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March 14th, 2016

Walking a Mile In The Agency Staffer’s Shoes

Client-agency relationships in the PR industry are tricky, much like agency-media relationships (but that’s a different topic): We need each other. Admittedly, we need them more to just keep our business running but it’s still not a one-way street. It’s also no surprise that irrespective of which side we are on, people in the corporate communications industry are trying to achieve the same results – secure positive visibility for our clients! Even then, very rarely do we see a client-agency engagement that is totally free of friction.

These shall be known as my "global summit shoes."

I have had this thought for a while now and with every passing year, it only keeps getting stronger.

I really feel that every person on the client side of the corporate communications industry should spend a minimum of five to seven years on the agency side before switching over. Here are a few aspects where we usually see the disconnect…

Team Staffing is Proportional to Client Retainers

“I just feel this account is understaffed” “Are there other accounts that this person works on… how many other accounts? Are they bigger/better accounts than ours?”  “I am worried that the team size has been cut down from last year.”

I have often heard clients come back and share insights on the way we organize our teams for their accounts. Well, team structuring may not be rocket science, but it is still science. Every agency wants to have a spread of team structures that’s in the best interest of all their clients.

However, every PR agency, big or small, is a business. Like every other business, the basic fundamentals of profit and loss guide how we organize our teams. The math of how much time from various resources, according to seniority, can be allocated to an account purely depends on client retainers. Moreover, talent scarcity is a harsh reality and salaries increase every year. If retainers stay flat, it is not difficult to do the math to figure out how team structures get impacted.

Senior Intervention – Needed Or Not?

“I need more senior people on my account” “I don’t see any senior counsel”

Agencies very often face the pressure of showing senior people in client team structures as that is a repeated ask in pitches and ongoing discussions. I have not been able to figure out why but many clients are sometimes so busy fighting for senior level involvement that they often tend to ignore the hard work and dedication of other team members.

The reality on this is an offshoot of the previous logic. With seniority, people on the agency side also take on additional responsibilities pertaining to the organization’s holistic growth such as business development, manpower planning, marketing, networking and so on. Some agencies may have dedicated roles for each of these horizontal functions, but they would still be working closely with the client servicing teams.

Needless to say that even though the involvement of senior team members comes down on day-to-day client servicing, their experience and expertise is well leveraged on an ongoing basis by teams judiciously. If clients could understand the nuances of when to involve or insist for senior leadership better, that would improve the overall experience for everybody.

The Escalation Effect

“I have asked the team to do this, but am flagging off to you as well as it is critical activity, and there is a lot riding on it. We want to put our best foot forward, so could you please look into this and closely guide the team?”

If we are talking about seniority, let’s also touch upon what they usually have to deal with – escalations! Escalations have been exploited to such as extent in the industry today, that they almost run the risk of losing their identity. In my humble opinion, an escalation is like oil. It may seem like abundance will solve all our problems, but sometimes an over supply has the potential to break down the entire system.

We are living in a non-hierarchical mindset world now. People do good work because they want to do good work, not because they are at gunpoint pressure from their supervisors.

Making your Client-Servicing Team look Good

“The team really came through for me and I want to acknowledge that…”

We are all taught on the agency side to make our clients look good. Yes, we work for companies, but we work with people before that. We are sensitive about the role we can play to help our clients win in front of their internal stakeholders.

It works exactly the same way on the agency side. The teams also have internal stakeholders determining career growth and success. A small note of appreciation, some kind words during review meetings (of course, all of it only when well-deserved) go a long way in building individual or team credentials internally. When teams look good internally, they are more motivated than ever to do even better work for such clients.

We Need Each Other

Well, there are a million more reasons, but they can’t all be covered in a single blog post. If all the nuances of agency life could be summed up theoretically for clients to mug up, it would defy my whole proposition, right?

There’s immense talent and expertise that exists on the agency side, by virtue of exposure to diverse client mandates. On the other side, clients work out of a physical environment immersed in information and access to the larger picture. A little transparency, with a base of solid background, a slight hint of constructive criticism garnished with a lot of love is a great recipe for meaningful client-agency engagement.

There is no reason client-agency relationships can’t be more successful evolving into true partnerships. ‘Working with an agency’ can become a much more smoother experience for clients if they understand the ‘working of an agency’. However, the only downside to this proposition is that people may find the agency life so addictive after five to seven years, that we may not have anybody left for the other side!

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Add Your Comment2 Responses to “Walking a Mile In The Agency Staffer’s Shoes”

Kylie Heintz on March 15th, 2016 at 12:59 pm

Well said, Julie! Having worked on the agency side and in-house, I agree with all of your points. I have been in your shoes and I understand the pressures you face from clients. This helps me to set expectations internally as to what is reasonable and what is less reasonable for me to expect as the client.

And in the long run, as important as our jobs are to the ongoing success of each of our organizations, as Rich Cline often says “We are not performing brain surgery” — in that perspective, our worst days by comparison to many other professions really pales.

Julie Joseph on March 15th, 2016 at 1:40 pm

Thank you for the comment and for validating my theory, Kylie. A balanced perspective does go a long way in managing expectations!