Familiarity can breed creativity

Long-term client- consultancy relationships do not need to go stale – a few simple measures can keep things fresh, says Rebekah Brown

Consultancies often feel nervous when client relationships extend beyond three years. Will clients decide that inevitable frustrations are more simply resolved through appointing a new partner? I firmly believe that longevity of relationships allows stronger strategic and creative work to be delivered. But it takes a new way of working.

We are a small creative brand consultancy with a number of core, big-brand clients, three of which have been working with us for more than four years on retained contracts.

Our philosophy on nurturing relationships has come about as a result of analysing the negative associations with long- term client-consultancy contracts. The most important thing is to put yourself in the clients’ shoes. Is it so surprising that they feel incumbent creative groups can be financially unaccountable, creatively stale, and strategically and emotionally heavy?

70 per cent of marketing agency reviews happen for reasons that could have been avoided. The old adage applies: familiarity breeds contempt.

The best thing to do is to set about addressing the barriers head on. Your goal is simple: to secure the length of time on clients’ businesses necessary to be able to make a difference. If you improve your transparency as a business, you are more likely to get a retained contract.

One of the most important areas to look at is your financial accountability. We undertake an audit through an industry specialist. It’s not cheap, but it is a worthy investment. It means we receive an annual, neutral evaluation of our charge-out rates, overheads and profitability. We share this openly with clients.

We’ve also developed a best-practice reporting structure that ensures our clients are Sarbanes-Oxley compliant. Our quarterly financial reports allow clients to track time spent on their business by project, individual and skill, and provide a framework for discussion. We can analyse time investment versus agreed best-practice workflow structures, and the skills evaluation allows us to review processes and relations. Global brand and marketing departments can also see if local markets are managing us efficiently.

The second key area is your creative and strategic output. The core concerns that clients have are often due to a bad experience with a consultancy. Incumbent consultancies are often seen to be complacent and passive.

Try being proactive. We host regular workshops for our retained clients to provide market insight and observation from both inside and outside our clients’ business sectors.

We also instill a culture where the team treat retained clients as new business opportunities. We pitch new ideas, despite knowing that budgets are tied up or marketing plans are already set in stone. Speculative thinking keeps us fresh and clients stimulated.

Finally, it’s important to remain grounded and open to feedback. Remember, the brand is the client’s property, not yours. Great creativity and strategic thinking is a collaborative process and you must be sure to stay open to client concerns. This means listening hard to both what is said and what is sometimes implicit in feedback.

We can all recognise the sense that starting anew is easier than addressing deep-rooted issues. As relationship specialists, consultancies should be able to spot when things are turning sour. But often day-to-day pressures cloud perspective.

With a few simple measures in place, you will find it much easier to agree a mutually beneficial, flexible retainer contract for the majority of your clients. And it means you can get on with delivering great work that genuinely makes a positive impact.

Rebekah Brown is managing director of Bite

Keys to building long-term relationships:

  • Be financially accountable
  • Use an industry specialist auditor to evaluate your business and be open with the results
  • Develop a best-practice reporting structure to evaluate skill use and allow the client to track and review work in detail Treat retained clients like new business opportunities
  • Instigate workshops to share knowledge with your client
  • Generate new ideas, regardless of fixed plans, to stay fresh and keep the client stimulated
  • Listen hard, always work collaboratively and don’t get complacent or arrogant about your role Be proactive
  • Undertake relationship health checks and action-oriented reviews
  • Consider allowing a neutral party to facilitate a relationship audit, to understand strengths as well as weaknesses
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