CLIENT IDEAS THAT SIMPLY WON’T WORK: WHY AGENCIES SHOULD TELL IT HOW IT IS
Stuart Skinner, group managing director at The PHA Group, explores the art of navigating different client perspectives.
With pitching and procurement processes now so lengthy and rigorous, no stone is left unturned in the pursuit of the right PR agency partner. Sometimes the level of scrutiny leaves you wondering if the client knows more about your agency than you do; but we are all willing participants and a thorough pitch process means both sides know what to expect from day one – or at least they should.
We are hired on the strength of our ideas, insight and thinking, far more than our history or who we know, and compromising those elements is a trap to avoid falling into at all costs.
Of course, that sometimes leads to differences of opinion, and you have to be prepared for difficult, challenging conversations. The vast majority of clients, however, welcome those conversations; they prefer amicable challenge to submissive platitudes and often the best campaigns are preceded by robust debate, compromise and finally consensus.
That consensus is essential, to ensure everyone is aligned, properly motivated and on board with the chosen approach to avoid any chance of resentment or recrimination down the line.
With many competing views and personalities often on the client aide alone, there is, however, an art to navigating those different perspectives without losing anyone along the way.
The most important element of that art is to blend it with science; whatever your view, it should be supported by data, research and relevant examples demonstrating validity. That might be audience insights, research on the most suitable channels or influencers for the campaign in question, feedback from journalistic networks or information on the latest industry trends. Clients expect us to have a finger on the pulse and we must bring that expertise to the table; we are native on the platforms we will use, dealing day to day with the journalists or influencers we will engage and armed with experience and insight on the campaign subject matter and method of execution.
None of that should be lost when discussing the pros and cons of different campaign ideas – in fact, the positive trend for PR agencies to access the client C-suite more regularly puts even more onus on insight and strategic counsel. With more power, however, comes more responsibility to ensure that insight is well founded and supported.
The smartest agencies are marrying data and creativity to ensure that every campaign is grounded in truths that act as a springboard for creative development and, ultimately, lead to perception and behaviour change that can be tracked and proven. That is not to reduce creative campaign ideas to science, but to create a common ground by revealing something new about the product, or audience, in question which can then be explored and developed together; it gives agencies and clients permission to work together in a logical way to solve a problem, or take an opportunity, which would otherwise remain unseen. The creative idea that makes it happen is just as important but comes second and any differences of opinion in the ideation process (and there are invariably many) are anchored on the insight, to which the agency and client can return, if necessary, together before discussing the next idea.
Insights that reveal universal truths and give rise to ideas not only take the risk out of campaigns but also take the sting out of any potential creative tension between agency and client. If we test and build ideas on firm foundations, that allows us to go on the creative journey together and provides a sanity check and reference point in the event we get lost or splinter in different directions.
It also allows the agency to tell it like it is because ideas are based on commonly accepted facts and grounded in logic and reason; the client may disagree with the angle or interpretation, but the rationale is beyond doubt. The worst that can happen, if this process is followed properly, is that we return to base camp together and strike out again in the search for inspiration but, in most cases, there are detours and meanderings but constant progress towards common goals with compromises along the way.