Thursday 19 November 2009

Poacher, gamekeeper, poacher

This week I leave Bluefrog, after two and a half years agency side, to return client side. I had worked in an agency before, prior to moving into the charity sector, but at a more junior level than Client Services Director.

So what has my side-swapping taught me?

Perhaps chiefly that there are misconceptions and prejudices – on both sides – that can get in the way of working constructively. Similarly, the two sides can misunderstand one another, meaning there are times when neither meets the other’s needs – for information or due process for example.

In the months ahead, as my perspective shifts as Director of Fundraising, I will no doubt gain further insights. In the meantime, and for what they are worth, here are my Top3 recommendations for clients and agencies on how to get the best from your relationship with the other.


1. Brief well
This is the single most important piece of advice. Briefing well will have the biggest impact on how effectively the agency delivers.

As clich├ęd as this sounds, you get out what you put in. Work hard, do lots of research, find out about the audience, give context, define the proposition, be precise on budget.

Less is not more with briefs, even where it is 'just another appeal mailing'.

Mark shares more thoughts on brief writing here.

2. Don’t buy on price
Being price conscious is one thing. We're not out of the recession yet, after all.

But it has saddened me to have witnessed several examples of charities buying purely on price. They turned down Bluefrog's solution, despite the proven route to more net income that it offered, and bought something cheaper ... only to return months later and admit that rather than saving five grand, they wasted the entire budget.

Buy on value. Push your agency to prove the results on which their recommendation is based and keep your eye on net income. A great example of this is Bluefrog's high value donor segmentation, which sees mid and high value donors selected, talked to and asked differently. It costs more but net income is typically 50% higher.

You may need to persuade someone to let you spend a bit more but hey, you're fundraisers – you're supposed to be able to persuade.

More on price below...

3. Be respectful
In this post I suggested that each time you open your mouth, write an email or fire off a text, you can choose to communicate in a way that will open the other person up and result in a constructive conversation.

And it seems clear to me that where the other person is someone you're relying on to deliver a complex project with a strict deadline, this is even more important.

And so again, I have been saddened to see not infrequent examples of account team members being on the receiving end of really nasty phone calls or – more often – emails.

Your agency is not your punchbag.

I am a marketer when all's said and done, so unashamedly I offer the Four Ps of respecting your agency:
  • People. Don't stop at being nice. Be considerate too. Don't just expect people in the agency to work late, even if they regularly do; they're often paid no more than you and they would actually like to leave on time too.
  • Processes. Making last minute changes to creative not only shows poor project management, it puts an agency in a difficult position where it will have to work more than the allocated hours for a job and then face the unpleasant task of trying to charge you for some of that time.
  • (A)ppreciate (sorry). I witnessed an occasion just last week where a client sent a plant to a Senior Account Manager to say thank you for working late to organise an urgent print run. So out of the ordinary was this gesture, that she will happily go an extra mile in future. That client's work is now always a priority.
  • Promote. Agencies depend on word of mouth marketing. Do not be ashamed of mentioning that a piece of work was created with help from an agency. A client of ours was recently interviewed on a programme of work that we had helped develop the strategy for. Some of our ideas were being implemented with great success and yet there was not even a passing mention of our involvement.
The classic way to show disrespect for an agency – especially with digital work – is to haggle on price. This video illustrates an all too familiar experience.


1. Clients have internal issues
Don’t underestimate or dismiss the challenges that many clients face internally.

I have worked in some truly stone age organisations, with internal bureaucracy that would make the government look like a start up on Red Bull. You need to find ways to help your client, not put them under more pressure.

Where internal politics or sign-off procedures threaten to derail your schedule or hamper your quest for a good case study, meet face to face with your client and explain the impact, and then work out a solution together.

2. Sell good stuff
Only recommend what will work, not just what will sell.

I seem to have been lucky with my agencies over the years. I have taken for granted that (most of the time) they have recommended the right thing. But in working at Bluefrog I have seen several examples of shocking practice from other agencies, who have presented slick creative that in direct response terms was always going to be as much use as a chocolate fireguard.

Not sure why, but inserts seem to be a favourite. Agency: "you should do inserts. Look, here's a nice design". Client: "ooh yes, I agree, how nicely designed". But on what basis does the agency think this will give the best return on investment?

Selling duds is short-sighted, as it damages all agencies' credibility in the eyes of clients.

