Freshen Up: Avoiding Long Term Client Complacency
It’s rude to ask an agency its age, but let’s just say we remember the cargo pants and bucket hats the first time around. A time when hybrid working meant taking your Palm Pilot to the pub for a lunchtime meeting. And we’re proud to say that more than a few of our clients have been with us for nearly as long, even if we don’t have the number for their fax machine anymore.
But when it comes to those long term client relationships, it can often seem that – from their perspective – the grass is always greener. There’s always another agency poised to take your place, and there’s always a marketing manager browsing LinkedIn or being propositioned in the pub by a contact trying to win an account heading for double figures time served. Wandering eyes searching for sky high KPIs and sliced up retainers.
So how do we keep those eyes fixed firmly on us? On our creativity, talent, and often deeply boring and functional client knowledge? It’s certainly a challenge we’ve faced as an agency, with both the monumental wins and the wounding losses to prove it. And here’s what we’ve learnt.
Fight internal frustration.
So you get the dreaded re-tender email. It’s not you, it’s us. By which they mean, it’s completely you. Honestly, we’ve heard them all.
The creative is getting boring. Because of all those amends. The tactics are always the same. Because you never let us try anything new. The results are static. See our previous answer. The C-Suite are asking for more. Then send us the brief. The market has moved. We know! We’re panicking too! The cultural landscape has changed. That’s why we exist. The new CMO has a friend who… Doesn’t know your brand, or your business.
Turning a shocking email into a long-term win begins with fighting that frustration. Yes, embrace it. Vent. Rant. Snap your fingers in an exaggerated Z shape. Then remember all the reasons why that client is worth your time. The amazing products you’ve launched together. The national coverage. The way you’ve grown the retainer. The productive relationships you’ve built with their team. Positivity is infectious, so the quicker you can inject it into the process the better.
Get there first.
Even better, make sure the dreaded email never lands. Because all those internal frustrations we just listed out… they’re a serious sign.
If you’re getting bored and bolshy internally, you can bet the client is too, even if it feels like they’re the problem.
Look at your KPIs. Are those metrics in line with the latest channels and thinking? Are they what you’d present to a new client? How about your creative? How long have you been using those templates? Can you dash off social tiles with your eyes closed? Are you doing things because… and this is the real killer… you know they’ll be signed off?
Think of all the time you’ll need to spend when the client finally bites the bullet and goes out to tender. Or the retainer you’ll lose when you’re not even shortlisted to re-pitch. Wouldn’t you be better putting even half those hours into a fresh approach? Start from scratch. Throw around new ideas. Re-pitch to yourselves. Chuck out all your old notions of what works and start again.
Then take your groundbreaking work to the client and see what they think. The worst they can say is ‘back to business as usual please.’
Check under the hood.
When it comes to measuring success, every agency can point to engagement rates, reach, opportunities to see and clicks to site. We know who’s seen the ads, and what they did. Who’s picked up the product, what they’re saying about it online. and we’re reporting it all back on a weekly and monthly basis.
But do we do the same for the nuts and bolts of our client relationship? Are we looking at how efficiently we’re running things? For a recent re-tender, we invested time and resources into telling the story of all the savings and efficiencies we had been offering for years – and there were figures in there that surprised us internally, let alone the client. We gave those savings a brand, and displayed them using appropriate creative. And it worked!
Those forgotten benefits are actually what make long term accounts a success. Because they can’t be replicated. Account Management is a huge skill, and one we don’t talk enough about. And starting from scratch with a team who don’t know how you tick can be just as much a roadblock as tired creative or underperforming comms.
The marketing landscape changes all the time. The channel you hung your pitch on might have crashed and burned by the end of a 12-month retainer, with or without manic billionaires at the helm. We’re dealing with rapid advancements in AI, a turbulent consumer landscape, the upheaval of climate change and pretty much everything in between.
That makes it pretty likely that business as usual for your long term clients actually means business in need of a serious update. But rather than waiting for the winds of change to blow you off course, you could – to extend a painful metaphor – allow them to fill your marketing sails.
What we’re saying is that new trends, emerging channels and algorithm updates can be a chance to pivot client activity towards new successes. Because even if your existing work is currently hitting the mark, those trends represent a boat you’re about to miss.
In our own work for Barratt Developments, a national housebuilder with a stellar reputation, we hit the ten year mark thanks to a mix of tried and tested, traditional comms, and a growing focus on digital PR and securing backlinks. We regularly challenge ourselves to refresh our approach, widening the conversation outside of our briefed regional scope and finding a national audience in the process.
Embrace the PPR.
Look, shit happens. Sometimes you’ve just got to pick yourself up off the mat, dust yourself down and accept that the only decision left to make is whether your large commiseration wine is going to be white, red, or followed by eight tequilas.
The next step is something we’re a big fan of at ilk – the PPR, or Post Project Review. And the review bit is important. There’s no harm in allowing that R to stand for Rant, for the first five minutes at least. But it needs to become proactive eventually.
Yes, their Marketing Manager might have moved business to their mate’s agency. Yes, enormous budget cuts might have made the reduced retainer an impossible ask. Yes, they might have been bought out by Trump Industries and now represent a rather toxic case study. But it’s much more likely that the client said goodbye thanks to a multitude of very predictable, very actionable reasons. Work through everything you’ve done – including asking your now ex-client for feedback – and find them. Then take those lessons into your next case of long term client complacency.
There’s always a bigger picture.
Ultimately, agency life is about more than one single client. And if your entire business model depends on that single client, then may we humbly suggest you look up ‘diversification’ in the Bumper Marketing Dictionary.
That means agency life is a bigger picture. There are always more clients. Fun ones. Award worthy ones. Frustrating ones. Successful ones. Ones that push you out of your comfort zone, and teach you how to do new things.
So re-contextualise that yawning gap in your balance sheet – if it’s opened up – as an opportunity to be filled with something new. Maybe it’s a chance to expand an area of untapped expertise, or to offer your people the chance to explore new skills and sectors. It won’t make your accountant any happier, but it might just help make sure the next time you’re faced with long term client complacency, you’re ready to beat it!