Episode 159:

Client relationships is a frequent topic on this podcast. In this episode, we focus on what it takes to cultivate strong and mutually beneficial relationships with clients.

Dr. Mario Vafeas is on the faculty at The University of the West of England in Bristol. His work in agency-client relationships is the result of research, study and real-world experience.

He brings a pragmatic approach, backed by the data, into the conversation.

Buckle up because it’s a deep conversation, packed with takeaways to use in your own agency. Through deepening your relationship with clients, and providing the right kinds of ideas, training and other added value, you can really set agency apart, increasing your client and employee retention. You will truly be a trusted ally and co-creator with your clients and prospects.

Prior to joining the faculty at UWE, Mario spent 20 years in branding and design consultancy and several years in brand management at HJ Heinz and Harveys of Bristol.

As well as undergraduate and masters teaching, Mario is involved in knowledge exchange projects with SMEs, and research in the field of buyer-seller relationships and value co-creation.

He is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, and a Fellow of the Institute of Direct and Digital Marketing. He is also a DMA (West) Regional Council Member, and a Certified Digital Marketing Professional (Professional Diploma in Digital Marketing from the Digital Marketing Institute).

 

 

What You Will Learn About in This Episode:

  • How to both share ideas with and learn from the client
  • Drawing from other industries to bring depth to your work in the clients’ industry
  • Why external agencies need to focus less on producing “stuff” and more on producing insights and big ideas
  • Communication with clients does not come with a template – each client relationship is unique
  • Why you get more business opportunities when you take time to meet and check in with clients
  • How to build relationships through coaching clients in best practices
  • Adding value through offering training opportunities to clients
  • Being proactive in making clients’ lives easier
  • How to behave less transactionally so clients believe you really want a relationship
  • How coaching hits all the big C themes
  • Why great work with clients is co-creative

The Golden Nuggets:

“Clients actually don't think they know everything. They don't always feel confident. We can help them gain confidence.” – Dr. Mario Vafeas Click To Tweet “If you want to be a partner with your client, you've got to build that relationship. Go see them face-to-face.” – Dr. Mario Vafeas Click To Tweet “Part of building trust in a client relationship means understanding their budget; not trying to stick your hand in their pocket at every opportunity. Demonstrating care beyond the paycheck is how you build trust.” – Dr. Mario Vafeas Click To Tweet “If you are telling clients you want a relationship, don’t act in a transactional way. Don’t line item every little thing and charge them for it.” – Dr. Mario Vafeas Click To Tweet “As long as we focus on selling stuff to our clients, rather than offering deeper insight and analysis, we become less and less relevant.” – Dr. Mario Vafeas Click To Tweet “Ultimately this whole client-agency relationship relies on both parties actually delivering. It can be a real co-creating relationship.” – Dr. Mario Vafeas Click To Tweet

 

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Speaker 1:

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Agency Management Institute’s Build a Better Agency podcast, presented by HubSpot. We’ll show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow, with better clients, invested employees, and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew Cs.

Drew McLellan:

Hey, everybody. Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build a Better Agency. Man, are you going to love this episode. My guest today is a guy out of the UK who has had a really interesting career. He started out his career as a client, and then he went over to the agency side. For about the last decade, he’s worked in academia as a professor over in the UK, primarily doing research and then lecturing on the research. All of his research has been about the client agency relationship. I’ve read his research, and it’s really fascinating. It’s all about how the client determines whether or not they’re going to make a commitment to us in a long-term way, and what are the elements that factor into that commitment.

You’re going to find Mario, his name is Mario Vafeus, and you’re going to find that he is a font of knowledge, but also because he lived in our world and he lived in the client side’s world, he really applies a very practical point of view to all of his research. One of the things that I talk about all the time with you is the importance of understanding from the client’s perspective what their world is all about and what they’re looking for. In the AE boot camps that we teach, I spend a lot of time with the AEs helping them understand what the client’s life is like, and what the pressures they’re under, and what they really, really want from us.

I was heartened to find that Mario’s research supports all of the things that we’ve been talking about and teaching for a long time. This is an episode where this would be a great one for you to listen to with your entire agency, but certainly with your account service team, because I think it really speaks to some of the key clues that we either do or don’t give our clients to demonstrate how badly we want their business, how important their business is to us, and what we are willing to do to earn their trust, to keep their business, and to help them grow their business.

We all talk about that all the time. One of the points of the research and some of the things that Mario has written is we all talk about the fact that we want to be considered a partner and not a vendor. Yet, sometimes, and you have heard me say this before, sometimes I think the way we behave or the way we conduct ourselves, the way we behave, and some of our business practices scream vendor or supplier. Then we wonder how the client gets confused. Well, you know what? We’re the ones confusing them.

So, I want you to listen to this episode with a really open mind, and I want you to listen to it from a very opportunistic point of view, because I think that the conversation, and I certainly am going to be asking these kinds of questions, what can we do? How can we maximize this? How can we take advantage of these insights to really make ourselves look different than other agencies? How do we do this in a way that we demonstrate without having to say it, that we’re different than an in-house agency, that we offer a different value proposition, and how do we position ourselves with prospects and clients that we actually do want to be their partner, that we actually do want to make a mutual commitment, that we too… that’s the other thing I think sometimes we forget, we talk about that clients don’t have much of a commitment to us, but what are we doing to demonstrate our commitment to them?

So, we’re going to dig into all of that in this episode. Buckle up, because this is going to be a good one. All right. Without further ado, Mario, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

Mario Vafeus:

It’s a pleasure. Thank you, Drew.

Drew McLellan:

Do me a favor, give the audience a little sense of your background and your history and how you have come to the position that you now have.

