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    Client demands aren’t always realistic. How should agencies talk them around?

    Each week, The Drum asks agency experts from across the world and the ad business for their take on a tough question facing the industry, from topical concerns to perennial pain points. Today, we ask how they navigate tough conversations with clients.

    We can’t all be rational all of the time. Sometimes people become fixated on unfeasible projects, sure-fire schemes that will deliver the moon on a stick. Sometimes, those bad ideas are in the heads of your clients. And it’s up to you to talk them around – or else end up lumped with expectations of next-day delivery.

    It’s a situation highlighted by the struggles of PRs and agencies to persuade clients to cut comms efforts during the mourning period for Queen Elizabeth II, or to temper expectations of total brand safety among would-be Netflix advertisers.

    Part of an agency’s role is to give an honest appraisal of an apparent opportunity or risk. You’re the experts, after all. But some of those conversations are bound to be hard. So, how do you get through those ’let me break it to you’ moments?

    How do you solve a problem like… realistic conversations with clients?

    Nick Andrew, head of account management, AMV BBDO  

    Finding a way to unpack the request or uncover ’the question behind the question’ is key to demonstrating your understanding and expertise. More often than not this can be solved by returning to the brief or the business problem. Are you clear on what the purpose of this work is, why it matters and who it’s for?

    There is also a bigger conversation here about the danger of groupthink. Having people in your teams who are empowered to question decision-making, and actively encouraged to do so, should be core to every agency’s ethos. 

    Teri Brady, managing director, Mother New York 

    Having a ‘hard’ conversation with a client can be daunting. But the reality is these are the kinds of conversations our clients pay us to have. The value an agency brings, and the reason clients hire us, is to be their true business partners, to be experts in our field and to think of things that they don’t so their brand stays top-of-mind and their business grows.

    So while you need courage, empathy and finesse to deliver tough news, it’s important to remember that in having these conversations you’re simply doing your job. These conversations make the work, and the relationship, better. And when it’s a really tough one, doing it over a cocktail always helps.

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    Bo Bradbury, senior vice-president, managing director, GSD&M 

    Honest conversations start with strong relationships, which is why brands partner with us – we build relationships of mutual respect, which makes it easier to have challenging conversations. It’s also a better route to inspire new ideas, which we do by rooting ideas in insights based on the brand’s DNA, plus consumer data and behaviors. Ideally, you’re doing such a good job that these moments don’t occur. If they do, dissuading someone from a bad idea is like guiding them toward a good one: come armed with examples and data that show how it helps/hinders the path to their business goals.

    Jon Wilkins, global managing director,  Accenture Song

    I’ve always made a real effort to build relationships of mutual trust with clients. One where they feel they can always talk honestly and directly to me and my team, and I to them. The foundation of that trust is a true shared passion to make each other the most successful you can be. When starting work with new clients, if you can establish clearly what success looks like for the business or the brand and also what personal success looks like, then it’s much, much easier to have consistently trusted and supportive conversations – whatever the conversation is.

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    Kev Chesters, strategy partner, Harbour 

    I find people’s attitudes toward being honest with clients so weird. I’ve been a client. Let me tell you that however bad the news, I always appreciated being told it. Especially early, with a plan for making it better. 

    I disliked being ‘managed.’ I hated being hoodwinked. I despised being lied to. Grow up. Own up. Clear up. The best client-agency relationships are based on respect. And who respects a liar? 

    My mum didn’t work in advertising, she was a nurse. But she gave me the best piece of advice about how to deal with clients – be honest. 

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    Ellie Bissett, account director, ShopTalk/Dept

    I was once told that the hardest thing to do is, more often than not, the right thing to do. It’s easy to keep saying yes to everything a client wants, but always remember that they have come to you for your advice and expertise, so you wouldn’t be doing your job if you didn’t question their approach or thinking. 

    It all comes down to trust. If you both share the same goals, have an honest relationship and you’re seen as an extension of your client’s team, these difficult conversations become easier because the client knows you have their best interests at heart – even if it’s news they don’t want to hear.

    Jess Cook, client director, Robot Food 

    Being direct is crucial – it’s definitely not a time to mince your words. Try not to dance around the subject, but address the issue head-on with honesty.

    Diplomacy, however, is always key. It’s not about telling clients they’re wrong, but helping them look at the issue from another angle to see if there are any alternative opportunities to be leveraged. We would never tell clients what we think they want to hear to win them over, so when these difficult conversations roll around, it helps to have built a foundation of respect.

    Our input is then trusted to represent solving problems with commercial success at the heart.

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    Abb-d Taiyo, co-founder and design and production director, Driftime

    It’s our policy at Driftime only to work with clients that are delivering verifiable impact to people and/or planet. But we are also a commercial business. Tricky conversations with clients usually involve ‘scaling back’ impact and setting realistic, achievable goals.

    There is obviously an emotional side to this, as many of the companies we work with want to save the world. We want to help them do that, but also need to be realistic about what’s achievable within the budget and time allowed. It’s a reality check we often have, and one we tend to navigate by reframing any ‘pushback’ as alternative suggestions that will have a higher impact. 

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    Krista Osol, director of client services, M/H

    Knowing the ‘why’ behind a client request or idea is one of the keys to having a successful conversation around a tough topic. The better we can understand the motivations and objectives of our clients, the easier it is to present them with alternate (better) solutions. The other integral piece is to keep an open mind and be willing to collaborate on a course of action rather than simply telling your client no, or expecting them to change their minds.

    These conversations, even though they’re not fun, can be a great tool for building trust and partnership with your clients. 

    Joe Brailsford, chief executive officer, Seed 

    Rip the band-aid off. Having hard conversations early saves so much time in the future. We have a responsibility to use our expertise to have these conversations. But always have them IRL – in a meeting or on the phone. This makes it easier to manage the situation and the next steps. Never do it over email as it’s unlikely the tone will be right, which can escalate an otherwise simple situation.

    Showcase the rationale for what led to this let-me-break-it-to-you moment. Build the narrative, tell a story and consider both sides to demonstrate how everything has been considered from all angles.

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    Jessica Henrichs, president, Colle McVoy 

    This is ultimately a question about honesty. The thing is, having open and honest conversations builds trust. The difficult thing can actually be the very same thing that grows the relationship. When there’s trust, even the toughest advice or most difficult news can be delivered in a way that leads to a positive outcome. On the flip side, holding back information or making decisions to avoid difficult conversations isn’t just putting trust at risk, it’s negligent.  

    Getting through any difficult conversation takes transparency, vulnerability and data. Being fully transparent about the risks and rewards nurtures informed decision-making. Being vulnerable and open to differing opinions builds more trust and collaboration. And having the data to support your point of view is just plain common sense. Having all three makes those realistic conversations go a lot more smoothly. 

    Kate Fulford-Brown, head of growth, 2LK

    Remember, you are the expert. It’s easy to fall into the trap of having ‘edited’ conversations with clients. But they are paying us for expert consultancy – and that means unabashed honesty when we don’t think the approach they want will work.

    At 2LK we create live brand experiences for tech-driven clients – many of whom are eager to use emerging and ‘talked about’ tech. But it’s paramount to remind them (and ourselves) to build around the customer and ensure whatever tech we use is in the service of the brand experience. 

    Want to join in with our weekly discussions? Email me at sam.bradley@thedrum.com. 

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