What’s love got to do with it? A whole lot if you want to maintain healthy client relationships in 2024

18 March 2024
Pia Coyle

With consumer confidence in flux and budgets having to work harder than ever in the face of stiff economic conditions, PHD Sydney MD Pia Coyle reflects on the importance of keeping the love alive in the marketer and agency relationship. Whether it’s showing gratitude, knowing what makes each other tick or even just trying to rediscover that spark….we all need to rely on our trusted partners.

There is no question, there is still an air of uncertainty as we move through the start of the year.

We are in the longest streak of consumer confidence under the 100 index since the 1990s recession, but we have seen some recent green shoots, with Feb '24 being the highest reading in the last 20 months. This is closely linked to inflation slowing finally, and consumers feeling more buoyant about the cost of their mortgages, with 41% of people thinking their mortgage repayments will increase, compared with 61% in Dec ’23. But clients and consumers are still cautious.

Whilst 2023 ad spend was the second biggest year on record, SMI in November and December '23 were both back, meaning the last quarter of the year was softer than usual, showing that clients are holding back on investment, in a wait and see mindset.

Almost two-thirds (63%) of retailers say consumer confidence is the biggest challenge of 2024, according to KPMG Retail Outlook for 2024. People have been through the wringer and we are all very sensitive to economic pressures, particularly around housing affordability and inflation.

Last year at MFA Ex, PHD held a panel A Media Marriage Crisis with our client, Emma Mumford, Marketing Director of Celebrity Cruises, and James Ledger, from the most prolific client satisfaction survey, TRR (The Referral Rating). What happened that day was interesting. People really resonated with the analogy that our client relationships are like marriages. There was a collective nod when we talked about applying a ‘couples counseling” lens to what we do. What started as a tongue in cheek panel discussion quickly became a very interesting frame up for our most important focus – our client relationships.

Fast forward six months (WTAF, time is flying!), and we find ourselves again contemplating a tough market, with some anguish, but just as much opportunity.

When we talk to clients and pitch consultants, we always ask “what are clients in need of most right now?” and resoundingly, there are two key themes:

Simplification of the most complex marketing and media landscape in history, where their customers are consuming more data than ever, but are harder to reach than ever, and strategy… but not fluffy, pie in the sky stuff. Data driven; evidence backed strategic thinking that will guarantee results in a market that is completely unpredictable. Easy, right?

So, while we can choose to catastrophise, or get in a negative spiral, we can also choose to change the narrative. Here are 4 top relationship tips to get your client marriages back on track and more leaned in and mutually beneficial than ever before. Taking the lead straight from the couple’s therapy couch, let’s renew our commitments to our clients.

Gratitude over worry: Creating a culture of appreciation

We have seen client sentiment has become more negative over the last 3 years as we have emerged from Covid. At the start of 2021, 68% of comments left by clients across all agencies in TRR were positive. Currently, the industry standard sits at 56% positive. There is a need to correct this, not only by meeting and exceeding client expectations, but by bringing a positivity bias back to the client/agency relationship.

It is a neurological fact that the brain cannot be in a state of appreciation and a state of fear at the same time. So, choose to be grateful for all the good things. In times of pressure and busy-ness, it’s easy to get bogged down in the negative.

Encourage your teams and your clients to be appreciative of each other and of the work being done. This sounds like a no brainer, but we have had many conversations with many clients over time that have shone a light on the fact that the relationship was going through a niggly, transactional phase, and that we need to lift out of that and into loving each other again. PDA’s Bring it on. Find forums to call each other out (for the good stuff!) and do this often. The wins far outweigh the crappy little things, so putting a renewed focus on those wins is a powerful way to drive positive change.

James Ledger, from The Client Relationship Consultancy speaks about the power of positivity in the words you use. “I encourage agencies to move from “I’ve got to…” to “I get to…” as a way of creating a more positive, grateful aspect to the relationship. Similarly, embracing a growth mindset by simply adding “yet” to the end of a statement creates opportunity.

Imagine someone saying, “The client doesn’t buy anything innovative”. Now imagine how they might behave if they said, “the client doesn’t buy anything innovative YET”. A small, but very meaningful shift.

Understanding each other’s triggers

It’s a weird old time. Scrutiny from boards and shareholders is at an all-time high. Organisations are cost cutting left, right and centre… and let’s face it, rationalising costs across businesses is not very romantic. It causes huge pressure points in clients and agencies businesses. Often in times of uncertainty, we experience emotional reactions to things.

If you say “we need to find a way to reduce the fee” to an agency, you see the CFO’s eye twitch. If you say to a client “we need more resource to deliver for you”, the same reaction occurs. So, where is the middle ground here, in an issue as old as time?

Well, what if we looked at this differently? An opportunity to come together in a consultation as we work out what the best fit is for you and for us. Adversity is known to strengthen relational bonds. Start by acknowledging that even though we are dealing with different, and often opposing triggers, we are all actually working towards a common goal. If we take the time to seek out more information about why a client is asking, not just what they are asking for, we reset the focus from reaction to empathy.

Attachment styles

Your early relationships make a profound difference on how you face adversity and make attachments later in life. Has your client been scorned before? Do they have trust issues? Are you inheriting a history that will impact your approach and ultimately your relationship? We often find that there are expectations that clients have that come from past relationships.

Sometimes good and sometimes bad. Spend some time understanding where you are both coming from. And set out a plan that pre-emptively addresses potential friction points.

Date each other again

So, you are fallen out of that exciting honeymoon phase with your client or agency? The effort has dwindled a little, everyone is tired and going through the motions. It’s hard to find the energy to re-invigorate that spark. But somehow, we find the energy and enthusiasm for pitches. We bring our A game to win and bed in what’s shiny and new.

No matter how far into a long-term client relationship you are, it’s never too late, to date them again. This can even be said for us, an agency where tenures exceed a decade. So, get to know what they like (and what they don’t). Invite them to things that inspire their minds and excite their hearts. At PHD we have a multi-layered marketing strategy that focuses in on the time we spend with clients both in and away from official meetings. Bring a different level of focus and oversight to the work you do for them. Treat every response like a pitch response. Bring back some passion, dress the room, theme the food. Ask them questions, deep ones. Feel uncomfortable together. Your work will be better, and so will your bond.

comments powered by Disqus