Mario Vafeus:

Okay. Yeah, sure. Well, I started my career working in marketing as a client in a brand management role. My first company, a name that you will be familiar with, even though I’m here in the UK, is HJ Heinz.

Drew McLellan:

Great.

Mario Vafeus:

I started my career with them. I worked several years as brand manager, and then what I like to describe as I jumped over the fence and joined the agency world.

Drew McLellan:

Right, right. Some people call that joining the dark side.

Mario Vafeus:

Okay, yeah.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, yeah.

Mario Vafeus:

I worked for many, many years in the agency world in a client services role. Then after many years of doing that, I joined the world of academia. I’m now a senior lecturer in marketing at Bristol Business School, which is part of the University of West of England. Probably just worth me saying that my current role, obvious given that I’m a lecturer, is to teach. But as well as teaching, I do a lot of research, which I know we’ll be talking about. I’m still very active in terms of engaging with the creative industries, which is where my interests are.

Drew McLellan:

What made you decide to make the shift? It’s a interesting shift to go from active agency life to more of an academic role. What drew you to that?

Mario Vafeus:

Yeah, it wasn’t an overnight conversion. It was a slow burn thing. I think it started off, I did an MBA, and I did a dissertation, a thesis, if you like, for my MBA. I did some research into client agency relationships, because at the time, I was working in an agency, and I was fascinated by this whole client agency relationship thing, trying to understand what makes them fall apart. I got quite interested in that and looking at the academic literature on the topic. I then took that a step further. I then did a part-time PhD while I was still working in the agency world. That really developed my interest further in this whole idea of academic research, academic theory.

After about 20 years, I think, in the agency world, I just decided it was time for a change, but not a complete change, so I moved into the academic world. But as I say, over the last, I’ve been teaching at university for eight years now, and through all of that time, I mean, all of my research has focused on clients and agencies, and in particular, the client agency relationship.

Drew McLellan:

The most recent research you did, which I know is a combination, correct me if I’m wrong, but some one on one interviews, some focus groups, and then some surveys.

Mario Vafeus:

That’s right. That’s right.

Drew McLellan:

I want to dig into everything that you learned.

Mario Vafeus:

Sure, sure.

Drew McLellan:

Probably not everything, because we can’t talk all day, but I want to dig into a lot of what you learned, but what was the thing that surprised you the most?

Mario Vafeus:

From what the clients told me? Let’s see. What surprised me most? I would say if I had to pick something, I would say that there is a tendency, I think, these days, to feel that clients are becoming more and more rational or focused on value, which they are, which they absolutely are. But I think of the things that surprised me is that the emotional element of the relationship is still there, and it’s still really important.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, right.

Mario Vafeus:

So, although we talk more and more about how to demonstrate the return on investment, and having to demonstrate that there’s transparency in terms of charging and all of that measurement. Everything’s measured these days. But, yeah, I think what surprised me was the fact that the personal chemistry is still really, really important. Clients will still say, “I want to work with people I like.”

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. You know, it’s fascinating, we do a lot of work with an agency search firm that helps brands choose their agency. At the end of the day, once they’ve identified that you can do the work, that you have the competency, it really does still boil down to, call it chemistry, call it connection, call it trust, however you want to label it, but it is absolutely an essential element. For a lot of agencies and a lot of agency owners, having a team that can convey that, that has the personalities and the skill sets to create those connections is vital.

Mario Vafeus:

Absolutely. I totally agree with you, Drew. One of the things, I don’t want to jump ahead too far in case we talk about this a little later in the interview, but one of the things that came across to me when I was talking to clients is that there is a big difference out there in the agency world in terms of the ability of some agencies to actually develop those relationships.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Mario Vafeus:

I mean, I’m a traditionalist. I believe that the way of forming those relationships with clients is to actually go out there and meet them and shake their hands and talk to them, have lunch with them and all of that. But one of the things, again, that I suppose surprised me was the fact that there are a lot of agencies, particularly the newer ones, particularly if we could still use this term to distinguish agencies, digital agencies, who perhaps tend to rely more on electronic communication, email. They hide behind the email. They don’t get out there and meet the clients. So, those relationships aren’t really given the chance to develop.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Mario Vafeus:

I think there’s some learning there to be done.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. In the AE bootcamps that I teach, that’s one of the things that I emphasize to the account executives is I get that it’s more efficient to send an email.

Mario Vafeus:

Sure, sure.

Drew McLellan:

I get that you can check it off your list.

Mario Vafeus:

Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

But you have got to get off your rear end and get into your clients, whether it’s their office or you’re taking them to play gold or lunch or whatever it is, but you have got to have face time. There is no substitute for that.

Mario Vafeus:

Totally.

Drew McLellan:

If a client is valuable enough to you, you will make the investment of both money and time to do it.

Mario Vafeus:

Absolutely. That’s the point, isn’t it?

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Mario Vafeus:

I think when I talk to agencies about this, they say, “Yeah, we’ve got loads of clients, and we can’t be going out to visit them twice a week,” or whatever. So, I say to them, “Well, okay, do you remember that term segmentation? Work out who your most important clients are and put more time into them.”

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely.

Mario Vafeus:

Who are the platinum clients? Who do you need to spend more time with?

Drew McLellan:

Right. Right, absolutely.

Mario Vafeus:

Yeah. I suppose those are some of the perhaps most interesting thing that came out, I guess, that for many people, they’re probably sitting there thinking, “Yeah, but that’s obvious, isn’t it?” But sometimes you forget that the emotional scene is so important. At the end of the day, we’re all still human beings, and it is about forming that relationship. It’s not just about measuring and demonstrating return on investment.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. One of the things I found most interesting about your research is that you identified some themes, and I know you’ve had a little graphic, which we will include in the show notes. Everybody who’s listening, you’ll be able to take a look at it. But talk a little bit about, so, basically, you built a matrix of all the things that contribute to the client’s commitment.

