the IPA Client Relationship Group. This question was answered by James Joice, Managing Director, Fold7. If there is a topic you would like us to address anonymously, please email Gabriella Young.

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The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and were submitted in accordance with the IPA terms and conditions regarding the uploading and contribution of content to the IPA newsletters, IPA website, or other IPA media, and should not be interpreted as representing the opinion of the IPA.

Last updated 01 May 2024