There are real dangers in embedding your project management team throughout the agency. Let’s get in the weeds and explore why. I’ll start by clarifying some important points:
With that background, here are the three reasons why embedded project management fails:
I think we all get why they shouldn’t be too short. It usually means that your client didn’t see an equitable exchange of value or you missed something in the prospect vetting stage and had to correct it by just letting the client quickly slide off the roster after the ol’ college try.
But just because client relationships shouldn’t be too short doesn’t mean that they should last forever, either, because long term relationships carry clues to some things that I’d like to get you thinking about.
First, though, how long is too long? The larger context for that question is something that I’m sure you’ve seen across the entire marketing/creative field, and that’s the infrequency of AOR (agency of record) relationships. For just under fifteen years, your client relationships have more closely resembled a string of successive projects. You should have a specific number of those project-based relationships going on concurrently. You also want a steady stream of opportunity, with a roughly equal mix of organic leads from your own marketing efforts and passive referrals from delighted clients.
With that background, you would aim for client relationships (of continuously successive projects) that last 3–6 years. Shorter than that and you may not be screening them carefully enough. Longer than that and....
There are two big mistakes that creative firms are making when it comes to account management:
Let me explain the mistakes in more detail, the implications that flow from the mistakes, and how to fix them.
At ReCourses, we have studied 21,000 employees in the creative services field. Each of those individuals has completed a lengthy qualitative/quantitative survey, participated in a personality profile exercise, and been interviewed for 20–30 minutes. We’ve compared that data with agency performance to surface these two results when an employee with a project management mentality is put in charge of a client relationship.
Effective client relationship management requires the right people, and that job may be....
When I commissioned this illustration, I thought the accompanying insight piece would be fairly easy to develop. The idea was to write about your competitive advantage and how to protect your agency from competition.
Not so much! Writing it has taken three times as long as normal, and it’s forced me to reexamine how I think about the topic. I will think out loud about the five things I tossed on this journey and then we’ll settle on the three that make sense.
As the principal of a creative firm, one of your duties is to defend the agency from external threats, similar to how a moat protected a castle. It was the first line of defense against invaders. Back then, though, the enemies were few and easily identified. Now they chip away at the walls from all directions. Some are actual competitors (other agencies), some are sea changes (client-side work replacing the very castles themselves), and some are existential (how we think about marketing). You aren’t repelling a huge mass of marauding cretins every decade; now the competition is a way of life, hitting the castle walls around the clock.
Your moat (competitive advantage) cannot be:
So after eliminating two early options for the sort of protection that a moat can provide, we’re still searching for an answer. Here is where I think we need to add “sustainable” to qualify the search.
Your moat (sustainable competitive advantage) cannot be:
I regularly hear agency principals boast of two things. It seems cruel to burst their bubble, so I don’t say anything in the moment, typically. But I’ve now heard these two things said so many times that it’s probably worth a quick discussion. The first one goes like this:
“We’ve built our agency entirely on referrals. We’ve concentrated on doing good work and our reputation has just spread over the years and we can hardly keep up with the opportunities that come our way organically.”
I do understand the sentiment, which seems to be a combination of these things:
There’s more going on behind the scenes, though, and I’ll offer an alternative interpretation of a firm that relies largely on referrals:
Time to talk about clients. Not specific ones, though, but rather what an ideal client base looks like for a smallish, privately-held firm in the marketing field. I doubt that this would apply outside this field, so use with caution if you are a different type of firm.
Start by listing all your clients in a spreadsheet, from largest to smallest in descending order, like the illustration above. One very important note: if you have the data, list just the fee income from these clients. That’s what’s left after pulling out all the external cost of goods sold like media, printing, and contractors. Don’t pull out internal salaries as those are never properly categorized that way.
I’ve numbered the graphic to direct your eyes to what you might look for.
First, note the relative size of your largest client. If you are working for multiple departments or divisions of the same larger entity, they should be listed as a single source of work. For more on dealing with a client concentration issue, see the position paper here on "Qualifying Clients" (it's free).
You want that largest client to represent 15–25% of your total fee billings. Larger than that and most of the clients that follow will be too small to generate profit and to let you get deeply enough into their situation to move the needle on their behalf. Larger than that and your firm could also suffer harm when that much business is lost as the client moves on. But the larger the better as you nudge up against 25%.
Second, see how many clients....
Our recent analysis of ca. 300 firms found that around 98% of them weren’t getting paid fairly for their work. It comes from some degree of underpricing, defined as intentionally pricing a project at less than what an objective pricing would suggest, or over-servicing, which is intentionally over-delivering what you and the client agreed to.
Underpricing occurs before the project starts and it’s usually motivated by a fear of not getting the work, either because you don’t want people sitting around without enough to do or because you honestly believe that landing this project will open some opportunity for you (that’s a lie that’s easier to tell yourself).
Over-servicing occurs during the project itself and its motivations are more complex. A creative might land on something interesting to explore, and they might be excited enough to pursue it on their own time. Or the client might express some disappointment with your work as it unfolds and so you try to repair the relationship. Or the client begins flirting with a competitive alternative and you stretch to impress them. Or your positioning simply hasn’t created enough power in the relationship and you feel vulnerable. You might even care more about effectiveness than the client does!
Now here’s why underpricing is so dangerous. You follow a certain research method and creative process that cannot easily be compressed. You know this, too, because....
Risk-taking is a crazy thing, right? I think you should make a lot of money, but I hate debt. I advocate ruthless positioning, but I don’t think you should grow too fast. I think you should never compromise on culture, but I think you should make some risky hires.
We all have a different tolerance for risk, too. Some of you move from one gorilla client to the next, and others can’t stomach any single client that represents more than ten percent of your business. On the other hand....
I'm struck sometimes by how separate agencies describe the same client so differently. In other words, I'll talk with one agency about their client and they describe them as respectful, appreciative of good work, and fair in their compensation structure. I'll work with another agency who also works for that same client and their experience is very different. From their perspective, the shared client beats them up on pricing, insists on a special process for nearly everything, and is generally difficult to work with.
Let's look at why that might be.
First, the same client sees these two agencies very differently even though they do similar work. Clients believe....
On the face of it, that headline is not a very controversial statement, but if you think about your client base for a minute, chances are good that most of them are using a smaller subset of the services that you provide. Like most of business, things start simple enough and then grow more complex as you position your firm to take advantage of any opportunity that could possibly surface.
I picture some of you with the biggest boat you can afford, patrolling the harbor with the biggest net that’ll fit in the boat, trawling it for anything that wiggles! With that mindset you’re naturally going to allow a client to nibble a little in hopes that you can set the hook later. Agencies that live off that promise, though, keep adding things until eventually it looks like the menu from the Cheescake Factory! It was a one-pager in 1978 and now it has 250+ items on 21 pages. So we might want to avoid....