Mario Vafeus:

Yeah. That’s right. I mean, is it okay if I just give a little bit of background on the research process? Is that all right?

Drew McLellan:

Yes, please. Yeah.

Mario Vafeus:

I mean, as you said, Drew, we started off by doing qualitative research. We attended one-to-one interviews, we spoke to 25 clients, I think, individually. Then that was very useful for allowing us to identify the key themes. What was it that clients were saying that was common, if you like, across the board? Then we followed up those interviews with a survey particularly with senior clients, really to sort of test that those themes were relevant and were important.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Mario Vafeus:

You’re quite right. As you say, what we identified is six themes that clients, if you ask them, these are the expectations they have of their agencies, these are the things that if agencies can meet these expectations, they’re more likely to win the commitment of the client for the longer term. Those six themes we’ve actually called the six Cs. We hunted around to try and find a common…

Drew McLellan:

A C word. Right, yeah.

Mario Vafeus:

… a C word, exactly, that would capture the theme. Maybe if I just mentioned what those six themes are, and then-

Drew McLellan:

That’d be great, yep.

Mario Vafeus:

… let’s talk about them, dig into them a bit more. I mean, the first one is context, by which we mean understanding the client’s context. The second one is content, which as you’d guess from the word, it’s about the output. The third one is contact or communication, if you like. The fourth one, we call coaching, training, if you like, training clients. Fifth one is care, looking after clients, and the sixth one is charging, or billing, if you like. Those were the six themes that when we looked across the interviews with clients, we found that these were the themes that came up over and over again, and seem to be the themes that were most important to clients.

It became clear to us that if an agency can deliver on the expectations the clients have for each of those six themes, then they’re going to be a long way to winning the client’s commitment. Now, I’ll say up front that clearly in some agencies, some of these themes for some clients, some of these themes are more important than others, so it all comes down, as it always does it anything to do with marketing, it comes down to understanding your customer and knowing what really matters to them.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Did you find overall that when you looked over the whole landscape of everyone that you talked to through all the different research methodologies that you used to verify this, was there one that seemed to stand out more than others, or was it very good individualized?

Mario Vafeus:

I would say ultimately I think what matters more than anything else is content. It’s the ideas. As one client said, and perhaps it sounds a little bit harsh, but he said, “What we’re buying is ideas. We’re buying ideas. If the agency can deliver consistently on that, then we’ll stick with them.” Ultimately, it comes down to that. They can forgive all sorts of things. They can forgive the fact they maybe haven’t talked to them for a while, they can forgive the fact that maybe you’ve charged them a bit too much on the most recent job. But if you can’t deliver on the ideas, then you ain’t going nowhere.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Right. It makes sense. Right?

Mario Vafeus:

Absolutely, it makes sense. I mean, do you want me to sort of talk through those Cs in a bit more detail?

Drew McLellan:

I would love you to do that, yep, absolutely. Yep.

Mario Vafeus:

If I can explain what I mean by those in the language of clients, really. If I start with the first one that I mentioned, which was context, what clients meant by this was understanding their market, demonstrating that you understand their market. Now, again, that sounds obvious. You’d say, “Well, every agency has to understand their client’s market.” Of course, you do. But what clients seem to be looking for is they want agencies to do more than just tell them what the client already knows.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Mario Vafeus:

The client doesn’t need to be told what he or she already knows. Clients want to know more than that. I mean, one client said to me, “I want my agency to tell me what my market’s going to look like in three years time.”

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Mario Vafeus:

This client was saying, I think she worked in financial sector, financial services, and she said, “I do that for my clients. I tell them what their markets are going to look like in three years time, so I want my agencies to do that for me. I want them to be showing some insight into the market.” I think that’s really important. The other thing that came out that was quite interesting was, and again, maybe it sounds obvious, was actually demonstrating to the client that you want to learn, demonstrating a desire to learn. I have one client saying, he said, “My market’s quite complicated.” He said, “I’ve tried to set up opportunities for the agency to meet the salespeople, to go out, the salespeople to understand the market more.” He said, “My agency aren’t doing that. They’re not taking up those opportunities.”

Drew McLellan:

Wow.

Mario Vafeus:

So, that demonstrates… what does it demonstrate? It demonstrates that you don’t care.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Mario Vafeus:

So, I think it’s really important to show that you really understand the market, you know that you can actually tell the client something they don’t already know.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Yeah. One question in that arena that pops into my head, did you get a sense that they want an agency that specializes in their industry? Like, “I want an agency that has other financial services clients.”

Mario Vafeus:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, that’s a really interesting one, Drew. Actually, I mean, clearly there are going to be clients that want both.

Drew McLellan:

Right, of course. Sure.

Mario Vafeus:

They’re going to be [crosstalk 00:20:17], agencies specialize, bu there will always be clients that want the other thing. But one of the things that came out that was really interesting was I remember talking to a client who was in the legal sector, and she said, “I don’t want my agency to tell me what other legal firms are doing. I know what they’re doing. I want the agency to use its expertise and experience that it’s gathered from other sectors and bring that to bear on my industry.”

Drew McLellan:

Interesting.

