BBQ Pork and Metallica: Client-Agency Chemistry Can Feature All Kinds of Ingredients

Blog Post
August 30, 2018

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Clients choose an agency based on different criteria, but chief among them is the belief that the agency will simply do a better job than the others it competes against. At the core of that belief is the client’s personal experience with agency personnel or its leadership team. Once the credentials and capabilities are established and the speculative (spec) work shown, it’s people-to-people connectivity that often seals the deal, the way the right seasoning elevates a recipe into something great.

Which brings me to a story about a nice first strand of connectivity that dates back several years. Our agency pitch team was in the kitchen next to the front conference room, girding ourselves for a 90-minute “final best shot” at securing a new relationships with a major pharmaceutical client.

The three key client decision makers had just filed in to fill their plates with mixed fruit, Tastykakes, plus grape nuts and yogurt (the 10 AM meeting essentials, along with coffee and bottled water) when our VP of Strategy started raving about the barbequed pork sliders his wife made the night before. The client brand director overheard the conversation, leaned in and started talking with the VP about her own recipes for BBQ pork. She casually revealed to the group that she and her husband were certified barbeque judges who traveled the country and actually presided over grilling competitions (who knew that was a thing – and more importantly, how did I miss getting that gig?).

Granted, that exchange was pure serendipity. Did a shared love of shredded pork help the agency win the business? Hard to say because our work was damn good and the presenters all brought their ‘A’ games. But that conversation opened everyone up for a relaxed, honest relationship that evolved and improved over the next six years, through video shoots, market research jaunts and hours of Medical-Legal reviews. And, assuming the mutual passion you have for the work you’ll collaborate on stays consistent, a positive, ever-expanding partnership is what chemistry between clients and their agencies is all about.

Of course (as the cast of Seinfeld would say), as the client, “you’ve got hand.” That means you’ll probably be on the receiving end of many agency overtures when it comes to forging better connections. There’s no template to follow that’s guaranteed to foster connectivity, but there are signals and openings to be aware of on both sides of the partnership.

Ways to build a good connection with your prospective agency—and increase chemistry as the relationship evolves:

  1. The final face-to-face to award the business, if there is one, really IS a big deal. You’re there to meet your potential day-to-day team, so you’ve got to assess if or how well you can work together and if you legitimately have the beginnings of chemistry. I’ve seen agencies lose the business due to being uptight, or having low enthusiasm or an all-too-casual attitude during this pivotal last step.
  2. It’s got to be genuine. Like any interpersonal relationship, there has to be an organic element—one that builds over time. There has to be more likeability than enmity in the room. But trying too hard or forcing it can be worse than not trying at all.
  3. Little things really can mean a lot. Small connection opportunities, like shared family stories or knowing each other’s favorite musicians or sports teams, can make a legit impact. If you’re a Metallica fan for example, you have a right to be suitably impressed when an account exec genuinely appreciates the difference between the bass work of Cliff Burton and Robert Trujillo.

More and more, we work in virtual, remote environments which drive efficiencies but force communication to take a back seat, impacting the amount of actual contact between clients and agency personnel. That makes it all the more critical to maximize the time you have together. Sure, you need to be a professional first and foremost and inspire mutual confidence. But don’t be afraid to display the qualities that make you who you are—and see your agency counterparts in the same ways. Empathy and shared interests can enhance the respect and understanding you have for each other. And that adds up to a relationship with a capital R, one well-seasoned by chemistry.

Check out more creative content by Rich Romig: When Insights are Anything but Insightful: Making Creative Briefs Better.