About Johanna McDowell

Johanna McDowell counsels clients and agencies around expectations in the advertising, marketing process. She is CEO of the Independent Agency Search and Selection Company (IAS), a division of black-owned marketing services group Mazole Holdings.
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When saying ‘no’ is a step forward

Relationships between clients and agencies are delicate, sometimes volatile and often saying ‘no’ can tip the scales on the dynamics of the relationship. Be it as a client or an agency, saying ‘no’ should not result in ill feelings or demotivation but rather become a turning point toward fostering a strong and mutually beneficial relationship.

Agencies who always strive to demonstrate transparency on their deliverables will promote an honest professional working relationship with their clients. If an agency is able to assess that a request from a client is either impossible, does not meet the client’s objectives or is not a speciality or service of the agency, then they should be encouraged and empowered to decline that request.’

This action goes a long way in assuring a client that the agency is capable of looking after the client’s best interests as well as the health of the agency’s business.

Although saying ‘no’ to a client request could perhaps cause ill feelings on both sides, the greater risk is that agencies will just become “order takers” instead of playing to their real strength of challenging the current thinking and recommending more proactive strategies.  When agencies just implement client instructions, and give into their clients, the long term effect for both parties is mediocrity of outputs and thinking, neither of which are healthy for the relationship.

As an intermediary in the client agency relationship and agency selection processes we have found that agencies often believe that all the power rests with the client.  And yet, extraordinarily enough, clients often believe the complete opposite. This illustrates to us that there needs to be a balance in power in order for the relationship to work and that mutual trust is based on the ability to say ‘no’, as opposed to the typical dynamics of a  master/servant relationship which is sometimes the characteristic of client/agency relationships.

Both parties will hopefully always be encouraged to say ‘no’ when it is just not possible. This process need not be met with fears of de-motivating the agency; a disappointed agency often rises to the challenge and will frequently come up with another, possibly better, solution. A good dialogue with client will ensure that those alternative solutions are created.

Over the years we have noticed that the gap between a long term and short term relationship lies in the foundations on which it is built. Regular evaluation or performance appraisal processes are important aspects of building on the sound structures that are hopefully put in place by both parties at the outset of their relationship.

These simple principles are the hallmark of all successful client/agency relationships.

  1. In-depth knowledge of the roles within each organisation will mean that everyone knows who is responsible for what and planned and fluid communication can occur.
  1. Evaluation of an agency’s output also provides the agency with a benchmark from which to improve its services to client. The more accurate the measurement criteria are, the more transparent the relationship will become.
  1. Once an agreement around the parameters of the advertising, marketing or communication campaign is made, the implementation is easier, more accurate and defined.
  1. Regular, scheduled meetings to discuss the working relationship, including tone and manner, will create an environment for frank, open and honest dialogue between both the client and the agency at all levels.

Saying “no” in any relationship sets boundaries and breeds respect on both sides. We believe that client; agency relationships are no different.

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