Mario Vafeus:

Use what they’ve learned in FMCG.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Mario Vafeus:

Whatever it is, and use that to say, “Look, we’ve learned this from this sector, do you know what? We could use that in your sector.” Otherwise, as this client said to me, everything will just end up looking the same. All the clients in the sector will be doing all the same things. So, I think to answer your question, the feeling I got is that, sure, you’ve got to understand their market. You’ve got to demonstrate that, particularly in complex markets like financial services, but actually, they want to see, they appreciate the fact that you might work in other areas and be able to bring that expertise into their areas. I think that’s a healthy thing, I think that’s a good thing.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. It’s interesting, we did some research a couple of years ago, and what clients told us was they did want an agency that had a depth of experience in their industry, and for them it was they wanted about 25% of their business. Now, the agency’s business to be in the same sector as the client, because they felt that that would give them a mix, to your point, of you understand my industry, but you also have experience in other industries that you can borrow from and bring into our conversations, yeah, and to bring me fresh ideas. Yeah.

Mario Vafeus:

Absolutely. I think that’s it. That’s the word, is those fresh ideas.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Mario Vafeus:

Otherwise you end up with a mental model that’s very static if you’re not drawing from those other industries. So, I think that’s really important. That’s certainly the sense that I got from the people we talked to. That’s, if you like, the first of the Cs. That’s the context, getting the client’s context, understanding it. the second of the Cs is content, the output, if you like, of the agency. Now, I mean, if we’re talking specifically about creative agencies here, it’s about ideas. Often, it’s about big ideas. One of the things, I mean, maybe, Drew, this is somebody that’s peculiar to the UK and not happening in the US, but one of the things that we’re finding more and more here is that clients are actually developing their own in-house studios.

Drew McLellan:

Oh, no, it’s happening all over the world.

Mario Vafeus:

Yeah, okay.

Drew McLellan:

In fact, one of the things I want to talk to you about, because it’s one of the biggest challenges for agencies today.

Mario Vafeus:

Absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

Is that now they not only have other agencies as competitors, even more so, they are competing against the in-house agency service, and the dollars don’t equate, so you’ve got to have something of greater value.

Mario Vafeus:

Exactly.

Drew McLellan:

So, say to a client, “Well, no, you need to spend money on the outside rather than building it on the inside.”

Mario Vafeus:

Absolutely. That’s absolutely fine. That’s great. This is still relevant too.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely. This is a worldwide problem.

Mario Vafeus:

I mean, what agencies have to do is demonstrate they could deliver something that the in-house team can’t. The clients I spoke to, many of whom have their own in-house teams, they know, they know full well that there are limitations to their in-house team. They know that their in-house teams have almost got a tunnel vision, because they’re always working on the same brand.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Mario Vafeus:

As one client said to me, the DNA of the internal agencies is not going to deliver, is not capable of delivering that big idea. So, she said to me, “I go to my external agencies for those big ideas.” So, it’s about-

Drew McLellan:

So, was she saying basically she thinks of her in-house agency almost more like a production house?

Mario Vafeus:

That’s exactly it.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Mario Vafeus:

I’ve had it described all sorts of things, a production house, as a template agency, give them a brochure that was done last year and they can update it and they can [crosstalk 00:24:47] here and there.

Drew McLellan:

Right. But you know what?

Mario Vafeus:

There’s a place for that.

Drew McLellan:

I was going to say, the agencies don’t want to hear this. I get it, I’m not happy about it either, so as both doing what I do for AMI and owning my own agency, I don’t love this either. But the reality is, it is cheaper for the clients to update a brochure internally than it is to go through our process externally. As long as we are focused on selling stuff, then we become less and less relevant. We have got to be about insights and the kinds of things that you’re talking about, because that is the differentiator between an outside agency and the kind of prices we charge. In an in-house production house, you can update and add or change a sales price or a flyer or something like that, right?

Mario Vafeus:

Yeah, absolutely right. I think that’s exactly it. It’s about making sure that you can differentiate yourself from the in-house studio. I had one client say to me, he said, “Do you know what? I’d love it if my external agency said to me, “Graham, do you know what? It’d be cheaper for you, quicker for you, if you just gave this job to your in-house team and give us the jobs that are more suited to us.” He said, “That would be really refreshing to hear that.”

Drew McLellan:

Well, and two of your other Cs, charging and care, what that demonstrates is I care about your budget like it’s mine.

Mario Vafeus:

Yeah. Yeah. Exactly.

Drew McLellan:

And I’m being very careful about your budgets, so I’m being mindful of the charging. But even more so, I’m demonstrating that I have a commitment to your business and your success that eclipses me trying to stick my hand in your pocket for another dollar.

Mario Vafeus:

Exactly right. You mentioned right at the start, you mentioned the word trust.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Mario Vafeus:

That demonstrates trust.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely.

Mario Vafeus:

That’s how you build trust. People say, “Well, how do I build trust?” Well, you get some of those things right first.

Drew McLellan:

Right, yeah.

Mario Vafeus:

[crosstalk 00:26:42].

Drew McLellan:

Trustworthy, right.

Mario Vafeus:

Exactly. That’s the second C, content. The third C contact communication. We sort of touched on this earlier. This is all about making sure that the frequency of contact is right, that the medium is appropriate. Some clients, particularly smaller clients said, “I don’t get enough communication from my agency.” Do you know what I interpret from that? I interpret that they don’t value me.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Mario Vafeus:

That I’m not important to them.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Mario Vafeus:

Now, clearly, there’s a balancing act here, because at the same time, you don’t want to bombard your client with so much information, so much communication that isn’t of value to them, so of course it’s about getting the balance right.

Drew McLellan:

And for every client, that balance is going to be different. Right?

Mario Vafeus:

Absolutely right.

Drew McLellan:

A more sophisticated client may want to hear from you less, a client who is learning how to pave their way and be hungry for more, which also gets to your other C, the coaching part, which I know you’ll [inaudible 00:27:53] minute.

Mario Vafeus:

Absolutely right.