3. Challenge inexperience
Don’t hesitate in going to senior client staff when big decisions are being messed up by amateur, inexperienced – if well meaning – juniors. [gasp]

I'm sticking my neck out here.

Slightly embarrassed, I have had to concede that charity marketing teams are rather too often not staffed by skilled marketers. Heads of department seem to accept on-the-job learning, where junior staff are allowed to direct agencies and inevitably produce weak work as a result. Imagine being in a plane when the captain announces, "afternoon, this is your captain; we're coming in to land shortly and I'm going to sit with you while a trainee pilot takes over - she's only read about landing a plane and is still getting to grips with the controls but we should be alright in the end."

Although a poor advertising campaign does not threaten life immediately, many charities who deal with life and death issues would have been able to save more lives if only the campaign had worked better. And there is an obligation to use donated funds to the best possible effect.

And so, be ready to challenge clients. I only stick my neck out like this is because I have seen enough examples of even large national charities running campaigns in the way I have described above.

Do these factors resonate for you – whichever side of the fence you are on? Please add to them, agree or disagree by leaving a comment.

These final weeks in this role have been incredibly busy so I have not written as in-depth a post as I would have liked. Do fill in some of the gaps.

Finally, may I say very publicly how much I have enjoyed the madness, intensity, achievements, constant learning curve, many successes, fun and privilege of working with my client services and legacies teams, Mark and the other Frogs, playing a part in helping such fantastic organisations do industry-leading fundraising.


Unknown said...

Very interesting comments - and I would argue that you could transpose every single one of the recommendations for client and agency (and certainly adapt):

1. Read the brief and respond to appropriately, not what you think will work and win you awards.

2. Don't overcharge us. We have budgets, a lot of us know what works - help us deliver this.

3.Be respectful. Change the words 'account team members' to 'client team members.' I've seen the same experience directed from an agency


1. Agencies have internal issues. With all those personalities it must be difficult sometimes...

2.Sell good stuff. You are likely not to be the same demographic as your donor base - so don't assume you know what will work. Put yourself in their shoes.

3. Challenge inexperience. And I mean both with an agency, and within your own organisation. Never let your experience be under-estimated or fail to be recognised. But always earn this respect by understanding the market, your audiences and fundraising.

Mark Phillips said...

Hi Matt

Cripes! Gloves were off for that one.

I'd like to add two words - sandwich bags.

Much love

You'll be missed


Unknown said...

Like you Matt, I have been client, agency and now client+agency (well consultant) concurrently just for a challenge!

You make a lot of great points here and I hope people at agencies and clients will read and take note.

I feel very strongly that there is a huge opportunity cost in our sector as clients (mostly unintentionally) fail to get the best service from their agency because of the way that they deal with them.

I have loads of material on this and will try to blog on the subject on the New Year once my exams are over.

One point for debate: on briefs you say 'less is not more'. I would disagree here as I have been on the receiving end of too many 'info dump briefs' over the years. From clients who were (it appeared to me at the time) too lazy to put some basic effort into considering and highlighting the key issues. There is definitely a happy balance to be struck.

And on the agency side, if you are asked for a Mini - don't come up with (only) a Rolls Royce solution that is blatantly designed to win awards rather than drive results.

Oh, I could go on all day... :-)

Kimberley MacKenzie said...

Dear Matt,

Congratulations on your move and do stay online. Keep writing a blog if you can.

The complexities in the relationship between client/agency fascinate and frustrate me.

In fact I'm doing a little informal study of it myself at the moment. There is a lot of work to be done to help charities and agencies work better together.

Thank you for this post. You made me angry and you made me nod in agreement. Please do keep me informed if you keep exploring this issue.

All the best.

Anonymous said...

will miss you too xxx

Conor Byrne said...

I have only got to read this post now, but its really fantastic. Reading some tweets about it I thoguht you went for the jugular and named names etc..! But thankfully you didnt. I think your points are well made and clearly come from experience and are aimed at giving sound advice. Good luck in the new job.

Matt Parkes said...

Thanks everyone for your comments here!

Thoughts still brewing as to what I've left out or been unfair about, but I'll blog a sequel sometime!

Anyone blogged about the issue since November?


Naomi B said...

There's some really interesting insights here, so just in case you ever decide to adapt this for a talk, I had a suggestion for the four P's - appreciate could be "Praise"?

props for a profound and precisely pondered post...