Drew McLellan:

There is no template for call them once, email them twice, visit… you know? You have to sort of feel that out, right?

Mario Vafeus:

I totally agree with you. Couldn’t agree more. That’s exactly it. It’s about knowing your customer, knowing your client, and knowing what they want. I think the second point, which we sort of touched on earlier, is this idea that it’s through communication that you start to build these relationships. So, it is about, sure, we will always use email. We will always use PDFs to send things to people, but sometimes there’s no substitute for actually going to meet the client. I think that’s something that’s really important. I remember talking to an agency not so long ago, what I call a young agency, young in terms of the fact that it only just been founded, and young in terms of the age of the people in there.

Drew McLellan:

Right, right.

Mario Vafeus:

They made me feel really old. I remember talking to them about the contact with clients, and I said, “Do you get out there and meet your clients?” They said, “Yeah, yeah. We do that. We try and make a point of doing that.” I said, “Well, how often do you see your more important clients?” They said, “Maybe a couple of times a year.” I was thinking, “Whoa, my most important clients I’d try and see a couple of times a week.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Mario Vafeus:

All right, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but there seems to be with some agencies, they don’t seem to appreciate the importance of personal interaction.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Mario Vafeus:

I honestly believe that building that relationship, one of the things that agencies will say over and over and over and over again is, “I don’t want to be a supplier. I want to be a partner.” Great. That’s fantastic. If you want to be that partner, you’ve got to build that relationship, and you’ve got to go and see them to do that.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Yeah. You know, it’s interesting, I think too as agency employees get younger, and as a lot of decision makers on the client side are still, let’s call it 45, 50 plus, I think it’s a difference in how younger people, people under 40 nurture relationships versus people over 50. I think sometimes there’s a disconnect. I get that you can stay connected with people electronically because you grew up with it. As long as you’re texting back and forth and you’re Snapchatting and you’re on Facebook, you feel like you’re connected. For a lot of people who are on the other side of 45 to 50, they place greater value in that, even voice over the phone versus electronic, and certainly face time over anything else. I also think it’s a generational challenge.

Mario Vafeus:

I think you’re absolutely right.

Drew McLellan:

One of the things I’m curious about, and we won’t know for another probably 10 or 15 years, but I’m curious if, if you were to repeat your study, let’s say in 15 years, would you hear less of that desire for face time? Because then all of those decision-makers will have grown up as digital natives, and maybe they’ll be perfectly happy with Facebook updates and Snapchats from their agents. I mean, who knows, right?

Mario Vafeus:

I think that’s a really good point, Drew. Like you, who knows? I don’t know. Intuitively, you think, yeah, if one day, those senior decision makers in the client firms will be digital natives, then maybe they won’t care about that personal interaction. So, we shall see. We shall see.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Mario Vafeus:

It’ll be interesting.

Drew McLellan:

Although, I do think there’s something just very human about just physically being in the same space and watching those nonverbal cues.

Mario Vafeus:

I agree.

Drew McLellan:

And laughing over some dumb things that happen that you shared these experiences.

Mario Vafeus:

Absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

I hate the idea that that won’t be a part of our business anymore, because I think it’s one of the things that makes our business so much fun.

Mario Vafeus:

Yeah. I agree. Actually, there’s also, I think, a rational reason for doing that besides the emotional thing, and that is, I don’t know about you, but I always found when I worked in an agency, that the occasions where I picked up more jobs than any other time was when I was actually with the client.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely.

Mario Vafeus:

Because the client’s just like, “While you’re here, I’ve got another job,” or one of their colleagues says, “Can you get Mario to come over here after he’s seen you? Because I got a job I need to brief.” So, purely from a rational point of view, being there-

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely. That’s something that listeners need to hear and be reminded about, because I think sometimes we forget, there is no doubt, A, everybody remember that 70% of your net new revenue should be coming from existing clients. So, you’ve got to have a plan for that. Part of the plan should just be hanging out with these people, because you will get more work. Mario, you’re absolutely right. It is one of the best ways to get new projects, because you’re having a conversation, you’re asking more questions, it’s more casual, and then they’re like, “Oh, I forgot. You know what? We are going to that trade show. We need X, Y, and Z,” or whatever it is. Right?

Mario Vafeus:

Absolutely, yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Mario Vafeus:

So, that’s contact. Where are we up to? One, two, three, four. Number four.

Drew McLellan:

Hang on. Before we get to four, let’s take a quick break, and then we’ll come right back and we’ll do the last four or the last-

I get that sometimes you just can’t get on a plane and spend a couple of days in a live workshop, and so hopefully our online courses are a solution to that. Lots of video, hours and hours of video, a very dense, detailed participants guide, and all kinds of help along the way to make sure that you get the learning that you need and apply it immediately to your agency. Right now, we’ve got two courses that are available. We have the agency new business blueprint, and we have the AE bootcamp. So, feel free to check those out at agencymanagementinstitute.com\on demandcourses. Okay. Let’s get back to the show.

All right. We are back, and we are talking about some of the themes that came out of the research that Mario did with clients about what they’re looking for and what creates an actual commitment on their part to their agency. We’ve covered context, we’ve covered content, which is really output, ideas, and we’ve covered contact or communication. Up next is coaching, right?

Mario Vafeus:

Coaching, yeah. Yeah. I mean, maybe not the best word in the world, but it was the only one I could find beginning with a C.

Drew McLellan:

With a C, right, right.

Mario Vafeus:

Training. But, I mean, the reason we’ve got this here is that one of the things we found when we talked to clients was that actually, they don’t think they know everything. They don’t always feel confident. I remember talking to one marketing director, been in marketing 25 years, and she said, “Do you know what?” She said, “When the agency bring the creative work to me,” she said, “I’m really nervous. I’m really nervous. I lack the confidence to evaluate their work.” She actually said to me, “Have other people said that to you?” She wanted reassurance from me, which was really interesting.

What we’ve found when we talked to clients was that even if the more senior ones don’t need training, they feel that their junior colleagues, the young brand managers need training, because they don’t learn it… again, I don’t know about the US, but certainly in the UK, sure, we train our business students in terms of brand management, but we don’t teach them anything about how to evaluate a piece of creative work. So, they go out suddenly into the big, wide world, and they’ve got their agency bringing them creative ideas. How do they evaluate these ideas? They don’t know.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Mario Vafeus:

So, a lot of times were saying to us, “Help us. Help us train the young clients, the future senior marketers.” There’s a real opportunity there, because, again, it’s a way of building a relationship. So, offering those-

Drew McLellan:

And value, right?

Mario Vafeus:

Absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

Because, again, this gets back to the, I sort of understand what the DNA of my in-house agency is, or my department, if I don’t have a whole in-house agency.

Mario Vafeus:

Sure, sure.

Drew McLellan:

This is what the H what the agency brings me. One of the things they bring me is they keep me current. They teach me whatever the new stuff is, that when Facebook changes an algorithm, they talk to me about it, or whatever is going on.

Mario Vafeus:

Absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

To your point, how do I objectively really evaluate this creative and match it up with the goals that we’re trying to [crosstalk 00:36:53]?

Mario Vafeus:

Absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

I think it’s a huge way for us to demonstrate why they should keep us around.

Mario Vafeus:

Absolutely right. It really is. As you said, it’s a real way of adding value. But what surprised me, I mean, one of the questions we asked in the survey, we were trying to get a feel for what extent agencies do actually educate, train, poach, whatever you want to call it. Essentially, something like 90% of respondents said that their agency has never offered any sort of training, coaching, induction of any description. You just think, “Wow, there’s a real opportunity being missed here.”

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Yeah. Well, and the great thing about it is, if you’re training, if you offer to train department heads, and you include the sales and the marketing people or all of that, you’re also creating relationships with multiple people inside that company, because we know that the average tenure of a CMO is tenuous at best. So, if you have relationships with five or eight or 10 people, because you’ve offered, let’s call it, quarterly training, now all of a sudden, you’re a lot stickier if one of your key contact points goes away.

Mario Vafeus:

Absolutely. Absolutely right. Those multiple bonds that you create.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, right. Right.

Mario Vafeus:

Absolutely right. I think there’s a real opportunity there for agencies. I mean, I must admit, when I mention that to agencies here in the UK, they do sort of sit up, wake up, think, “Hey, actually, yeah, we could do something here.”

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Mario Vafeus:

I think that there’s a real opportunity there in terms of… and as you said, particularly with the way that the digital world is changing so rapidly, clients don’t have time to keep up.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Mario Vafeus:

They really don’t. They understand the basics, but they can’t keep up with it. So, there’s an opportunity there for the agency to do that training and take up that educational role.

Drew McLellan:

Even if the client doesn’t take you up on the opportunity, you making the offer talks about care, and it talks about content, and it also reminds them that you are staying current, and you are on the cutting edge of what’s going on.

Mario Vafeus:

Absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

So, again, it’s about demonstrating value in a lot of these circles, whether or not they actually take you up on it or not.

Mario Vafeus:

Yeah. I think that’s very true. I think that’s absolutely true. Just the invitation itself is often enough.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Mario Vafeus:

Yeah, I totally agree. Then moving on to the fifth of the Cs, I called this care. For awhile, I thought, “It’s a bit of a nondescript word.” But actually, do you know, the more I looked at that word, the more I like it.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Mario Vafeus:

I think it is about caring for your client.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely.

Mario Vafeus:

That can mean lots of things. But some of the things that clients said to me were particularly like, “I want my agency to make my life easier.” That was one of the things that clients said. Yeah, I get that. These clients, they’re busy. They’re really busy people, these marketers.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, yeah.

Mario Vafeus:

They’re having their resources cut, just as agencies are having resources cut.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely.

Mario Vafeus:

They’re under pressure to hit deadlines and meet targets just as agencies are. There’s not a lot of difference between the two worlds in some respects. So, what they want from their agency is they want their lives to be easier. Another way that was explained to me by clients was I want my agency to be an extension of my own team. So, almost like an extension of my marketing team, so that I don’t have to spend a lot of time explaining things to them, that they know, they can anticipate. Actually, in fact, that comes onto the third thing, wanting an agency that’s proactive, that’s able to anticipate. Again, that’s something that’s really important, demonstrating that you know what needs to happen.

Drew McLellan:

You’re not waiting for me to pick up the phone, but you’re thinking about me and saying, “Hey, you know what? We’ve got X, Y, Z coming up in six months.” At your annual meeting with your shareholders, you probably need to be thinking about the video we do, or whatever it is, but they want to know that they are on our mind, we’re thinking about, them and that we are doing some of the planning ahead, but they are so busy tied in meetings, other things, that they don’t have time to do it.

Mario Vafeus:

Yeah. Yeah. Even if the reality is that actually, you’ve got some downtime in your studio, and you’re wondering how to fill it, you think, “Okay, let’s contact client A and remind them, they’ve got such and such coming up. We’ll bring that work forward a little bit if we have to, and demonstrate that we care.”

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Mario Vafeus:

So, yeah, I think demonstrating that you care, really, really important, showing that you’ve got the best interests of the client at heart. I think that’s really cool. That’s the fifth one. Onto the final one, the sixth one, if I dare mention it, and that’s charging, or billing.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Mario Vafeus:

Unfortunately, money, we can’t avoid it. We can’t avoid talking about money. I mean, some of the sub themes, if you like, that came up within charging, the first one, again, maybe this won’t surprise many people, but clients want transparency. They want to know where the costs are coming from. They don’t want to have to read the small print to find out what the costs are going to be.

Drew McLellan:

Right. You know what? When you think about it, that’s perfectly reasonable. I’m not sure why we bristle at that, because it is absolutely, in any of our transactions, personal or professional, what you would want.

Mario Vafeus:

Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Mario Vafeus:

Absolutely right. Absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

The more you can lead with that and you can say, “Look, I know this is a concern of yours, so here’s how we’re answering that concern,” this is an opportunity, especially, I think, for smaller agencies. I think this gets more complicated for the big enterprise level agencies, but for the small agencies, who’s the lion’s share of agencies on the planet, by the way, this is a huge opportunity for us to actually make ourselves look better than the bigger agencies, because it’s easier for us to be transparent, and it’s easier for us to just say, “Look, here’s our billing policy. Let me show you exactly how it is. Here’s how that all works,” and to just be honest.

Mario Vafeus:

Absolutely right. Absolutely. The other thing that came out of the research was, and maybe this will be a bit contentious, but there were some clients who said, “Look, the other thing we want is we don’t want to feel that we’re being charged for absolutely everything.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Mario Vafeus:

If I ask the agency to come to a meeting, surely they can come and surely they can view that as an investment and not charge me for it. So, I think, as one client said to me, agencies say they want a relationship. Well, act like it. Don’t act in a transactional way.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Mario Vafeus:

Don’t charge me for every single thing that you do.

Drew McLellan:

Part of that as an agency, agencies historically are horrible at estimating and pricing, really horrible. One of the things I teach agencies to do is to take whatever they think something is going to cost and multiply it by about anywhere between 1.3 and 1.5. You build in some buffer, because, A, you’re wrong, you’re underestimating.

Mario Vafeus:

Absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

It gives you the ability to offer that grace to clients to not say, “Well, yeah, I can come for that 60 minute meeting, but it’s going to be $200,” because you’ve baked it into the cost of the project.

Mario Vafeus:

Exactly. I think that’s right. I think that’s absolutely right. I think that’s an important thing. Finally, I guess, within that whole charging area, as well as being transparent, we also need to be able to, as best they can, agencies need to demonstrate that they are actually delivering a return on the investment that the clients pay. Clearly, that’s not always easy to do. It’s easier for digital work, where there are metrics that we can use as the creative agencies where perhaps the value from a piece of creative work might not become obvious for some time well into the future, so that is more difficult.

Drew McLellan:

I also think it’s difficult because some clients are more transparent with their sales information, their lead inquiries, some of them, A, they’re terrible at tracking it themselves so they can’t tell their agency, but B, sometimes they hold that stuff close to their chest, and then the agency is really in a tough position.

Mario Vafeus:

Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s right. I think that’s absolutely right. When I talk to agencies, that’s one of the things that they do say, is that actually, they don’t get a lot of feedback from clients sometimes.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Mario Vafeus:

So, it’s very difficult to know how things are performing.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Mario Vafeus:

It’s easy to sit here and talk about all the things that the clients want of their agencies, but of course, we could turn this the other way round and look at the agency perspective, as I found in my research, and said, what is it that agencies want for clients? I think I could come up with six themes there as well.

Drew McLellan:

That’s right.

Mario Vafeus:

I suppose that underlines the fact that ultimately, this whole client agency relationship thing, it relies on both parties actually delivering for it to work. But certainly, those are the six themes, if you like, but that really came out of the research.

Drew McLellan:

If you owned an agency and you had been listening to this podcast and you read the research, what would be the first thing you would change in your… where do you think the greatest opportunity is for agencies to act on all of this insight and to really differentiate themselves and to solidify relationships with current clients and to make themselves even more attractive to prospects?

Mario Vafeus:

Yeah, no, I think that’s a really good question. Actually, it’s interesting, because when I presented these findings to some agencies fairly recently, one of the reactions I got was, “How can we do all of this? Clients seem to want everything, and how do we actually deliver on all of this?” So, I think you’re right to ask the question, where’s the low hanging fruit? What are the things that we could implement fairly easily and hopefully get some sort of return from? I think, not that I’m trying to Dodge the question, part of that will be a case of looking at individual clients and looking at evaluating how you’re currently performing with individual clients and working out where the gaps are that you need to minimize.

But I think one of the areas for me is I think the coaching, the educational area, the training area, I think that’s an area that maybe agencies really haven’t given too much attention to. We can always talk about make your ideas even better, learn about the client’s market even more, make sure that you communicate more with the client face to face, and all of those things. They’re all incremental things. But I think the coaching thing, to my mind, that’s been left behind. There’s not a lot of that happening, and I think that’s something that agencies really look at. As you quite rightly said, Drew, it’s not only the fact that you’ll be training clients and offering them education and demonstrating that you’re ahead of the game and you know what’s happening out there, but actually, it’s a way of building relationships. It’s a way of showing that you car, it’s a way of building those multiple bonds with lots of peoplem it’s adding value. It does a lot of things in on go.

Drew McLellan:

When I listen to you talk about it, I’m looking at your little graph and I’m thinking, “Okay, if I offer training and I come onsite to do that to you and your team, because I’m going to weave examples of your industry and I’m demonstrating context, I am showing big ideas in terms of current things that are on the curve and coming up, so I’m answering the content question, I’m having face to face time with you so I’m answering the contact. I’m certainly demonstrating that I care because I’m standing here teaching you something to make you better at your job. If I don’t charge you for this training, I am giving you added value.” So, with the coaching, I am able to hit all six themes that you identified, and on top of that, I probably am going to get more work because I’m teaching you about something you don’t know about that you’re going to go, “Oh, we should do that,” and also now I’m creating content for my own agency that I can repurpose. Most important of all, I’m educating my clients so they’re a better client for us.

Mario Vafeus:

Yes, absolutely right. Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

Right?

Mario Vafeus:

Absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, so I think you’re right. I think that’s one of the places agencies should be leaning in.

Mario Vafeus:

I think so, I think so. It’s a place to start, and it does that differentiation versus the in-house.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely.

Mario Vafeus:

Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, yeah.

Mario Vafeus:

You’re saying, “Look, sure, use your in-house studio for appropriate jobs, but we’re the experts, we are at the cutting edge. We can help you with the bigger stuff, and look, here we are teaching you about it.” They say knowledge is power.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Mario Vafeus:

Well, when you share knowledge, like an agency shares knowledge with its client, that’s a really good example of demonstrating that there’s this commitment from the agency to the client. We’ve committed to you. Look how we’re sharing this knowledge with you. Maybe we should keep this knowledge to ourselves. Technically, actually we’re not, we’re sharing it with you, so we’re trying to help you to know as much as we do. So, yeah, I think if I had to start somewhere, I would start there.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Yeah. I think you’re right. Wow. We have covered a lot of topics and a lot of information in our time together. I knew this would be a fascinating conversation. Your research is fascinating, and you’re very unique in that you have sat at all the different seats around the table.

Mario Vafeus:

That’s right.

Drew McLellan:

You’ve sat in the client seat, you’ve sat in the agency seat, and now you’re in the researcher seat.

Mario Vafeus:

Absolutely right, yeah.

Drew McLellan:

Your perspective is very unique and valuable, so I’m grateful that you took the time to do this.

Mario Vafeus:

No, I mean, the reason I do it is, sure, I’ll be honest, it’s a selfish reason, I find it interesting. That’s why I do it. But at the same time, I can help clients and help agencies. That’s what I want to do. I want to do this research, share the findings with people, and ultimately, what this is all about, it’s what we call co-created, this whole client agency relationship is an example of co-creation. Most partners have to do their bit, so if this research can help those partners to get it right, then they’ll get more value from the relationship, and that’s why I do it.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Yeah. Well, thank you. Thank you so much. I feel some ways we’ve just scratched the surface, but I think we’ve given the listeners plenty to chew on for today.

Mario Vafeus:

Fantastic. Well, it’s job done in that case.

Drew McLellan:

If folks want to track you down, if they want to learn more about your work, be informed, if you do more research-

Mario Vafeus:

Which I will.

Drew McLellan:

… what’s the best way for them to find you?

Mario Vafeus:

Well, I’m very, very happy for you to give them my email address here at the university. That’s probably the best way of contacting me. You mentioned more research. Absolutely. I intend to keep searching in this area. There’s always more to find out. There’s always more to discover.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely.

Mario Vafeus:

I plan to keep going. I’d love to share the future research findings with agency people and clients, try and make sure that both parties get the value they want from the relationship. It doesn’t have to be all about conflict. It can be mutually beneficial.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, thank you, again, so much for your time. I’m grateful. This is going to be a great episode, and everybody is going to soak it up.

Mario Vafeus:

Fantastic. It’s been good talking to you, Drew.

Drew McLellan:

You too. All right, guys, this wraps up another episode of Build a Better Agency. Wow. If you don’t have takeaways from this episode, I don’t know what more I can give you, because Mario served it up for you. You have all kinds of things that you can think about. Look at your agency, look for opportunities to get better, strengthen those relationships with clients, and position yourself in a way that for your prospects, you look different than everybody else. Take some of this, and again, and I know I harp on this, but I don’t want you just listening to this and saying, “Oh, that was interesting.” I want you to do something with this. I want you to change something about your shop to make you better and stronger and more profitable. So, please, please, please take some of this great content and put it into practice.

That’s why we’re producing the podcast. That’s why people like Mario are generous enough with their expertise and their time to share this with you. So, do not let this go to waste. Please put it into action. As always, if you’re looking for me, you can find me at agencymanagementinstitute.com, and I will be back next week with another episode and another guest to help you build your agency to be exactly what you want it to be. In the meantime, have a great week, thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you soon.

That wraps up another episode of Build a Better Agency. Hopefully you found it incredibly helpful and inspiring, and that you are ready to go out and do some great things. I also want to talk to you about another tool that we’ve built that I would love to offer you. As you’ve probably heard me preach, I believe a lot of agencies chase after the wrong new business prospects. I think we do that because we have not taken the time to clearly define who our sweet spot clients should be. The way you do that is by looking at your current clients and then developing out who your prospects should be based on your best current clients. So, we’ve put together a sweet spot client filter, say that five times fast, that I would love for you to take advantage of, and for you to use inside your shop to figure out exactly who you should be targeting for new business.

To get access to that free tool, all you need to do is text AMI for Agency Management Institute, as you might imagine, AMI, text that to 38470. Again, text AMI to 38470, and we will get the sweet spot client filter out to you right away. Thanks again for listening. If I can be helpful, you can find me as always at [email protected] Otherwise, I will touch base with you next week with another great episode. Talk to you soon.

Speaker 1:

That’s all for this episode of AMI build a Better Agency, brought to you by HubSpot. Be sure to visit agencymanagementinstitute.com to learn more about our workshops, online courses, and other ways we serve small to mid-sized agencies. Don’t miss an episode as we help you build the agency you’ve always dreamed of owning.